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IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Allegations of child sexual abuse linked to Westminster Investigation Report

Contents

F.2: The whips’ offices in Westminster

4. Although there are a variety of published and publicly accessible accounts of the workings of the whips’ offices, an air of mystery continues to surround them. Gyles Brandreth, MP from 1992 to 1997 and a Conservative government whip from 1995 to 1997, told us that one of the reasons he published Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries was that “the idea of mystery and magic  the mystique of the Whips’ Office, it encourages people to feel that there are dark goings-on”.[1] As the chief whip in his time had said to Mr Brandreth, “our mystery is part of our potency”.[2] This was echoed by other witnesses from whom the Inquiry took evidence. For example, Kenneth Clarke MP told us that “a lot of entertaining nonsense surrounds the work of a Whips’ Office[3] and that “the very wordWhips’ Office conjures up sinister men twisting arms and so on, which is a slightly comic parody of a perfectly straightforward political activity”.[4]

5. Each whip is responsible for a group of MPs, commonly referred to as their “flock”,[5] for whom they were responsible and whom they would get to know. Gyles Brandreth described the whips’ offices as both managers of the business of Parliament and a kind of human resources arm of Parliament.[6] It is clear from the evidence received by the Inquiry that the whips were and remain the Parliamentary “eyes and ears” of their respective parties (and, if in power, of the government). Several witnesses used this phrase, which appeared to be generally accepted across the political spectrum. Lord Arbuthnot agreed that it was important to know individual MPs well and to be “the eyes and ears” of the parliamentary party[7] and said that “a rounded view is very helpful and … you can be there, if they want you to be, to help”.[8] Some witnesses also described the whips as receiving rather than seeking out information. For example, Nick Brown MP said that:

We don’t run an Intelligence Service. The way you find out is that people come and tell you that they have a particular problem.[9]

Lord Arbuthnot agreed, and told us that the whips were not intrusive, acting as sponges for information.[10]

6. It is also clear that these “eyes and ears” received not only information about MPs’ political views and ambitions but information about their personal lives as well, including what was described by witnesses as “gossip”. “Gossip” or “gossiping” was referred to by Gyles Brandreth,[11] Kenneth Clarke MP[12] and Lord Jopling.[13] Lord Jopling said that it was essential to have some idea about the personal lives of MPs.[14] We were told that this included information about health, family, marital and financial problems.[15] Gyles Brandreth made clear that the information did not extend to circumstances of breaking the law.[16]

7. Kenneth Clarke MP and Lord Arbuthnot[17] told us that the whips tend to report whatever they heard, leaving it to others to determine if the information was significant. Mr Clarke said that whips would “probably report a lot of rubbish half the time, but what you had to ask yourself is: could this be of some political significance in keeping the governing party’s majority on the road?[18] As well as giving a rounded view of an MP,[19] we were told that personal information about MPs was politically relevant as it might impact on MPs’ attendance and voting (or even, in the case of financial problems, as it might lead to bankruptcy or the possibility of a by-election).[20] MPs might also look to the whips’ office for help if they were in difficulties.[21] But witnesses emphasised that the overall focus of the whips’ office was “political”, rather than personal. Kenneth Clarke MP stressed in his evidence to us that “the point was the politics”.[22]

8. In his evidence to us, Lord Arbuthnot also said that confidentiality was “the key strength of the Whips’ Office”.[23] He said that MPs “will also know that the Whips keep things confidential, and that they can trust the Whips’ Office not to talk about the information that they know”.[24] This keeping of confidences contributes to the “mystery” surrounding the whips’ offices (and to the “code of silence” to which Gyles Brandreth referred, and which he sought to break in publishing his diaries).[25]

9. Witnesses denied that information received by whips about MPs was used to pressure them to vote or in other ways, as suggested by Tim Fortescue in his BBC interview, saying that they did not recognise this as part of the culture or ethos of the whips’ office in their time.[26] Lord Jopling was asked if MPs knowing that the whips had a store of information about them was a subtle way of managing a party.

No. In my view, you made an enemy of an MP if you did that, and the one thing that is essential if you are trying to manage a political party is to maintain goodwill, particularly with your more difficult  your difficult members.[27]

This was echoed by other witnesses, including Lord Arbuthnot,[28] Lord Beith,[29] Lord Goodlad,[30] Lord Young[31] and Lord Wakeham.[32]

10. However, witnesses did acknowledge that the whips’ offices had a degree of power or leverage given their role (now reduced) in suggesting candidates for appointment to select committees and other posts.[33] Lord Beith said it was quite common to hear whips of other parties talk of favours being called in and he was aware that patronage might be used as an element of persuasion.[34]

11. Based on the evidence before us, it would be speculation to conclude that personal information was used to pressure MPs. It may reasonably be assumed that all information about a parliamentarian – including personal or private information – might be used as an element of persuasion, for the same reasons that personal circumstances might be relevant politically. For example, a sex scandal could lead to resignation, triggering a by-election. However, the witnesses from whom we heard strongly rejected any improper pressure being applied and we heard no evidence that this was done in respect of allegations of child sexual abuse. Lord Arbuthnot said that, to the extent that there was a degree of deference towards the establishment, this did not extend to criminal behaviour of a serious nature.[35]

References

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