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Wednesday, 5 December, 2001, 13:22 GMT
Elizabeth Filkin interview: Full transcript
Commons standards commissioner Elizabeth Filkin has announced she is quitting her post, accusing senior MPs - including cabinet ministers - of undermining her job.
In her only interview on the subject, she talked to reporter Andrew Hosken on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
Andrew Hosken (Q):Why are you not reapplying for the post of Commons Standards Commissioner.
Elizabeth Filkin (A): Significant changes have been made to the post which, from my point of view, undermine the post itself and therefore I wouldn't wish to apply for it in those circumstances.
Q: What changes have been made to make you change your mind about reapplying?
A: Well two very important things have changed. One, the hours have been reduced by 25%. During the whole of the three years that I've been in the post I've had to work more hours than I'm paid at the moment. So I can't see that that would be possible.
I was also promised to have the necessary staff for my office when I took up the post and although independent inspections have been carried out on several occasions of my office workload and I know that they have recommended additional staff, none have been provided.
But the other reason is that if you're doing a job where you are bound to come out with conclusions that aren't to the liking of some powerful people, you do need to have a job which has security of tenure.
In posts such as mine, the practice is to offer one term and to offer a second term to the person automatically, unless of course they haven't done the job properly. That hasn't occurred in my case and therefore, in my view, they're not offering security for this post-holder.
Q:In your letter you refer to some of the investigations that you undertook that have been unwelcome to powerful individuals or interest groups. Just who are those powerful individuals and interest groups?
A:I'm told that it's numbers of senior politicians and numbers of groups within the House of Commons but I don't know the detail of all of that.
Q:Are we talking about cabinet ministers and very senior civil servants as well?
A:I am informed by numbers of members of Parliament and journalists that that is the case. But I wouldn't have that first-hand information.
Q:What about those people who will say this is just sour grapes? Elizabeth Filkin wasn't considered to be doing a very good job and she's paid the price.
A:Well, of course, people are welcome to their opinion.
Q:Personally, you must feel very sad about how it has ended?
A:I am. I was persuaded to put my name forward for the job. I was pleased to be appointed. I thought the job was an important one for the public and I've tried to do it properly.
I'm pleased to say that many other people who are independent of me have read what I've done and have felt that I have done it properly and that's very cheering. So I'm very sad that I can't continue to do it.
Q:What is your reaction to the fact that they have effectively, from what your saying, watered down the powers of the commissioner?
A:Well I'm very concerned about it and that's why I wrote such a detailed letter to the Speaker when I had decided that I wouldn't put my name forward again.
Q:When you mention powerful individuals or interest groups, we are talking, aren't we - or am I being unfair - about the Labour Party and the Labour government?
A:I don't know whether it's one party or another party. I'm informed that there are some people in all the parties but I don't know that. But I don't believe it's limited to one party.
Q:You mention pressures. What kind of pressures were brought to bear on you during your various investigations into Members of Parliament?
A:Seeking to bring pressure on Britain's list of cases. Seeking to claim that I have not conducted a fair inquiry.
I do know that very early on in the post, in the first couple of months of my time in office, that already there were some people who were talking to the press and saying that I wasn't a suitable person to be doing the job even before I published my first report.
Q:It is no secret - it's on the public record - that that report was about Peter Mandelson.
A:I would not make any comment whatsoever on any individual MP.
Q:But it would be a fair conclusion to reach that that was your first inquiry and that that was when pressure was brought to bear - or attempts were made to bring pressure to bear?
A:I will make no comment whatsoever on any individual MP.
Q:How did it make you feel personally though because you'd been persuaded to take this job and yet this was going on in the background? It could not have been very pleasant for you and your family.
A:Well from time to time it saddened me. I thought it was a pity but by and large I've got on and did the job. It's been very busy and I haven't really had time to think about those things very much.
Q:You also mention the whispering campaigns. Can you describe what that means?
A:I'm informed that it has involved senior people or senior people's offices but I know no more than that.
Q:You also say in your letter that some of the hostile press briefings and coverage that you've experienced has been executed by named civil servants. Who do you mean when you say that?
A:I have been told the names of some individuals in some offices by journalists, obviously that I can't verify whether what those journalists have told me are true. But that is what I have had reported to me and that's why I put it in those terms in the letter to be precise about it.
Q:You mention the pressure brought to bear on witnesses. What sort of experience did these witnesses come to you with and did any of them say, I can't give any evidence because I am under pressure?
A:I am approached, from time to time, by members of the public who do wish to make complaints about Members of Parliament who then when they understand what the process is - and it's a very daunting process from a member of the public - decide that they could not contend with that because, as many members of the public say, they believe that MPs are very powerful and they fear, rightly or wrongly, that they could be done harm.
Q:There have been a number of cases, not about individuals but about groups of members about allegations of misuse of public funds. Do you think this is a wider problem and do you think this is something that would give you concern in the future?
A:But I only look at individual cases. I have no monitoring functions so I can't tell you whether it's widespread or not. But I do think it is an area where people can make mistakes.
I do think it's an area where people sometimes are woolly about what they're claiming and whether they can claim that and I do think that that ought to be open since it's our money, it's public money, to the sort of scrutiny that is applied to public money in other public offices or indeed in the civil service or in local authorities or in hospital trusts.
Anywhere where people are spending public money, the scrutiny is very rigorous and I would assume that ought also to apply to our elected Members of Parliament.
Q:But it doesn't?
A:The scrutiny needs to be on the same level as it is in these other public offices.
Q:Margaret Beckett, the former Leader of the House of Commons, described you as being over-zealous. How do you respond to that criticism?
A:Well I don't respond to that criticism but, in my view, if you're going to be fair to a complainant and to the Member of Parliament - and in my job I have to be fair to both - one has to be scrupulous and rigorous because if you're not, if you don't bother to get to truth, you will end up being unfair to one or the other and I don't think that's right.
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