From The Sunday Times, May 17, 2009, by John Stonborough
It gives me no great pleasure to say “I told you so, Mr Speaker”, but had you heeded my advice in 2003, much of this need not have happened.
I was employed as media adviser to the Speaker and the House of Commons Commission in late 2001. My background, first as a London policeman, then as a radio and television reporter and finally as a PR man gave me the necessary skills to bring some new thinking to the House on handling a hostile media environment.My strategy when dealing with PR issues is, to use a German phrase, Die Flucht in die Wahrheit, which means “escape into the truth”. And it was my intention that openness would be the basis of my media strategy at the House of Commons. It wasn’t that easy.I was the first media adviser the House had ever employed and there was disquiet, with members asking questions on the floor of the Commons about my presence. Michael Martin even described PR people as “oily rags”, meaning why talk to the oily rag when you can talk to the engineer. The problem was the engineer wouldn’t talk.. One to one the Speaker and I got on well. He is an affable man and we both share an interest in pipe music. He plays the bagpipes and I was a side drummer in the Gordonstoun school pipe band. Several times we would sit in his flat in the Speaker’s House and over the three years that I worked at the House, he told me very interesting facts about his life and forebears. Martin’s grandmother nearly starved to death, trapped on a cod fishing boat in the ice-locked St Lawrence river in Canada.
He would also tell me about his early life as a shop steward in Glasgow and his childhood in a tenement in Anderston, Glasgow. It’s this background and his soft Glaswegian accent that caused a tabloid newspaper to dub him “Gorbals Mick”. I strove to stop it, explaining to one reporter that it was deeply offensive to Martin, as “Mick” is a derogatory term for a Catholic in sectarian Glasgow. The Speaker did joke though that Gorbals was a lot posher than Anderston where he grew up, but I knew the nickname wounded him badly. It stopped for a while.
Other than security, the main preoccupation in 2002 and 2003 was the impending publication of members’ expenses and allowances. This was to be a major departure from existing procedures but it was finally agreed that this would happen in the autumn of 2004.
The responsibility for the publication was administered by the fees office, which issues every new MP with an expenses bible that is known as the Green Book. It sets out what and how every elected member is entitled to claim for. It’s a complex document as every member is technically self employed, responsible for maintaining their own offices and staff in the constituency as well as needing an office and living accommodation in London.
One particular section deals with members paying their family for administrative jobs — the Speaker employed both his wife Mary and his daughter — and another section deals with members’ second homes, for which at that time they could claim about £21,000 per annum. My concern as media adviser was that the Speaker was still claiming for a second home while living at the taxpayer’s expense in a grace and favour flat in the Speaker’s House, a little palace on the bank of the Thames. I felt that this was a danger area. Irrespective of whether he was entitled to do so under the rules in the Green Book. I knew the media and the public would view it critically and it would cause him embarrassment. How right I was.
During 2003 the Green Book was in the process of being re-written. I was present on one occasion when the Speaker asked to see a draft.
I was aware that this document directly affected his own livelihood and he took a keen interest in the wording of any draft changes. I believe he kept the draft document for 10 days or possibly longer and rejected or reworded some of the changes recommended by his officials. One day I got wind that Michael Crick, the BBC Newsnight reporter, was investigating a senior Commons figure. Try as I might I couldn’t find out who. Eventually it was to be Iain Duncan Smith and the “Betsygate” affair. He was accused of claiming for his wife salary even though Crick alleged she did no parliamentary work. This was later proved to be unfounded but, nonetheless, I saw the result of the publicity and I was not about to let anything like that happen to the Speaker.
On the July 1, 2003, I had one of my regular private meetings with the Speaker in his study overlooking the river. It was a friendly encounter, just the two of us, and I decided to mention this business of claiming for his second home. I think I had mentioned it once previously. I should not have needed to do this, but few Commons officials had the guts to voice their concerns to him. I did.
The Speaker went puce. He told me to stay where I was and summoned the Clerk of the House, Roger Sands, and made me repeat my “allegation” in front of him. I wrote to the Speaker afterwards saying I thought he had been a bit rough on me. Being an adviser is not a popularity contest. The Speaker never spoke to me again and like others before and after me I was cast out. This did not worry me overly, no more friendly chats about pibrochs and reels, but plenty to do for the commission in the run up to the publication of expenses, including monthly formal meetings of the commission which I attended.
Obviously I became very familiar with the Green Book. In my opinion it contained what are called “Spanish practices”. The term comes from the Elizabethan era, but is now used to describe deceitful workplace financial practices. The print unions (I was formerly a member of the NUJ) and the TV camera crews with whom I worked were famed for their officially sanctioned fiddles. To me as a former policeman and investigative reporter, some of the Green Book seemed to allow members to make claims that would not be acceptable in the commercial world.
Part of my job allowed me to address the commission. My opinion was that the House should over-publish details of expenses, knowing that in time the media would become bored and it would no longer be a story. This opinion was roundly over-ruled and ignored. Indeed on one senior official gently scolded me for talking too much at a commission meeting. When I first saw some of the expenses claims made by members, prior to their publication, I was surprised at the range of claims between individual MPs. It was obvious the press would have a field day and that there would be a leaderboard of the most expensive members. The Speaker to my relief did not come near the top. The publication day came and a tsunami of media assaulted us, but as it had been very carefully planned we dealt with it.
It was then I made a stupid mistake. I wrote a note to a friend in the office of Michael Howard, the then Tory leader, saying that in my opinion he should get a grip of those Tory members who were playing fast and loose with the rules but that Labour members were at it too. I had no business as an officer of the House sending any such partisan document, however private. To make matters worse, I managed to send it to the wrong person. All hell broke loose and I resigned my job immediately. Today, I still stand by every word of that e-mail, What is more, had the Speaker not bawled me out and the House of Commons Commission listened to wiser counsel (not just me) on matters relating to the employment of family members, the claims on second homes as well as adopting a policy of full disclosure instead of employing every tactic to maintain an untenable status quo, much of the catastrophe that has befallen the House today need not have happened. Michael Martin and the Commission of the House of Commons must take responsibility for this and in my opinion the Speaker should resign.