HC Deb 26 March 1969 vol 780 cc1630-9
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

The House will recall that on 4th March I was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) whether, in view of the increasing number of hon. Members being remunerated by outside bodies, he will re-examine the desirability of legislation to establish a public register of such interests."—[Vol. 779, c. 209.] I said that the Government were continuing to watch the position, and in answers to Questions by the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) referred to the disparity between the treatment, so far as this House is concerned, of hon. Members who are required by long established practice to declare their interest, and others who are not so required.

I should now like to tell the House the results of the Government's examination of the issues raised.

As I have more than once suggested, there are two separate issues here.

The first is the position of Members of Parliament who, by virtue of some paid connection with an outside interest, be it domestic or overseas, are involved in matters which are the concern of Parliament and of Government. As I indicated in reply to my hon. Friend, it is important that the position of such Members should be made clear in all matters which affect their responsibilities to the House and to their Parliamentary colleagues.

This is an issue for Parliament. After consultations with the opposition parties, the Government have therefore decided to recommend to the House to set up a Select Committee to consider the rules and practices of the House in relation to the declaration of Members' interests and to report. The form of the Select Committee will be discussed through the usual channels. This relates only to the House of Commons, but I understand that my noble Friend the Lord Privy Seal will be having discussions on parallel action that might be taken in another place.

There is, however, a second issue about which there is considerable public concern, and concern in this House. This relates to the operation of public relations and other organisations holding an account or a commission on behalf of an overseas Government, or an overseas political interest. The activities of some of these organisations have been mentioned in this House on a number of occasions and there is concern about their activities, whether or not they employ on any basis individual Members of this House. What is important is that Parliament, and the public, should know when activities of this kind are being conducted. Many of these organisations do valuable work in informing Parliament and the public: the danger occurs when it is not done in an open way. There is increasing evidence that some of these organisations are concerned with operating outside Parliament as well as on Parliament and on the Government. Again the public has a right to know.

Equally, it is right that the House should be aware of the problems associated with the administration of any scheme designed to bring these activities into the open. The House will be concerned to ensure that whatever is finally decided reflects a fair balance between protection of Parliament and the public on the one hand and free and legitimate expression of opinion on the other.

The Government have given urgent consideration to this question, including the possibility of legislation requiring registration. I now propose to initiate discussions with the opposition parties to see how far agreement can be reached on the best way of proceeding.

Mr. Heath

I assure the Prime Minister that we on this side of the House will discuss with him, through the usual channels, the form of the Select Committee, and also the second point mentioned in his statement.

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the purpose of the Select Committee is to consider whether the present arrangements for the declaration of interests by Members are satisfactory and that there is nothing improper about any Member having outside interests as such?

The Prime Minister

That is exactly the position as I see it. The rules in Erskine May and the rules and practices of this House about declarations of interest are very narrow and relate to particular forms of interest. Indeed, sometimes it seems almost unfair that there should be a declaration in some cases. The new development, from all the information known to hon. Members, is the employment of hon. Members whether as so-called Parliamentary consultants or in any other capacity for public relations and similar organisations. It is right that the House should have a fresh look at the question of the definition of the issues in which a declaration of interest should be made.

Mr. William Hamilton

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members on this side of the House will be grateful to him for the speedy action that he now proposes to take? But may I ask whether he will give an assurance that nothing he has said this afternoon will rule out the bringing together of a compulsory public register of paid outside interests of Members?

Will my right hon. Friend also give an assurance that there will be a debate on the Report from the Committee of Privileges, for which we have been waiting for a very long time, in which this and related matters can be discussed by the whole House instead of discussions taking place through the usual channels between the two Front Benches?

The Prime Minister

The proposal to have a Select Committee on the question of Member's interests means that nothing is ruled out that is consonant with the terms of reference which have been laid down. It will be for the Select Committee, however it is set up, to consider the practice which should be followed in the matter of declarations of interests, to decide how it can best be operated, and what is the most convenient thing for the House. The convenience of the House is important in connection with the Ruling that you, Mr. Speaker, gave, which I think most hon. Members feel reasonable, that we should not have Question Time delayed by a whole series of individual declarations. The point raised by my hon. Friend will be looked into.

On the question of a register of outside interests as opposed to hon. Members, that is raised in the second part of my statement dealing with firms operating on behalf of foreign Governments or foreign interests. Registration is one way of doing it, though it is not as easy as it looks at first sight.

Mr. Lubbock

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his statement is welcome even though it is rather belated? Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the Lawrence Committee found it necessary to make inquiries of hon. Members about the extent to which they found it necessary to supplement their incomes by obtaining outside remuneration? In view of that, does not the right hon. Gentleman think it is very difficult to separate the question of hon. Members' outside interests from the level of remuneration and the facilities provided in connection with their work in this House? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider widening the terms of the proposed Select Committee accordingly?

The Prime Minister

I think that the hon. Gentleman is taking this wider than is necessary. What I think we are concerned with, for the good government of this House itself, and for public life generally, is that if an hon. Member has an an interest, and in the course of his Parliamentary duties he approaches other hon. Members, or puts Questions in the House, the House has a right to know whether that interest affects his dealings with the House as a whole or with individual Members of Parliament.

Mr. Ogden

Will my right hon. Friend be careful about making an agreement with the Opposition Front Bench? Will he bear in mind that the last time there was a consensus agreement between the two Front Benches, on the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, the Opposition completely failed to deliver their share of the goods?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend's question goes wider than my statement. What is proposed is in accordance with our practice in relation to the establishment of Select Committees. There could be discussions through the usual channels about the exact form it should take. The terms of reference are included in my statement.

Mr. Doughty

Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the terms of reference of the Select Committee are carefully drawn to ensure that the interests of hon. Members, because they are hon. Members of this House and may be employed by some outside interest for that purpose, are regarded as ordinary outside interests which hon. Members may have, be they employed as trade union secretaries or as members of stockbroking firms?

The Prime Minister

The Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that there is no suggestion that it is in any way improper for hon. Members to have outside employment, and many inquiries in the past into the functions of Parliament have said that this very often helps to bring outside knowledge and experience into the House. What is at issue is whether any of these interests, if not declared, could impede fair work and fair dealing within Parliament between one hon. Member and another.

When I was on the Opposition Front Bench I raised the matter when one hon. Member, not now a Member of this House, invited a number of his colleagues to have lunch downstairs and it was found that it was for the purpose of promoting on behalf of a particular vested interest an Amendment to the Finance Bill, and forms for that purpose were on the lunch table. Anyone who might be tempted to do that ought to have his position known to all those whom he might approach.

Mr. C. Pannell

I am rather fond of Select Committees, but will my right hon. Friend reflect on the thought that a Select Committee is rather ponderous to decide what should be a matter for intelligent conversation between the usual channels? Is it not a fact that the appointment of a Select Committee will carry the assumption outside that generally speaking there is an abuse in this place, and that we are less honourable Members than we should be? Is it not a fact that most of these ideas are completely misplaced? This is not a squalid place full of squalid people, rather the reverse.

The Prime Minister

I agree with my right hon. Friend's concluding words. The appointment of a Select Committee does not mean that there is an abuse to be looked into. We have a Select Committee on Procedure. It does not mean that our procedure is an abuse, even though it is sometimes abused.

This is a matter for Parliament. I do not believe that talks between the two Front Benches, or between the two Front Benches and the Leader of the Liberal Party, could deal with all the problems that might come up for the protection of Parliament. It is simply a question of considering whether the declaration of an interest should apply in different circumstances from those laid down by hallowed Parliamentary practice.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

Is not there nevertheless a danger in all this that we will seem to be apologising to the public for the fact that we have outside interests? Does not the right hon. Gentleman recognise—I am sure he does—that we are part-time Members, and are paid as such, although we may work longer hours than some? If the present part-time Chairman of B.O.A.C. can have three outside jobs, and is now to get a rise equivalent to our salaries when we have taken off our expenses, this clearly establishes that we should have outside interests.

The Prime Minister

That is rather a wider question. There was no note of apology in my statement, nor in the question by the Leader of the Opposition, nor in the comment that I made on his question. The fact that the hon. Gentleman can quote the existence of three other jobs done by the Chairman of a public body means that those three jobs are known to his colleagues on that Board. One of the problems that we have to consider is whether the functioning of Parliament is affected by hon. Members, or the House as a whole, not knowing about particular interests of hon. Members.

Mr. J. T. Price

My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware, from the exchanges so far, that his statement is welcome to most of us. Is he aware that one of the matters which some of us want to put into the terms of reference of the Select Committee is the relationship between this House and many ex-Ministers of the Crown who, on leaving office, have found highly paid posts open to them in the outside world because of their past experience? Another question is whether the Official Secrets Act should be taken into consideration in these matters.

Is my right hon. Friend further aware that the special relationship, on a commercial basis, of hon. Members of this House with the Press is a very important matter which I should like to see included in the terms of reference?

The Prime Minister

I am not aware of any ex-Ministers of any party who, having accepted appointments of that kind, have failed to make them known publicly. I think that this is one of the great safeguards. I cannot accept the innuendo—perhaps my hon. Friend did not intend it, but it might be read into his remarks—that the kind of appointments that he has mentioned result from the performance of previous Ministerial duties. My hon. Friend went so far as to mention the Official Secrets Act. I know of no case of any ex-Minister of any party that would justify that.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that since there has been registration of interests in the United States public relations activities have escalated? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I make that statement as one who has a pharmaceutical and general industrial interest to declare, but not a public relations one?

The Prime Minister

Public relations activities have escalated in every country, whether or not there was registration in Parliament, on a very much larger scale outside the Government than inside it.

We have studied the working of the United States procedure. It is very thorough-going, but I am not certain that it would be right to have it in this country. There are difficulties about it. That is why I should like to have discussions with the other parties to see how we should proceed in this matter. We do not rule out having a register of this kind. It is a fact that in this country where there is no register it is possible for a public relations firm not merely to bombard hon. Members with literature—the waste paper baskets of the House have traditionally been filled with this material—but also to approach hon. Members who very often do not know the nature of the approach, or who is paying for it.

Mr. Michael Foot

Reverting to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he agrees that the enthusiasm of the Opposition Front Bench for the Parliament (No. 2) Bill, however disguised, may arise from an undeclared collective interest in the matter?

The Prime Minister

It seems to me, on reading that Bill, that they do not have much to hope for from it.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Would not it be advantageous if the second matter as well as the first could be referred to the Select Committee, rather than being left to discussions between the two Front Benches? Are not there problems with public relations companies which not merely represent foreign Governments, but are themselves wholly situate outside this country so that they present a problem in the matter of control?

The Prime Minister

That is not ruled out. As the first matter is specifically a matter for the House, namely, a consideration of the phraseology of Erskine May, and our practice, it is a matter for a Select Committee. It may be—this has been considered—that as a result of the inter-party discussions we shall decide that the second problem should be referred to that same Select Committee when it has completed Stage 1 of its work, or it may be found, for example—I am not trying to indicate any favoured solution—that there could be an alternative pre-legislation committee to which a group of hon. Members could be appointed to draw up legislation if it were needed. Or it may be done in yet another way. That is not ruled out, but I think that there should be inter-party discussions before even deciding to refer it to a Select Committee.

Mr. Atkinson

Will my right hon. Friend reject completely the suggestion by the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Kenneth Lewis) that hon. Members are part-time? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that every elector in the country expects his representative in Parliament to be full-time? Will he also confirm that members of the Select Committee will not be chosen from those who have outside interests?

Mr. Kenneth Lewis

On a point of order. Mr. Speaker. I did not say that I was part-time. I said that I was paid part-time and worked full-time.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Very good—but not a point of order.

The Prime Minister

Whatever the hon. Gentleman's own experience, I got the impression from what he said that he thought that all Members are or should be part-time. This is certainly not the case. Some are part-time while others have no other outside employment. One of the problems we have in manning Select and Standing Committees arises from the fact that some hon. Members have outside duties and therefore many, but not all, of those who man these Committees are what would be called full-time Members. But, as I have said, not all of them.

Mr. Crowder

While I welcome the Prime Minister's statement, in view of recent events, does not he think it better that these discussions should not take place through the usual channels between the Front Benches but through the liaison which has now arisen between the back benchers?

The Prime Minister

I am very conservative in this, as in most other questions, and I think that the official usual channels are the best ones for this purpose, and, of course, it must be the duty of those who conduct the usual channels to maintain their usual standards of effective liaison with back benchers.