HC Deb 06 December 1977 vol 940 cc1221-4
Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Stockport, North)

I beg to move Amendment No. 239, in page 12, line 17, at end insert: 'and such disclosures of pecuniary interest shall be entered in a register, compiled in such form as the standing orders shall provide, and deposited with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council'.

The First Deputy Chairman

With this we may take the following amendments:

No. 444, in page 12, leave out lines 18 to 21.

No. 240, in page 12, line 21, leave out '£500' and insert '£1,000'.

No. 185, in page 12, line 21, at end insert:

and expulsion from the Assembly'.

Mr. Bennett

I have tabled Amendments Nos. 239 and 240 to probe the Bill and try to make the Government issue a clear statement on the elected Members' pecuniary interests. I am aware that the Government have been running away from a debate on the subject for almost 18 months. It seems from the way in which my hon. Friend the Minister of State has been speaking for the past few minutes that he is trying hard to avoid a debate on the issue now.

Mr. John Smith

My hon. Friend knows that that is not my position.

Mr. Bennett

I hope that that is true. If my hon. Friend is concerned to have a debate, I trust that he will make arrangements for a proper debate on Members' interests and that it will come before the House of Commons very soon.

It is clear that the present posture adopted in the House on Members' interests, especially the part of it that relates to the register, has become farcical. It is clear that in many local authorities the procedure for recording Members' interests does not work very well. It seems that there is an overwhelming case for one system of declaring and recording the pecuniary interests of all elected representatives in the United Kingdom. It is absurd that we should have different standards applying in different pieces of legislation.

The provisions in the Bill should be set out in terms that are acceptable both to the House of Commons and to all other elected bodies which operate within the United Kingdom. The clause ought to be considered not on its own but in terms of the general question.

This matter should not be left to be dealt with in the Standing Orders. I looked carefully to see whether the Bill could be amended in such a way as to enable this provision to be set out clearly separately from the Standing Orders.

It does not seem right that this matter should be legislated for by Members of the Assembly and then imposed upon them. The declaration of interests should be made a condition of people participating in elections to the Assembly. It should not be imposed afterwards. Such matters should be dealt with other than by Standing Orders.

At the moment, people can be elected to the Assembly on one set of Standing Orders only to find, while they are serving, that the Standing Orders are altered. I hope that on Report the Government will bring forward some provision to take this matter out of Standing Orders.

Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Bennett

I have very little time. No. If such matters are to be imposed by Standing Orders, the legislation should set out the guidelines more clearly than it does.

We have already had reference to the word "shall". As I understand it, the Standing Orders could provide that Members shall declare their interests, provided that they are likely to amount to more than a particular sum. The Standing Orders could state that it would be a courtesy for Members to declare their interests. Therefore, although there would be a requirement that there be Standing Orders to that effect, they could be extremely weak.

My amendment would make it more positive that there be a register of interests than would be set out in the Standing Orders.

There is a strong argument for the Government's looking into the whole question of Member's interests and putting it into legislation, not only in this Bill, but in the Wales Bill and the European Assembly Elections Bill, in order to set standards for the whole country.

I should like to deal briefly with the Amendment No. 240, which concerns enforcement. This seems to be one of the major problems in the House of Commons at present. We have a register of Members' interests, but there is apparently no political will to enforce it. The Government have at least learned a bit of a lesson from the farce that has been going on in the House with regard to its own register of Members' interests. The Government have now decided to make the enforcement of the declaration of Members' pecuniary interests a matter for the courts. It is a difficult matter.

I am surprised that the Liberal Party's Amendment No. 444, which suggests leaving enforcement to the Assembly, does not refer to enforcement from outside. I should have thought that it was clear that the present arrangements in the House of Commons are not working because they rely on Members to enforce the declaration of interests, and obviously political issues are at stake. The Bill provides for a fine of only £500. I think that the penalty should be more severe.

Mr. J. W. Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)

Does this not constrast with the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life—the Salmon Commission, published 18 months ago and not yet debated—that the penalty for councillors, who at present can only be fined, should be up to two years' imprisonment? Even that recommendation has not been followed in the Bill.

Mr. Bennett

That clearly illustrates the fact that there should be a major debate on this issue. I hope that the Minister, who will not really have sufficient time to reply to the debate—I have been forced to try to condense many of the remarks that I should have liked to make—will give an undertaking that there will be a full debate on the whole question of Members' interests not only in the House of Commons but in the elected Assemblies that we are setting up.

Mr. Harry Ewing

Briefly, the Government's view is that the question of the conduct of the register is best left to the Assembly.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) about subsection (2). I should point out that the Government are having second thoughts on this matter, but not in the direction for which my hon. Friend is arguing. We do not see the Assembly as a local authority body. The Government are seriously thinking about what might be done on Report—for example, removing subsection (2) altogether. I think it right to make that statement tonight.

It being Eight o'clock, The CHAIRMAN proceeded, pursuant to the Order [16th November] and the Resolution [22nd November], to put forthwith the Question already proposed from the Chair.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and negatived.

The CHAIRMAN then proceeded to put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the Business to be concluded at Eight o'clock.

Clauses 26 to 31 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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