As one minister resigns, David Hencke reports on a rare dual rebuke to two members of Boris Johnson’s Government.
The Government minister in charge of detailed trade negotiations post Brexit has resigned after a damning report from MPs accused him of abusing Parliamentary privilege “in an attempt to intimidate a member of the public” over a private family dispute.
Conor Burns, the trade policy minister, is also facing suspension from Parliament as an MP for seven days after the Commons Standards Committee said an apology was not enough because he “persisted in making veiled threats to use parliamentary privilege to further his family’s interests even during the course of the [ Parliamentary] Commissioner’s investigation, and that he misleadingly implied that his conduct had the support of the House authorities.”
The committee wants him to apologise to Parliament and to the member of the public he threatened and intend to publish his letters.
Kathryn Stone, the Parliamentary Commissioner on Standards concluded: “Mr Burns’ actions damage the reputation and integrity of the House of Commons as a whole and of its Members generally”.
Mr Burns’ elderly father was involved in a long-running dispute with a company over money and his son intervened by writing on Parliamentary headed notepaper warning that the company had not replied to him and failure to do so would “ensure [Mr Burns’] involvement to secure the return of money owed to [his] father.” Mr Burns said he had taken advice about “using parliamentary privilege to raise the case”.
A second trade policy minister, Greg Hands, who is deputy to Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, has also been ordered to apologise to Parliament, after breaching Parliamentary rules by using stationary and stamps worth over £4,865 to send a political newsletter to constituents who had petitioned him over local issues.
Mr Hands was involved in a dispute over the use of the stationary and at first claimed the rules on this were flawed, later decided to offer to return the money and apologise, and then retracted this just before the December general election.
The committee observed:
“On 4 November Mr Hands informed the Commissioner that he had reconsidered and was no longer willing to use the rectification procedure.
“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.”
Both ministers have been active in supporting the right-wing libertarian side of the Conservative Party. Conor Burns is a former vice president of the Young Britons Foundation which is modelled on the Young America’s Foundation, a group espousing radical right-wing views.
The YBF chief executive, Donal Blaney, who ran courses on media training and policy, has described the YBF as “a Conservative madrasa” that radicalises young Tories. Programmes have included trips to meet neo-conservative groups in the US and to a shooting range in Virginia to fire submachine guns and assault rifle.
Greg Hands was on a Parliamentary committee supporting the group and his election campaign in 2005 was run by Greg Smith, then a Hammersmith Tory councillor and co-founder of Young Britons Foundation. He is now Tory MP for Buckingham, Speaker John Bercow’s old seat.
Greg Hands was also on the executive of Conservative Way Forward and is now an honorary vice president.