HC Deb 29 April 1974 vol 872 cc770-80
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on certain issues and the consequent widespread anxieties arising from recent judicial proceedings.

The House will be aware that on 20th July last year, as Leader of the Opposition, I made a speech at Shildon, County Durham, in which I suggested the appointment of a Royal Commission to inquire into all aspects involving conflicts of interest and the furtherance of private gain against public duty in the nation's public and business life. By establishing the Redcliffe-Maud inquiry on rules and practices in local government, it seemed to me that the right hon. Gentleman, the then Prime Minister, substantially met, as an interim measure, what I had in mind. I understand this inquiry is expected to report in two or three weeks' time.

But it is my view that I should proceed as soon as possible with a recommendation to the Queen for the appointment of a Royal Commission, with wide terms of reference, extending beyond local government. It could draw on the work of the Redcliffe-Maud Committee in the field of local government and would also have available to it all the material arising from recent judicial proceedings, as well as other information necessary for its work.

The Government are anxious that there should be full consultations before the terms of reference are drawn up. I would hope that there could be discussions through the usual channels with the various parties in the House and, of course, the views of any hon. Member would be welcomed. It will also be necessary to have discussions with representative bodies about the areas to be covered by the work of the commission.

These preliminary consultations should cover, in my view, among other things, whether the Royal Commission's terms of reference should be confined to the public sector or whether it should cover all aspects of commercial and business life, and whether, in the light of the Redcliffe-Maud report, there are urgent recommendations that can and should be implemented without waiting for the Royal Commission's report.

I said, Mr. Speaker, at Shildon: If only a very small minority give way to the temptations which beset them for personal gain or other unworthy motive, then the whole of public life is sullied…. The price we face is that fewer and fewer people will concern themselves with local or national issues, with the workings of local or national democracy. I went on: The price, too is that for every case of corruption which comes to light, a hundred other devoted public servants find it that much harder to do their job. Nothing that has emerged in recent proceedings in any way weakens the force of that observation.

Mr. Heath

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement to the House. As I think he knows, I was concerned, when he suggested that there should be a Royal Commission and a wide-ranging inquiry, that nothing should be done at that time which could in any way inhibit or prejudice legal proceedings then being taken. At the same time, it was possible to set up an inquiry into future regulations respecting local government. The Prime Minister now invites consultations through the usual channels about his proposal for the terms of reference for a Royal Commission, and we are perfectly prepared—indeed glad—to take part in such consultations.

There are certain aspects on which we shall have to focus our attention. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that, in respect of the different aspects of public life, the regulations governing the whole of the Civil Service have been reviewed since these incidents came to public notice, that the Redcliffe-Maud inquiry deals with local government, and that in respect of this House there are consultations through the usual channels, now far advanced, about dealing with matters here? It therefore comes down to outside bodies such as the nationalised industries and similar bodies set up publicly which have not yet been concerned with the review, and to the question of private industry. Many of us have doubts whether, in view of the existence and constant review of company legislation, a Royal Commission could deal better with that aspect of our life than is done at the moment through the Departments and through Parliament. But we are perfectly prepared to discuss this matter.

What I hope the outside world and the public will not deduce from the Prime Minister's statement is that this country is riven with corruption either in public life or in its business, commercial and financial life, because I do not think that anyone in this House believes that to be the case. I accept the Prime Minister's invitation to carry out consultations about his proposal.

The Prime Minister

I note what the right hon. Gentleman said about matters which might be discussed in the consultations. I agree with what he said at the beginning about his motives for appointing the Redcliffe-Maud inquiry. What he has just described is exactly what I had in mind in my speech when he was already giving his mind to these questions. It was felt that the Redcliffe-Maud Committee could be making progress but that it would not be able to apply itself to cases which were sub judice.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, it was essential that there was nothing in the appointment of the Redcliffe-Maud inquiry to inhibit the police in their work, and it must be understood that, when the Royal Commission is set up, all allegations of corruption in any form should be a matter for the police. Should the police wish to indicate to the Royal Commission that there were new practices developing which they felt could be studied, that would be quite appropriate.

I also agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the tightening of the rules in respect of the Civil Service. Although he said that the Redcliffe-Maud Committee has concerned itself with local government, neither he nor anyone else in this House expects that inquiry to produce final views about it, because so much has been turned up in recent judicial inquiries that obviously now there should be a fresh look at it following the very important recommendations that everyone expects from Redcliffe-Maud. It did not, of course, have all the facts.

Finally, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman's concluding words. I tried to deal with that point in the last few words of my statement. It would be totally wrong for anyone at home or abroad to think that our public life is riddled with corruption. It is an extremely small minority, which, of course, attracts public interest and deep public concern. But, in the interests of the vast majority of those in public life, at every level of public life, who have carried out a lifetime of dedicated service, it is right that the country should be concerned, and should be seen to be concerned, to get rid of the problems of this small minority.

Mr. Beith

Is the Prime Minister aware that the Liberal Party advocated just such a commission a month before the right hon. Gentleman's visit to Shildon? Is he aware, further, that we warmly welcome his decision to set up a Royal Commission and that we shall be glad to cooperate with it? Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind, if he wishes the scope of the inquiry to be fairly wide, the possibility that the interests of Members of this House may be made part of its scope since it appears at the moment as though discussions through the usual channels are leading only to the possibility of agreement on a voluntary basis? Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that it may be necessary to remind local government, especially in the North-East, that in all these matters openness and not secrecy is called for in the public interest?

The Prime Minister

It so happens that I did not see that statement by the Liberal Party. The party was making so many statements each day that it was difficult to see them all. However, it seems to be the case that the then Prime Minister, the Liberal Party and I were thinking in the same sort of direction, and we now await the report of the Redcliffe-Maud Committee.

With regard to the interests of hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has been having discussions with the Conservative Party in furtherance of the discussions which began when the right hon. Member for Lowestoft (Mr. Prior) was Leader of the House and when certain progress was made. We hope that there will be something to report fairly soon, at which time the House will wish to consider whether what is proposed is right and adequate or needs to be progressed further in any direction.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a Royal Commission is not good enough, since it will only delay action, and that the whole of this recent dirty business immensely strengthens the case for the compulsory public disclosure of the interests of all Members of Parliament and councillors? Does my right hon. Friend agree that many Labour Members feel very strongly about these matters and will press him to take that course?

The Prime Minister

I agree with my hon. Friend that this may be a time-consuming activity. This must be a matter for consultation. It is a matter affecting us all and should not be decided simply by a quick decision by the Government—[interruption.] It affects us at the receiving end. The whole country is affected if a very small minority behave in the way which has been disclosed.

One idea that has been put forward is that it might be a standing commission. like the Royal Commission on the Environment, producing standing reports as well as reports on particular subjects. But I hope that, as a result of the consultations, there will be nothing which will prevent the commission from acting quickly when an abuse is shown to require action, and then to produce reports.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Will the terms of reference of the Royal Commission include the consideration of the introduction and enforcement of appropriate procedures and disciplines in the sector of public relations, as to which there is a good deal of concern and as to which evidence was given by the Institute of Public Relations to a Select Committee of this House a few years ago?

The Prime Minister

The terms of reference must be a matter for consultation. I have much sympathy with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's proposals. As he is an old Member of the House, he may recall that I raised from the Opposition Front Bench, as Shadow Chancellor, some rather undesirable public relations activities affecting work on a Finance Bill in respect of the taxation of light hydrocarbon oils. These matters. will have to be discussed.

I failed to reply to the second question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun). He talked about declaration of interests. Concerning Members of Parliament, I have referred to the discussions which are now taking place. Concerning members of local authorities, this is a question which is under consideration by the Redcliffe-Maud inquiry and on which we hope to have a report in two or three weeks' time.

Mr. Brian Walden

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is a danger of confusing two quite different things: first, the belief of some Members of Parliament that no Member should have any private interests—which is an arguable point of view which, if accepted by the House, would be observed by Members—and secondly, the use of that as a cloak for lying and malicious charges against Members of the House which could be very easily disproved if any method existed for so disproving them? Until Redcliffe-Maud reports and until the Government have a view on this matter, is there not some obligation on the Government to examine the kind of charges which are made against Members in order to demonstrate their falsity and to secure a retraction from those making them?

The Prime Minister

The argument about whether Members of Parliament should have outside interests has raged for a century or more. Indeed, it even took the form at one stage of suggesting that those who do not have outside interests should be paid at a higher parliamentary salary than those who do. Anxiety has been expressed about this matter previously. But this is all subject to the discussions which started under the previous Government between the two Front Benches and which we have been considering.

With regard to statements impugning the honesty or independence of hon. Members, there have been a number of classic references to the Committee of Privileges in the past where these have seemed to reflect on the work of Parliament or an individual Member. There are also other ways, when this occurs—and it does occur—by which redress can be obtained.

Mrs. Kellett-Bowman

May we take it as quite definite that the appointment of a Royal Commission will not prevent criminal proceedings against anyone, whatever his or her position, for corrupt acts committed in the past which may not yet have come to light?

The Prime Minister

Certainly that is so. There are two things which it does not inhibit. First, it does not inhibit any proceedings already instituted by the Director of Public Prosecutions or any other prosecuting authority in relation to things which have taken place in the past or may take place in the future. Nor does it inhibit the full, dedicated work of the police in making inquiries about any allegations which have been made in the past or may be made in the future.

Mr. Strauss

Will the Prime Minister stand firm by his statement that any action which may be taken with regard to disclosure by Members of their private interests should remain in the hands of the House itself to decide? Will he bear in mind that the House already possesses machinery—the Committee of Privileges —to deal with this matter, that the Select Committee which went into this problem a few years ago proposed strengthening that machinery substantially, and that this is a special, peculiar and very real problem which should not be subject to investigation or decision by an outside body but should be a decision of the House as a whole?

The Prime Minister

The whole House will recall the work done by my right hon. Friend and other members of the Select Committee, over which, I think, he presided. But these matters are being discussed through the usual channels at present. A statement will be made, and it will then be for the House to make up its mind.

Mr. Peyton

Will the Prime Minister bear in mind the anxiety on both sides of the House that, whatever may be the merits of Royal Commissions, they are not exactly famous or distinguished for the expedition of their proceedings and they can be more like rather thick carpets under which to stuff inconvenient facts than revealers of the truth? Will the Prime Minister also attempt to reconcile his present decision with the way in which his hon. Friend—or, perhaps, his erstwhile hon. Friend—the Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) has been treated in his request for an inquiry into such matters?

The Prime Minister

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) I dealt with the first point raised by the right hon. Gentleman. When considering the terms of reference, we have to consider whether the commission should be asked to produce quick reports on specific problems, whether it should be a standing commission and whether we should have annual reports. There is no question of sweeping things under the carpet. What has been clear from recent revelations is that a lot has been going on under the stones, and the whole House will agree that those stones should be turned over. Anything that has been going on which is wrong should be brought to light and dealt with.

The hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) greatly welcomed the Shildon speech to which I have already referred, though he did not always understand the relevance of the decision of the then Prime Minister to set up the RedcliffeMaud Commission—even ahead of the police investigations and prosecutions—to what I had in mind at Shildon and to what I think my hon. Friends had in mind. The hon. Member for Blyth was pressing both the right hon. Gentleman the present Leader of the Opposition and myself to set up a Royal Commission at once. We all felt that it would be right to wait until these proceedings—those which have now ended, at any rate—and all the evidence, could be available to a Royal Commission.

Mr. Ashton

Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister remember receiving, when Leader of the Opposition, a letter signed by 67 back benchers asking that a Labour Party commission should be set up to draw up a set of rules for a register of the interests of Members of Parliament? Those rules were drawn up. Every word of them was vetted by the Lord Chancellor and the rules were put before a Wednesday morning meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party. It became Labour Party policy to have a compulsory register of the interests of Members of Parliament. Will my right hon. Friend comment on newspaper speculation last week that what is to be brought before the House will be a voluntary register of Members' interests? Will he ensure that a decision will be made by the Cabinet fairly quickly?

The Prime Minister

I received the letter to which my hon. Friend referred. I did not count the numbers, but I take my hon. Friend's word that there were 67 signatures. I also remember the meeting, although I do not think there were 67 Members present. Nevertheless, a majority decision was reached by those who were there, and it has been very much in the mind of my right hon. Friend the present Leader of the House in the period before he was Leader of the House and since he became Leader of the House. But I must ask my hon. Friend to await the announcements arising from the result of the discussions which have been taking place.

Mr. Wigley

I warmly welcome the Prime Minister's statement, particularly the reference to a standing commission. I say this in reference to the malicious rumour that has been rife in certain parts of Wales about the possibility of corruption in local government and the need for this to be cleared up once and for all, for the integrity and good name of everybody—officers and councillors—serving in local government.

I hope that the Royal Commission or standing commission will look into the possibility of people who give evidence to it being protected from any retribution, because in some communities this could be a severe danger.

The Prime Minister

I have seen the public statement made over the weekend by the hon. Gentleman and published in a number of newspapers. If the hon. Gentleman has in mind anything that may have been untoward, even if, as he says, it is only a rumour, may I suggest that it is the duty of anyone in possession of an allegation to bring it to the attention of the police so that it can be fully investigated without even waiting for a Royal Commission.

Mr. William Hamilton

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House at this stage whether the opposition to a compulsory register of Members' interests is coming primarily from the Opposition, presumably because they have more to hide than we have? If that is the case, will he give an assurance that the Government will resist this and introduce a compulsory register, which would gain the support of most hon. Members on the Government side of the House?

In view of the importance of this matter, does not my right hon. Friend think that it would be preferable to have a debate on the Floor of the House on the terms of reference of the Royal Commission and ensure that they are sufficiently wide to cover the interests of the House of Lords—because some of the biggest offenders in this field are along there? My right hon. Friend will remember the Burmah Oil incident, and there are other matters, too, which deeply involve Members of Parliament, who include Members of the other place, and the Lobby, too.

The Prime Minister

I cannot comment on the second point raised by my hon. Friend. As to the first point about the attitudes being taken in the discussion as between the parties, obviously I have no information to give the House. I have not been concerned with the discussions. Therefore I cannot confirm or deny my hon. Friend's suspicions. Still less give any appearance of veracity to the conclusion he has drawn from the facts which are not yet in the possession of the House. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that when the discussions are concluded a full statement will be made to the House and the final decision will lie in the hands of the House.

Mr. Tapsell

Will the Prime Minister bear in mind that there are some hon. Members on this side who favour a compulsory register of interests and who also believe that it is precisely those hon. Members who do not have long-established outside business interests who are most likely to be vulnerable in these matters?

The Prime Minister

That is a point which should certainly be taken into consideration in the discussions. We must wait for the discussions to be completed and a report to be made to the House.

Mr. Heath

Is the Prime Minister aware that, as regards the question of Members' interests, we believe strongly that this is a matter which the House must settle for itself and we hope that he and his colleagues will agree with us that, whatever proposition is put before the House as a result of discussions with all parties and individual Members, the House should have a free vote and settle its own affairs?

The Prime Minister

That is right. That is what I was trying to say earlier in answer to the previous question. I believe that it has been right to have these discussions both in the last Parliament and in this Parliament. No one taking part in the discussions thought that instructions would be given to the House. What was thought was that alternative proposals for dealing with these problems would be presented and that then it would be a matter for the House itself to decide.