Legal Action by Cambridge MP David Howarth Prompts Apology from Councillor


Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010. 4:49pm


Cambridge Colleges Open as B&Bs

Heavily Redacted Invoice for David Howarth’s Press Officer

Ex. Liberal Democrat councillor John Hipkin, who is now an independent city councillor for Castle Ward, today wrote to recipients of his regular newsletter to issue an apology for an article in which he drew attention to some of Cambridge MP David Howarth’s expenses claims. Cllr Hipkin notes that he has agreed to meet Mr Howarth’s legal costs; indicating Cambridge’s MP has engaged lawyers, presumably threatening defamation action, in response to Cllr Hipkin’s article.

The expenses claims which attention was drawn to involve invoices for a “Press Officer”.

The Facts

Page 21 of the House of Commons “Green Book” describes what MPs’ incidental expenses allowance can, and can’t, be spent on. It states:

Expenditure not allowable:
* Advice for individual Members on self promotion, or PR for individuals or political parties.

The staffing allowance, out of which Mr Howarth was paying for his press officer, though has sightly different rules. Those employed using it must be:

“employed to meet a genuine need in supporting you, the Member, in performing your Parliamentary duties”.

The staffing allowance cannot be used to pay for:

Staff who are employed on party political duties or non-Parliamentary duties

It appears that an MP can, if he judges it reasonable, engage a member of staff as a “Press Officer” entirely legitimately from their staffing allowance as long as they’re not employed on party political duties. If the “Press Officer” service was “bought-in” my reading of the rules is that the same rules for the incidental costs allowance then apply and advice for individual members on self promotion, or PR for individuals or political parties is an explicitly disallowed use for the funds.

Cambridge MP David Howarth’s staffing claims include payments to “Effective Communication Strategies” (which is not a company registered with companies house) for “work as a Press Officer for David Howarth MP”.

The invoice is so heavily redacted that we cannot see the details of how Mr Howarth has been spending our money.

My View

People want to hear about what their MP is up to; and we allow MPs to use public money to employ staff to help them fulfil their role. It is pretty clear that administrators to help deal with correspondence and researchers can properly be paid by MPs out of public money and Mr Howarth appears to have judged a “Press Officer” as being legitimate too.

I think Mr Howarth obviously generally provides excellent value for money; he doesn’t have an expensive correspondence management system like some MPs; he appears to use the free offering from GMail for example. I do wonder what a Press Officer would do for an MP though as I would have thought an MP’s actions would speak for themselves.

I find the most useful routes for finding out what my MP is up to are not primarily paid for by public money: The Cambridge News, TheyWorkForYou and The Public Whip.

I think that rather than hiring lawyers Mr Howarth could have simply asked Cllr Hipkin to pass on an explanation for his actions to his readers. As it is avid readers of Cllr Hipkin’s newsletter, like me, have received Mr Hipkin’s apology but no explanation. Mr Howarth’s actions appear from my perspective to have been heavy handed and not in the interests of informing the electorate about what has gone on. I think it is reasonable to ask questions about how MPs are spending public money and to seek assurances from them if the published information does not make the position completely clear.

See Also

As it appears that Mr Howarth considers Cllr Hipkin’s article defamatory I cannot republish it here without almost certainly receiving a take-down request and request to apologise (along with a lawyer’s bill) myself. Cllr Hipkin’s newsletter is distributed primarily by email and isn’t made available online.

12 comments/updates on “Legal Action by Cambridge MP David Howarth Prompts Apology from Councillor

  1. Chris Howell

    Be interesting to know if the staffing allowance can be used on contractors, or if it can only be used to employ people – my understanding is that the fees office need to approve or check any employment contracts.
    Also be interesting to know if the person ‘contracted’ to give PR advice was also on the payroll of the local Lib Dems around the same time. Just questions to think about…

  2. Richard Taylor Article author

    The “Green Book” rules on using staffing costs for bought in services refers back to the section on the incidental costs allowance suggesting that :

    “Advice for individual Members on self promotion, or PR for individuals or political parties.”

    Is not allowed; if it was considered a “bought in service”.

  3. GF

    That any MP still thinks it’s OK to use this country’s outrageous libel laws is the really worrying thing here. Is Mr. Howarth on the record as supporting a radical reform of England’s libel system? Based on a cursory search, it seems he only wants to make sure “scientific” debate is not affected; political debate be damned?

  4. Richard Taylor Article author

    David Howarth wrote to me within two hours of this article being published. He made a clear request that I should not publish his email and should treat it as private and confidential. I have respected that; but I am publishing my reply:

    Dear Mr Howarth,

    Many thanks for getting in touch.

    From my perspective having received Cllr Hipkin’s apology I was left wondering what your position is. I am surprised and disappointed that you didn’t ask Cllr Hipkin to pass on an assurance from you explaining how your use of public money to employ a press officer was above board rather take legal action.

    From the information available there appear to me to be reasonable questions to be asked. From the published expenses claims it cannot be determined if you employed your press officer directly or if your press officer was a “bought in service”. The published information also does not reveal exactly what the role of your the press officer was. Without those facts being made available I believe it is impossible to ascertain if your use of the staffing allowance to fund your press officer was in line with the rules.

    I am not assuming you’ve done anything wrong. I can see a number of ways that the information which is publicly available could be consistent with a state of affairs entirely compliant with the rules. For example you may have employed Boni Sones directly as a press officer. If that’s the case then the redaction of the invoices appears to have been overzealous as the name person to whom the money was paid isn’t visible, there is only a reference to “Effective Communication Strategies” which doesn’t appear to be a legal entity. Alternatively it may be that you used your “press officer” for something other than self-promotion or PR eg. “articles, reports and speech writing” as Margret Hodge MP claimed when questioned about her expenses claims for PR support.

    I understand the format in which you’ve been sent an invoice, and the way redaction has been carried out are both things beyond your control. The problem is that your constituents can’t check you’ve followed the rules and taxpayers can’t check how you’ve spent their money so it is in my view reasonable to seek clarification. Surely the right thing to do is give an assurance that all is above board and fill in the gaps in the official information, especially when asked to do so.

    I understand that if you’ve not done anything wrong you might not feel you have to explain anything but I think a clarifying statement / assurance from you would appear to me to be the best thing for you to do. I would be particularly interested in your explanation of why you felt you needed a press officer.

    Quite why the rules allow you to employ someone as a press officer but don’t let you buy a press officer service in from a company I cannot fathom – perhaps that’s something you could ensure is addressed before you leave Parliament?

    As for the comments on my website I will keep an eye on them; but what’s there at the moment appears to be people raising interesting points and questions along with a link to Boni Sones’ “Effective Communication Strategies” website which is very useful to those seeking to interpret the invoices. If you do become aware of any material you consider defamatory please do get in touch again and let me know precisely what it is you object to.

    I am unaware of what exactly in Cllr Hipkin’s article you took exception to, in essence he only appeared to be asking you to provide the clarification which I am asking for here.

    Regards,

    Richard Taylor
    Cambridge
    http://www.rtaylor.co.uk

  5. Richard Taylor Article author

    I have written to Boni Sones inviting her to comment on this article.

  6. Richard Taylor Article author

    Mr Howarth has written to me explaining the situation. He has provided the key explanations and assurances which I was seeking:

    “Boni Sones worked personally on an interim basis to fill in at a time when I was between permanent employees.”

    “There was a need for there to be someone in my office to deal with a constant flow of enquiries from the Cambridge Evening News parliamentary correspondent.”

    “At no time was she hired to give PR advice to me or to the Liberal Democrats.”

  7. Richard Taylor Article author

    Boni Sones has written to me to say she “openly did interim press work for David” and that this was “no secret”.

  8. David Hollingsbee

    I have to say that I am very disappointed with David Howarth’s action over this matter.

    I respected his integrity when he was one of only 4 eligible MPs in the country not to have profited out of second homes at the taxpayer’s expense.

    I do not receive Cllr Hipkin’s newsletter, so have no idea what was being alleged.

    However, for an MP to use libel laws to stop somebody publishing questions about their expenses would be, in my view, totally outrageous.

    If this is what David Howarth has done then shame on him.

    Politicians accuse each other of outrageous things all the time – that’s one of the reasons we have parliamentary privilege (under which Mr Howarth could say what he likes about Cllr Hipkin in the House of Commons without fear of legal action).

    I don’t suppose we can expect an article in the CEN – they are terrified of legal action themselves.

    David Howarth should come on this blog and explain what this is all about. Rumour can be far more damaging than the truth.

  9. Richard Taylor Article author

    Just to add another thought here – libel law really quashes free and open debate; it’s probably a key reason why many people don’t speak their mind, write blogs and stand as independents.

  10. David Vincent

    Richard

    I am not entirely clear whether or not there was an implication in the (unpublished) email sent to you by David Howarth that, if you did not control the comments on this site (whether from yourself or others), you might receive similar legal correspondence to that received by Cllr Hipkin.

    Your last comment gives that impression to old conspiracy theorists like myself.

    I would be disappointed if David Howarth were becoming addicted to shaking headed notepaper at people, as I have always had a higher opinion of him.

    Feel free to reassure us if there were, in fact, no direct or indirect threats of legal action contained in the confidential email he sent you.

  11. Peter Thornton

    Now may be a pertinent time to bring some closure to this unfortunate episode. Those I have spoken to, with some knowledge of the newsletter article and the background behind it all, seem as puzzled as you appear to be as to what might have inspired Mr Howarth to consider engaging solicitors. There does not appear anything obvious that could be considered as defamatory in anything raised by Cllr Hipkin. I appreciate Cllr Hipkin parted company with the Lib Dems but I hope that did not influence the Lib Dem MP in his actions.

    Initially I found it hard to understand why Cllr Hipkin agreed to make the apology yet alone agree to reimburse legal expenses. I dread to think how much they might be but would not be surprised if they amounted to several hundred pounds.

    Recently I ran the matter by a friend with some expertise in such matters, which in turn has prompted my comments now. He explained, given a possible significant disparity in wealth between the respective parties, he would strongly advise his client to apologise and pay the expenses. Even if Cllr Hipkin were to win he would be unlikely to recover all his legal costs. It’s a no-brainer, because unless his pockets are at least as deep as Mr Howarth’s might be, he would have no choice but to concede irrespective of the likely outcome. The law, as has been observed, is open to all – like the Ritz. One might also add that it is also more readily available to lawyers and MPs !

    Sometimes ordinary members of the public might find it insulting to be expected to explain themselves. I can also understand possibly Mr Howarth genuinely felt his actions have always been beyond approach, and took exception for that reason. However in the normal rough and tumble of politics MPs are routinely expected to answer such questions every day, they are often raised in terms far stronger and more insulting than anything suggested by Cllr Hipkin.

    Resorting to libel law in this way seems extraordinary, though I cannot imagine why, as a lawyer himself, he would have needed to instruct solicitors. If Mr Howarth is honourable, and I suspect he basically is, perhaps on reflection he might consider he had overreacted in the heat of the moment and offer to refund any payment made by Cllr Hipkin. Considering he has already obtained an apology it would be magnanimous and I think a reasonable outcome.