McLeish escapes censure over rent

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WESTMINSTER’S sleaze watchdog brought the "officegate" scandal - which ruined Henry McLeish’s political career - to an end yesterday with a slap on the wrist for the former first minister.

Sir Philip Mawer, the parliamentary standards commissioner, delved back into the 2001 financial row after complaints by Conservative MPs.

He issued a comprehensive report into his findings yesterday in which he took a markedly more sympathetic view to Mr McLeish’s misdemeanours than did MSPs at Holyrood.

His mood was shared by the Commons standards and privileges committee, which ruled that, had Mr McLeish still been an MP, he would have been suspended from the Commons for one week as punishment.

Peter Duncan, the Tory MP for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, whose complaints about Mr McLeish’s "muddled" financial affairs led to the Labour MSP repaying 38,500 to the Commons authorities, said he was disappointed with the outcome.

He complained that it was wrong that Mr McLeish could escape sanctions that would be imposed for breaking the strict rules governing MPs, as he is no longer a member of the House of Commons.

Mr Duncan said: "I am quite sure the public will be surprised at the discrepancy between such a lenient judgment and a breach of the rules for which the Scottish first minister paid a significant political price.

"I think there is a problem here that parliament’s standards commissioner has no remit to look at the activities of MPs after they have left the Commons.

"We need to revisit the issue of sanctions and in particular the loophole that sees MPs who have broken the rules and then left parliament being exempt from sanctions."

The standards and privileges committee issued its findings yesterday after being cleared to do so when the police dropped their criminal investigation into Mr McLeish.

Despite a year-long police inquiry, the Crown Office said in March this year it could find no evidence of criminal intent in Mr McLeish’s actions.

The scandal which brought down the first minister in 2001 centred on his 13-year sublet of his constituency office in Glenrothes, Fife. He accepted rent from his tenants while at the same time claiming the full rental costs of the office on his Westminster expenses account.

Mr McLeish was forced to resign after details of the scandal were made public in October 2001. He has since decided to end his political career and stood down as MSP for Central Fife before the Scottish elections in May.

To bring a criminal action, fraud squad detectives would have had to prove that Mr McLeish intended deliberately to defraud the taxpayer.

Their findings failed to convince the procurator-fiscal who, in taking no further proceedings, agreed with Mr McLeish’s infamous claim that the affair was "a muddle, not a fiddle".

The relatively light punishment that would have met Mr McLeish’s activities was in stark contrast to the treatment he received at the hands of opposition MSPs.

The Scottish Tory leader David McLetchie’s claim that the former first minister’s excuse was "please Sir, it wisnae me, a big boy did it and ran away", marked a low point for Mr McLeish.

He stepped down before a debate brought by the opposition calling on him to relinquish office.

Sir Philip said in his report that Mr McLeish had broken MPs’ code of conduct in two respects when he failed to register the fact he was receiving a substantial income from subletting part of his constituency office, and by not off-setting that income from the money parliament paid him for office costs.

However, Sir Philip urged the committee also to bear in mind Mr McLeish’s apologies and the impact the affair had on him and his family.

In its report, the committee said: "We recognise that Mr McLeish has expressed regret for what has happened; acted promptly to register the interest once it became public knowledge; co-operated fully with the various inquiries and repaid in full the sums which should not have been claimed against his office costs allowances.

"It also had a serious effect on him and on his family and prejudiced his career in public life."

In a letter sent to Sir Philip last month, Mr McLeish gave an insight into how his life had been changed by the "officegate" scandal which cost him his place at the top of Scottish politics.

He wrote: "I regret what has happened. I and my family have paid a very heavy price for my failure to register the interest and to seek advice earlier on the question of the sub-lets and the income received.

"If I had done this, appropriate and early action would have been taken and all of this could have been avoided."