Robinson censured by MPs

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The Independent Online
Geoffrey Robinson, the Paymaster-General, was last night censured by MPs for failing to disclose his interest in a pounds 12.75m Guernsey-based trust. On the eve of a Commons debate on tax avoidance and offshore trusts our Political Editor says the Tories are demanding the Paymaster-General's resignation.

The Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges found Mr Robinson not guilty of breaching the rules of the Commons - because there is no clear-cut rule on registration of an interest in a trust.

But it pointed out that when an MP has doubts, as Mr Robinson had, because he sought the advice of a QC and accountants, he would do better to seek the expert advice of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey. Sir Gordon told the committee the interest would have been better registered, and added: "This would have been my recommendation had my advice been sought."

Peter Lilley, shadow chancellor, who lodged the complaint, said: "This is a further embarrassment for Mr Robinson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Prime Minister. His position is untenable and he should go, or be moved." David Heathcoat-Amory, the Conservative frontbench Treasury spokesman, said Mr Robinson had been charged with hypocrisy, conflict of interest, and for being economical with the truth. "The fact that he is guilty of the second and third charges requires him to resign."

Last night, with the Prime Minister away in The Hague, there was no guidance from No 10 as to what would be done with Mr Robinson, counted as one of Tony Blair's friends. That Mr Lilley leaves open the option of Mr Robinson being shifted to another department could give the Prime Minister a face- saving get-out.

The report showed indications of politically motivated damage-limitation. There was no notice the report was coming: it was delivered at 6pm, making it difficult for newspapers to digest a complex document in time for first editions.

It was made more difficult in that its initial conclusion stated: "There is no case for saying that Mr Robinson breached the rules of the House." There followed by an ambiguous paragraph saying: "Although not a requirement, there are occasions when interests of this nature would be better registered, and if a doubt should arise Members ought to seek the advice of the Commissioner. We and our predecessors have made this point on several previous occasions. If a Member feels it necessary to seek professional advice on a matter of registration, it is clear that some doubt must exist."

Only from close reading of the small print does it emerge that Mr Robinson twice sought advice about possible registration of the Orion family trust, established in January 1996. His accountants and Michael Beloff, a leading counsel, said no specific disclosure of the trust was required in the Commons Register of Members' Interests. Sir Gordon said in his report: "It was ... a mistake for Mr Robinson to rely on advice of registration matters from his professional advisers."

As for the rules, Sir Gordon said: "The guide does not pretend to cover all contingencies, and the circumstances surrounding the [Guernsey-based] Orion Trust have not arisen before." Bob Sheldon, a former Labour minister who chairs the committee, said: "It is very difficult to lay down rules for trusts."

But the commissioner advised the committee that while Mr Robinson had no right to receive a pecuniary or other material benefit from the trust, "Mr Robinson's hope of future distributions might reasonably be regarded as an expectation and that, measured against the underlying intentions of the rules, this could be regarded as a 'pecuniary interest or other material benefit'."

He added that while a suspension of payments applied to Mr Robinson, as a minister, it did not apply to his wife.

"In these circumstances," he said, "it can be argued that even without knowledge of the underlying shareholdings, the existence of the trust itself might reasonably be thought by others to be a source of potential influence. This is not just because Mr Robinson is a Treasury minister: the same could be said of any Member who may wish to participate in proceedings in Parliament affecting the position of overseas trusts."

Mr Robinson said in a statement: "I was confident that Sir Gordon Downey would conclude, as he did, 'that there is no case for saying that Mr Robinson has breached a rule of the House on registration'."