HC Deb 30 November 1992 vol 215 cc39-40 4.35 pm
Mr. Gordon Brown (Dunfermline, East)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 20, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

the questionable circumstances surrounding the payments to Carter-Ruck, solicitors, from public funds.

The matter is specific because the Chancellor of the Exchequer must be brought to the House to answer the public concern over the use of public funds for a private legal bill. He should specifically explain why the British taxpayer should pay at all when he hired his own libel lawyer to protect his own personal reputation in respect of a commercial tenancy of his own private home in what was ultimately a private matter, which in no way arose from his duties as Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The matter is specific because the rules make it absolutely clear that public funds can be justified only in the conduct of public duties that involve official responsibilities. The press handling of a private eviction is not such a case.

The matter is important because, when talking about the rules governing payments from public funds, it has become clear from the National Audit Office this afternoon, not only that the payments were not to be announced to the public, but that the expenditure was never separately itemised in Treasury accounts. It was included only under the broadest of headings entitled "Treasury running costs", was never drawn to the attention of the National Audit Office as a special feature and has never been investigated by the National Audit Office, which should now happen. The Chancellor must come to the House to explain why the secret arrangements were such that the public were never to know that the payment had ever been made.

The matter is important because the Treasury now suggests that the reason for incurring the expenditure was to retain full confidence not only in the office of Chancellor, but in the person holding that office—in other words, guidelines that could permit public funds to be used to resist legally almost any attack on any Minister. That interpretation of the rules is so wide and so liable to abuse that it cannot be allowed to continue.

The matter is also important because there is no published precedent for the payments. There is a huge difference between the Treasury covering the legal expenses of a Chancellor sued because of actions taken in the direct exercise of his public duties, as in the case of Johnson Matthey, and a Chancellor who is simply involved in legal action because of his own private dealings.

The matter requires urgent consideration because members of the public will not understand the use of public money in that way, making the Chancellor the only man in Britain to escape legal aid cuts. The guidelines must be fundamentally rewritten. The credibility of Government is once again the issue, unless Ministers are prepared to come to the House to explain themselves.

Mr. Michael Brown (Brigg and Cleethorpes)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker!

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. Hon. Members must resume their seats until I have given a decision on the matter.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

We are worried about Michael Brown.

Madam Speaker

There is no need to worry about anything but hearing the Speaker at the moment.

I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has said. As the House knows, I have to give my decision without stating any reasons. I am afraid that I do not consider—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Order. I do not consider that the matter raised by the hon. Gentleman is appropriate for discussion under Standing Order No. 20. I therefore cannot submit the application to the House. I have no doubt that there are points of order. I call Mr. Rowe, who was first on his feet.