When the cap did not fit....
Ignoring the mass of evidence that N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu acted as an apologist for A.Raja in the telecom licence scam, Lord Swraj Paul who himself had been indicted and suspended from the House of Lords for wrong expense claims made bold to assert that “Mr. Ram never hesitated to speak truth to power.”
The irony was not lost when Ram himself thought it fit to claim that the honorary doctorate conferred on him by Lord Swraj Paul as Chancellor of Wolverhampton University was in recognition of his “journalistic work in the cause of an open and transparent political society rid of the stench of bribes, kickbacks, and top-level political corruption.”
Was this another case of mutual backscratching? When London-based Lord Swraj Paul was exposed passing off a one room apartment in Oxfordshire as his main residence, even though he had not spent a single night there, in order to claim overnight allowances while staying in his London home, The Hindu was obliging enough to publish his defence much more prominently than the news of the wrongful action itself. The House of Lords Privileges Committee indicted Lord Swraj Paul for “wrongly claiming overnight parliamentary expenses meant for out-of-London members” and recommended his suspension for four months. Lord Swraj Paul accepted the verdict and suspension, and resigned from the post of Deputy Speaker.
After all this, he sought to defend himself in an interview and in an Op-ed article in The Hindu. His defence basically was that he had not been indicted for even more serious wrongdoing. The Metropolitan Police had not proceeded to lay a criminal charge against him, and the House of Lords Privileges Committee had found that he had not done it dishonestly and in bad faith but had only been negligent and irresponsible, and reduced his suspension from six months (as recommended by the Sub-committee on Lords’ Interests) to four months. He had repaid an amount of 41,982 pounds. He also offered the cultural relativist defence that because of his different cultural (Indian) background he had understood the concept of main residence differently. He accused two members of the Sub-committee on Lords’ Interests, including its chairperson, of bias.
He never hesitated to speak truth to power: Lord Paul
WHEN THE CAP DID NOT FIT
Wolverhampton varsity confers honorary degree on N. Ram
University of Wolverhampton conferred an Honorary Degree of Doctor of Social Sciences on N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu here on Monday.
Conferring the honour at an elegant ceremony, Chancellor of the University Rt. Hon. Lord Swraj Paul of Marylebone, PC, said it was in recognition of Mr. Ram's distinguished achievements, both as an outstanding public intellectual and an eminent journalist.
“But, even more than that, we honour him for an attribute so rare and so needed in this contemporary world – Mr. Ram has never hesitated to speak truth to power,” Lord Paul said.
Earlier recipients of the Honorary Degree conferred by the University include the former President, A.P.J. Abdul Kalam; the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown and his wife Sarah Brown. Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley received the honour recently.
Speaking on some broad trends in higher education, Dr. Paul said it was increasingly being seen as an engine of economic development, but governments around the world were overwhelmed by the costs associated with participation. “Globally, the number of people who enrolled into higher education increased from 19 per cent in 2000 to 26 per cent in 2007.”
Referring to the “explosion of institutions” as one of the consequences of globalisation, he said higher education institutions needed to adopt business-like practices to survive in the “global education industry.”
Joint educational endeavours, Lord Paul said, would fertilise links between the vast reservoir of dynamic young people in India and their British counterparts, to the enduring benefit of both nations.
Mr. Ram said he was honoured and pleased to be a recipient of the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Social Sciences from a very fine centre of higher learning in the United Kingdom.
“I am specially honoured that this is a recognition of what I have endeavoured to do as a journalist over some decades and in particular of my journalistic work in the cause of an open and transparent political society rid of the stench of bribes, kickbacks, and top-level political corruption,” he said.
Era of growth
Sharing some observations on where journalism seemed to be headed in India, he said while journalism was widely believed to be in crisis across the developed world, in India and other developing countries the news media were still in an era of growth and opportunity beckoned, especially for the young.
In India, the long-term competition between the self-serving and the public service visions of journalism was on and it bred tension, confusion and, at times, conflict.
Noting that ensuring commercial viability and addressing the vital need of being accurate, informative, insightful, educative and relevant was an “extraordinarily difficult balance to strike,” Mr. Ram said: “Many of us believe there is a middle path, a golden mean that can deliver good results.”
News media needed to work out a template of editorial values and principles and a concept of social responsibility they can live up to and also live with. “Media performance is a matter that is best left to readers, audiences, universities and society to judge,” he said.
Vice-Chancellor of the University Caroline Gipps highlighted key initiatives of the varsity in collaboration with institutions in India.
The Hindu, November 8, 2010: Opinion
Inquiry panel behaved like a ‘kangaroo court,' says Lord Paul
An interview with the Labour peer on suspension over excessive expenses claims.
Labour peer Swraj Paul has said that the House of Lords panel that recommended his suspension over excessive expenses claims acted like a “kangaroo court” and did not give him a fair hearing. “It would seem that it had already decided in advance what their verdict would be,” he told The Hindu.
Lord Paul said that during the hour-long hearing “nobody asked why I thought my claims were valid” and there were occasions when “I would have walked out but for my respect for parliamentary procedure.” There were constant “media leaks” at every stage, he added, pointing out that it was from press reports that he first got to know of the panel's recommendations.
He found two members of the panel, the Subcommittee for Lords' Conduct, including its chairperson Eliza Manningham-Buller “openly hostile.” Baroness Buller even “threatened” to resign if her recommendations were not accepted by the Privileges Committee to which Lord Paul had appealed.
The Privileges Committee, while upholding the decision to suspend him, rejected the Buller panel's finding that he “did not act in good faith” in claiming extra expenses. It said he had “not acted dishonestly or in bad faith” but had been “negligent and irresponsible”.
Lord Paul accused the pro-Tory media, especially the Murdoch papers, of “hounding” him for political reasons. “They wanted to attack Labour party,” he observed, “and I was an easy target because of my proximity to Gordon Brown, the then Prime Minister.”
Lord Paul and two other Asian peers — Baroness Manzila Pola Uddin and Lord Amir Bhatia — were suspended last month for “wrongly claiming overnight parliamentary expenses meant for out-of-London members.” The allegation against Lord Paul was that he designated a one-room flat in Oxfordshire as his “main residence” in order to claim the overnight allowance even though he barely stayed there, and that he spent much of his time at his London home.
Lord Paul was suspended for four months, Baroness Uddin until Easter 2012, and Lord Bhatia for eight months. Lord Paul has since voluntarily resigned as Deputy Speaker of the House.
The ‘element of race'
Their suspension has sparked a controversy amid allegations of political and media bias, and even a hint of racial prejudice. A group of the House of Lords staff has alleged “institutional racism.” In a letter, seen by The Hindu, they said they overheard conversation between two officials referring to the three peers in racially “derogatory tones” and suggesting that they had “succeeded in getting them suspended.” The letter added: “We as a group were horrified as this seemed to almost be institutional racism ... One gets the impression that the Lords Finance Office has undertones of institutional racism. We are now ashamed to say that we work for the House of Lords.”
The “element of race” was also highlighted by Labour peer Lord Waheed Alli during a debate in the House. He made a pointed reference to the fact that all three peers who had been suspended were Asian.
Lord Paul, however, declined to be drawn out on this question. “I hope not,” he responded. “It would be disgrace if that has happened.” He characterised the official response to Lord Walli's comment as “pathetic.” He was clear that he had been a victim of “gross injustice.” He pointed out that while the expense claims of about other 20 peers were scrutinised they were not investigated and let off after being simply asked to give “written assurances.”
“My case alone,” he explained, “was referred to the Metropolitan Police after a campaign by the press and a Scottish MP who was opposed to Prime Minister Gordon Brown. One has to assume it was politically motivated. However, the police very quickly said there was no case against me because the rules that I and my fellow members had followed when submitting expenses claims were too vague to be enforceable.”
Contribution to Britain
Lord Paul said the matter should have ended there. Instead, his case was referred to the Buller panel even though by then he had repaid £41,000 that he was said to have wrongly claimed between January 2005 and July 2006 — the only time, he said, he ever claimed any expenses during his 14 years as peer. “In fact I had repaid £14,000 more than I needed to have done. Since I had already repaid the money and the police had decided ‘there was no case against him,' why did the House of Lords think it needed further investigation?” Lord Paul questioned the interpretation of the term “main residence” saying that it was so “vague” that many members designated “all kinds of properties outside London in order to be eligible for the overnight allowance.” The fact that rules had since been changed showed that the previous regime was flawed, he added.
Lord Paul spoke emotionally about his contribution to Britain. “I have contributed more to Britain than I have taken. The biggest thing I have achieved is to make Britons realise that Indians, whether in business, politics, or the professions, belong to the Premier League rather than manual workers that they were once perceived as.”
He said his faith in the British sense of justice had been shaken but he would continue to fight.
“The battle is not over. I am not a quitter,” he declared.
The Hindu, December 6, 2010: Opinion
Setting the record straight
The facts behind the House of Lords expenses case.
There has been much comment in recent days about certain events concerning me and the British House of Lords. Many of these comments have been misinformed, and facts have been distorted. The procedures and conclusions of the House of Lords committees involved have been grossly unfair. I would like to better acquaint the public at large with what has actually taken place.
Over a year ago, allegations were made in the British press that about 20 members of the House of Lords, including myself, had mis-claimed reimbursements for expenses. Although what I had claimed was well within the conventions and practices of the House at the relevant time periods, I immediately demanded an investigation by the Clerk of the Parliaments, and was prepared to make instant repayment of any claims that were questioned. The Clerk suggested a re-check of my accounting, by the staff of the House of Lords. On the basis of their findings, I immediately repaid £41,982 — an amount relating to only 18 months of the 14 years I have served in the House.
Three strange events then took place.
First: Among those whose claims were questioned was the Lord Speaker of the House of Lords, who had made overnight allowance claims of £200,000. Because of the size of the claims, a careful and transparent inspection would be expected. It is not clear whether any investigation was held and, if so, how carefully it was conducted. In fact, the Lord Speaker's case was quickly cleared by the Clerk of the Parliaments, while she continued to preside over the House Committee that was investigating the claims of others.
Second: This House Committee consisting of 12 members of the House (most of whom had themselves made overnight allowance claims) arbitrarily changed the rules regarding the term “main residence” — in effect retroactively redefining the boundaries of their alleged transgression.
Third: As a result, the Lords whose reimbursement claims had been questioned were subjected to little or no investigation. They were only asked to give “written assurances” to the Clerk of the Parliaments that their claims were valid. On the basis of these personal assurances, which were not checked, they were all exonerated by the end of March 2010.
I was treated quite differently. Although I had requested the Clerk of the Parliaments to examine my claims and had voluntarily repaid £41,982 on October 28, 2009, apparently driven by a section of the press and a complaint made by a member of the House of Commons (who was noted for his hostility to then Prime Minister Gordon Brown), my case was referred to the Metropolitan Police.
On February 25, 2010, the Metropolitan Police informed me that no action would be taken. Their investigations had been concluded and discontinued.
Anyone would assume that the matter had ended there.
This, however, was not enough for the Clerk of the Parliaments. Despite my voluntary repayment and the closure of the police enquiry, the Clerk of the Parliaments on March 5, 2010 requested the Sub-Committee on Lords' Interests to further investigate my case. An unusual and unnecessary delay of over three months then occurred. Nothing happened for seven weeks, and then Parliament was dissolved for the general election. Eventually, a reconvened Sub-Committee began proceedings in June 2010.
For it to do so, the Clerk sent to the Sub-Committee all the documents relating to my case — except the letter from the Metropolitan Police that had concluded that no further action was necessary. Why was this vital document withheld?
I was asked to appear before the Sub-Committee on June 17, 2010. When I did so, I was astonished at the antagonistic attitude of its two most vocal members — especially the overtly hostile conduct of one particular member. The transcript shows that in just over an hour I was subjected to 177 comments and questions: that particular individual alone made 122 (69 per cent) of them. Although his manner was prosecutorial and accusatory, no attempt was made to restrain him.
The overall atmosphere of the Sub-Committee hearing was something like a Kangaroo court. I was astounded to be asked questions like “… you regard yourself as very rich by comparison with most of mankind,” or “…. you accept that by comparison with a great majority of this world you are rich.” Later, my attempts to explain that the differences of interpretation may have been due to cultural perceptions and background were treated with almost colonial disdain.
Nobody wanted to know why I had maintained that my claims were valid according to the practices that prevailed in the House in 2005/2006.
The final published report (HL Paper 37) even contains transcripts of telephone conversations secretly recorded by the Sunday Times newspaper (taped without the knowledge of those participating) that were considered as evidence by the Sub-Committee — illegally gathered material that no court of law would admit. This is a shocking violation of human rights — especially so since recordings of my conversations showed how innocuous they were.
All this seems to strongly indicate that this Sub-Committee had decided on its verdict in advance and would go to extraordinary lengths to enact the outcome it had pre-determined.
In addition, although assurances of confidentiality were given to me by the Committees, the Clerk of the Parliaments and the Registrar for Lords' Interests, information about the proceedings and the verdicts was leaked to the media well before I was officially informed about them.
This was trial by rumour. Such information could only have come from the Sub-Committee itself, and those associated with it. I was not allowed to publicly defend myself until October 18, 2010 — a full year after the allegations were first made.
The Sub-Committee held that I had acted dishonestly and in bad faith, and recommended suspension from the House of Lords for six months.
I appealed these Sub-Committee judgments to the Privileges Committee. Then, what can only be construed as a forceful attempt to intimidate the Privileges Committee took place. In a press interview ( Daily Telegraph, October 25, 2010) the Chairman of the Sub-Committee threatened to resign if the Sub-Committee's recommendations were not accepted by the Privileges Committee. Such threats subvert the whole purpose of an appeal process and raise questions of whether other members of the Sub-Committee tried to further pressure the Privileges Committee.
The Privileges Committee rejected the Sub-Committee's conclusions.
The Privileges Committee concluded that I had not acted dishonestly or in bad faith. It determined that I had been negligent and acted in ignorance, as I had already stated many months earlier. The Privileges Committee also rejected the Sub-Committee's recommendation of six months' suspension, and reduced the period to four months.
For infractions such as negligence and ignorance, a four-month suspension seems unduly harsh. As a newspaper editorial put it: “It is a little like police picking up a motorist for driving at 35mph in a 30mph zone while turning a blind eye to others doing 45mph or more.”
Another bizarre aspect of this situation is that the House of Lords has now discontinued the procedures to which I was subjected. A new set of procedures, constructed to ensure more fairness, will replace the procedures that were applied to me. Lord Brabazon, presenting the report of the Committee for Privileges and Conduct to the House on October 21, 2010, said that past procedures “present some difficulties” and there will be no more investigations conducted under the old rules. His statements were accepted by the entire House without dissent. If the procedures of the past have had to be so quickly replaced, those who have recently been penalised by those defective procedures should not be victimised.
This entire chain of events has shaken my faith in the House of Lords as an exemplar of British justice and fair play. Have justice and fairness — the bedrock of British values — fallen victim to prejudice and hypocrisy?
I have called for a full public enquiry into the claims of all peers during the past 10 years to ascertain the merits of all claims — and to determine whether double standards of punishment have been imposed.
Because I feel so strongly about this and intend to speak out frankly and freely without the constraints of office, I have resigned as Deputy Speaker of the House of Lords.
(Swraj Paul, Chairman & Director, Caparo Group Ltd, U.K., and philanthropist, is a member of the House of Lords. He was Deputy Speaker 2008-10 and Deputy Chairman of Committees 2008-10.)