I’ve been away in France for a couple of weeks, hence the silence on this blog. It’s now time to burn off those calories with some serious typing and what better start than on a story that Robert Peston ran on his BBC blog on the 22nd August (apologies if this is staler than yesterday’s croissant)? Under a headline “Coulson got hundreds of thousands of pounds from News International”, Mr. Peston reported that Andy Coulson (yes, the one late of News International (NI) and News of the World) received several hundred thousand pounds in respect of
“contractual leaving pay … in instalments until the end of 2007 – which means he continued to be financially linked to News International for several months of his tenure as David Cameron’s main media adviser”.
The Guardian reported that the payments included a company car and health insurance for three years (I’m not sure if this means he received health insurance and the car for three years or just the insurance).
Mr Coulson is supposed to have received these payments as part of a severance package signed off with a compromise agreement. The Guardian also reported that Tom Watson MP had said the money could be considered an “undeclared donation” to the Conservative Party and the Electoral Commission was asked to investigate. It apparently intends not to do so, but Mr Watson has asked the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to investigate why the payments were not declared in “a register of passholders”.
Before everyone starts jumping around too much, stand back and consider the allegation made. Coulson is said to have received the payments as part of a severance package after he left NI in January 2007. He joined the Tories in July of that year. If these payments were merely payments of his contractual entitlements from NI then I think it would be hard to make any criticism. If his contract of employment ever comes to light then it will be interesting to check this. The payments look generous but he was a very senior executive in a massive organization, so perhaps it is not surprising he was well remunerated. Had NI refused to honour Coulson’s contract, he would have had a claim against them for breach of contract. It is perhaps unusual for a company of the size of NI to stagger the payments over a period of time, but not that uncommon. Cashflow is not likely to have been the reason; more like NI wanted to ensure Coulson kept his head down for several months and what better way than to withhold payment for several months? That is speculation though. In the cold light of one of the most bitter and far reaching political scandals of recent times it certainly doesn’t look good.
However, what if he was not contractually entitled to (all) these monies and, instead, the parties came to a deal, as any employer-employee can do? That muddies the water but it isn’t evidence of illegality or wrong-doing without more background. It could have been a reward for his loyal and effective service during his tenure. Of course, it could have been a payment for something more sinister, but without hard evidence of that it can only be speculation. There is nothing in Peston’s story that allows us to go further than this. On balance this is a bit of a non-story – fuelling the media frenzy on this subject without actually illuminating any of the main issues or revealing any wrongdoing.
The real story here though is whether Coulson disclosed these payments to his new employers when he joined the Tories. Why should he? For most employees, any payments received from a former employer have no relevance in their new job, provided that there is no conflict of interest in the two roles or there has been no illegality. MPs are under very onerous duties of disclosure; whether that applies to advisers I don’t know, but if I was David Cameron I would have wanted to know about the payments, if for no other reason than to avoid being ambushed by it becoming common knowledge at some point in the future. If Coulson was required to disclose the payments under Parliamentary (or other) rules and did not then that is a different matter.