Ed Miliband and Stanley Fink – allegations without evidence are an abuse of Parliamentary privilege.2
February 12, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
First of all, full disclosure. I know Lord Stanley Fink. I have known him for sixteen years. I know his children too. I know that he donates a third of his income to charity and I know that people who come across him meet an extremely clever, nice, caring man, who worked very hard to be successful.
For people who don’t know him, this description is hard to square with someone known as the “Godfather of hedge funds” by the press. His successful period in charge at Man Group saw him grow the firm enormously, and when he retired, he did so with the thanks of investors ringing in his ears for a good reason. He has donated to the Conservative party for a long time, becoming its joint-Treasurer a few years ago for a while. He does so out of deep political beliefs about providing opportunity for people to make the same journey that he did from a little boy in Manchester to the Chief Executive of a FTSE 100 company.
However, the two facts I have given makes him a left-wing hate figure. Given the left’s inclination to view people with right-wing views as wicked, and not just wrong, it should be no surprise that Lord Fink’s character has come under attack so often. He said himself, last night, as he faced the TV cameras for a reason I shall come to in a minute, that the attacks on him were a further of example of Labour ‘playing the man not the ball’, something of which they are prone to do.
So, why is he in the news today? Well, it started with a very carefully worded mention of him in the Guardian this morning. They noted that Fink’s name was on the list of those who held HSBC bank accounts in Switzerland. The Guardian reported this like so…“He opened Swiss accounts with HSBC in 1996 and 1997, which banked Man Group shares held in UK-registered bare trusts designed to minimise capital gains tax. Most of the trusts were wound up when he returned to London.”
Fink, rightly given the right of reply by the Guardian, said these trusts were fully declared and tax paid on all the dividends they received. “I was Swiss-resident … the only reasons I opened bank accounts in Switzerland was the ordinary management of my current affairs. To the extent I created any trust accounts, these were perfectly normal planning matters, and could have been set up with similar effect, without the Swiss bank being involved.”
That might have been the end of that. The Guardian, respecting journalistic convention and, importantly, subject to libel laws, wrote about a person, gave them a right to reply, and one could argue the matter was closed.
But Ed Miliband was having none of it. There is an election on, and any chance to make a political point has to be taken, regardless of proof and regardless, it appears, of truth. This is what he said at PMQs yesterday:
‘Let’s take Stanley Fink who gave £3 million to the Conservative Party. He actually appointed him as Treasurer of the Tory Party and gave him a peerage for good measure. So now can he explain what steps he is going to take to find out about the tax avoidance activities of Lord Fink?’
Just look at the wording of that. There is an assumption implicit that Stanley Fink has been avoiding tax. Stanley Fink, of course, noticed this. He felt he had been defamed. But he also knew that Ed Miliband can say what he wants about anyone, as he is protected by Parliamentary privilege.
Parliamentary privilege was created to allow members of Parliament to speak freely during ordinary parliamentary proceedings without fear of legal action on grounds of slander, contempt of court or the official secrets act. Parliamentary privilege is controversial because of its potential for abuse; a member can use privilege to make damaging allegations that would ordinarily be discouraged by defamation laws, without first determining whether those allegations have a strong foundation.
One wonders whether Ed Miliband did determine whether there was a strong foundation for openly saying that Stanley Fink has been involved in tax avoidance activities. Fink certainly wants to find out. He sent a letter to Miliband yesterday challenging him to repeat the line he used in a Parliament outside the House of Commons. Or, he could withdraw it publicly. It will be interesting to see what Miliband does next.
What might also happen here is for the issue of Parliamentary Privilege to be looked at again. It was created before the age of mass media to allow politicians to speak freely when issues needed to be discussed, particularly on points of law. Fair enough. But in this age of mass media, everything said is reported and repeated to a lot of people, and when someone may have been defamed purely to make a political point…well, that is NOT the reason for Parliamentary privilege.
I do not know Stanley Fink’s tax arrangement. For all I know, the allegations that he has avoided tax may be true. But I do know that his reputation is very important to him. He is not a man of rapacious greed, and despite all his hard work a reason he donates so much to charity is because he knows more than anyone how lucky he has been to have been so well rewarded financially. For Ed Miliband, the accusations he made in Parliament were purely political. For Stanley Fink, the damage those allegations will have made will be personal.
Ed Miliband has conclusive evidence that Stanley Fink is a Conservative donor who works in hedge funds. Now he needs to provide evidence that he is what he has accused him of being in Parliament. Or admit he was wrong.