Trade Minister resigns over ‘veiled threats’ in family loan row

Trade Minister

A senior minister has resigned after a parliamentary investigation found he had abused his position when trying to intimidate a member of the public involved in a family financial dispute.

Conor Burns stepped down as an international trade minister after a report from the parliamentary standards committee said he had used his position as an MP to “further his family’s interests” in a dispute over a loan involving his father.

The report found that Mr Burns had used House of Commons stationery to make “veiled threats” against the individual including threatening to raise the case in parliament.

The investigation was launched after the individual, who is understood to be a former senior public official, made an official complaint against the Bournemouth West MP.

The report into his behaviour was published today and concluded that Mr Burns had abused his “privileged status” as an MP. It recommended that he be suspended from parliament for seven days.

While the report made no comment on his role as a trade minister Mr Burns resigned within minutes of its publication.

“With deep regret I have decided to resign as minister of state for international trade,” he said. “Boris Johnson will continue to have my wholehearted support from the back benches.”

A Downing Street spokesman said: “Conor Burns has resigned as minister of state for international trade following a report from the parliamentary commissioner for standards. A replacement will be announced in due course.”

Mr Burns, 47, has been an MP since 2010 and was first appointed a minister by Mr Johnson last summer.

He became closely acquainted with Margaret Thatcher during the later years of her life, and wrote of how she had gone to great lengths to support his political career. In 2001 she defied doctor’s orders forbidding her from speaking in public to make a six-minute address at the launch of his campaign to become the MP for Eastleigh.

The investigation into his behaviour began after a member of the public complained that Mr Burns had written to him using Commons stationery to pursue a “purely personal family interest” by attempting to secure payment for his father.

Mr Burns wrote to the individual because of his connection to a company that his father was in dispute with over repayment of a loan. Mr Burns urged him to engage with a letter from his father and said: “Failure to do so will ensure my involvement to secure the return of the money owed to my father.”

He continued: “I have reflected carefully before deciding to become involved. I am acutely aware that my role in the public eye could well attract interest especially if I were to use parliamentary privilege to raise the case (on which I have taken advice from the House authorities).”

Mr Burns defended writing the letter on Commons stationery on the basis that “modest use of stationery . . . for personal correspondence is permitted”. He said he had consulted a House of Commons Library paper and taken informal advice from a clerk.

But Kathryn Stone, the parliamentary commissioner for standards, concluded that Mr Burns “put personal interest before the public interest by suggesting that he would take advantage of his public office to pursue his father’s financial dispute”.

She said Mr Burns had behaved “disrespectfully” during the investigation, saying his behaviour gave “fuel to the belief that members are able and willing to use the privileges accorded them by their membership of the House to benefit their own personal interests”.

Her report was then assessed by the cross-party House of Commons standards committee, which recommended that Mr Burns should be suspended from the House for seven days and apologise in writing to the Commons and to the individual concerned.

It added that while Mr Burns had eventually apologised for his actions this came at the “end of a process in which he had initially argued he had acted within the rules”. They added that he had “persisted in making ill-disguised threats to use his privileged position as a member to pursue his family interests, even after the commissioner had informed him that this was a serious breach of the rules”.

“The committee’s overall conclusion is that Mr Burns used his parliamentary position in an attempt to intimidate a member of the public into doing as Mr Burns wished, in a dispute relating to purely private family interests which had no connection with Mr Burns’ parliamentary duties,” it stated.

“He persisted in making veiled threats to use parliamentary privilege to further his family’s interests even during the course of the commissioner’s investigation, and that he misleadingly implied that his conduct had the support of the House authorities.”

The committee said it was important that the ability of MPs to raise issues in the House of Commons must not be used for personal gain. “The right of members of parliament to speak in the chamber without fear or favour is essential to parliament’s ability to scrutinise the executive and to tackle social abuses, particularly if the latter are committed by the rich and powerful who might use the threat of defamation proceedings to deter legitimate criticism.

“Precisely because parliamentary privilege is so important, it is essential to maintaining public respect for parliament that the protection afforded by privilege should not be abused by a member in the pursuit of their purely private and personal interests.”