HC Deb 16 June 1993 vol 226 cc955-64

6.—(1) In the entry "Chairman of the Agricultural and Food Research Council", after "Chairman" there shall be inserted ", or Director General and Deputy Chairman,".

(2) In the entry "Chairman of the Business Technician Education Council", for "Technician Education" there shall be substituted "Technology".

(3) In the entry "Chairman or Vice-Chairman of the Home-Grown Cereals Authority", the words "or Vice-Chairman" shall be omitted.

(4) In the entry "Chairman of the Local Government Staff Commission for Northern Ireland", after "Chairman" there shall be inserted "or Chief Executive".

(5) In the entry "A full-time chairman of Social Security Appeal Tribunals and Medical Appeal Tribunals for Northern Ireland", for "and Medical Appeal Tribunals" there shall be substituted ", Medical Appeal Tribunals and Disability Appeal Tribunals".

(6) In the entry beginning "Any member of the Audit Commission", after "Local Authorities" there shall be inserted "and the National Health Service".

(7) In the entry beginning "Officer of the Supreme Court", for "registrar, or assistant registrar," there shall be substituted "judge".

(8) In the entry "President of Social Security Appeal Tribunals and Medical Appeal Tribunals for Northern Ireland", for "and Medical Appeal Tribunals" there shall be substituted ", Medical Appeal Tribunals and Disability Appeal Tribunals".

The motion seeks the approval of the House to the amendment by Order in Council of schedule 1 to the 1975 Act. As the House is aware, the Act is concerned with the maintenance of the independence of the House and the safeguarding of hon. Members from undue influence by the Executive through the exercise of patronage. Schedule 1 lists those offices whose holders are thereby disqualified from membership of the House.

It has been the usual practice for any legislation establishing new offices or winding up existing ones to amend schedule 1 accordingly. The 1975 Act is therefore reprinted from time to time in accordance with the provisions of the Act, to incorporate such amendments. The last reprint was made on 1 March 1992; a further reprint will be ordered after the new order has been made.

In addition, from time to time it is necessary to use the procedure outlined in section 5(1) of the Act to bring schedule I up to date by Order in Council. That section provides for the schedule to be amended following a resolution by the House, by adding offices which have been created by administrative action, by amending or correcting existing entries and by deleting offices that no longer exist or in relation to which a statutory disqualification is no longer appropriate. The procedure has been followed on nine previous occasions: the first was in 1961, and the last in December 1990.

Copies of the explanatory note describing the amendments in detail have been available in the Vote Office since 11 June. Perhaps I should add that Ministers have been individually responsible for the details of the additional entries and deletions which cover offices within their areas of responsibility. They have based their judgments on the same general principles and criteria which have been followed in the past and which are covered in the explanatory note. Of the 61 amendments, 37 are new entries, 13 are deletions and 11 are amendments to existing entries. Approximately 381 office holders will be brought into the scope of schedule I. Up to 58 others will no longer be disqualified: that includes offices that have been abolished: There is therefore a net increase of 323 office holders disqualified. Of the 381 added to the schedule, up to 225 are part-time chairmen of child support appeal tribunals.

We also propose that the "de minimis" level—that is, the level below which paid offices in the gift of the Crown or Ministers do not normally attract disqualification—should be raised to £8,000. The "de minimis" limit, of course, has no effect on the level of remuneration received by office holders; its purpose is merely to prevent trivial disqualification. The 1990 figure of £7,000 has been uprated approximately in line with movements in average earnings, and remains within the range of a quarter to a third of Members' salaries.

As we are following a well-established procedure, I commend the motion to the House.

9.26 pm
Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment. I welcome him to his new post, and to his first chance to speak following his time in the Whips Office,.

The details of the amendments and additions to schedule 1 to the 1975 Act are not in themselves greatly contentious, but I welcome this opportunity—the first since 1990—to consider the scope and purpose of parliamentary disqualification. The principle of disqualification, the criteria on which it should apply and who, in practice, should be disqualified are issues that go to the heart of the powers and independence of the House. It is proper that certain groups should be disqualified from membership. Broadly, those groups fall into two categories—those who should be disqualified because of lack of competence and those involved in a clash of interests that requires a separation of powers.

About six further categories are included in the first category: examples are treason, imprisonment for more than one year in Britain—and, strangely, in the Republic of Ireland—and corrupt practices at elections. The Mental Health Act 1983 refers to a statutory procedure for vacating the seat of a sitting Member of unsound mind. I do not know whether the House would agree on exactly what constitutes "unsound mind", and on how subjective that definition is—we could debate that for some time.

Curiously, people under the age of 21 are also banned from the House. That would have denied it the services of Charles James Fox and Lord John Russell, and it would probably have been a weaker House for that. It is interesting to note that Sir Edward Coke, the great jurist, wrote in 1623 that several "infants" sat in the House in his day by connivancy—but if questioned would be put out"—rather like dogs, I assume. The Minister did not touch on the chief aspect of lack of competence, which is bankruptcy. That is of particular interest to the House at a time when, under the present Government, the number of personal bankruptcies has risen.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am afraid that he is straying beyond the remit of what is before us this evening.

Mr. Fisher

Whether the amendments should include bankrupts, and what the implications of that are, is important and I seek an assurance from the Minister on it.

Bankruptcies have risen from 7,728 in 1988 to 32,106 in 1992. A great many people have been disqualified by the Government's economic incompetence. The House would appreciate an assurance from the Minister that the Government have no plans to protect Lloyd's names and, by doing so, to protect the 47 Tory Members who apparently, according to press reports, are at risk of losing their seats and being disqualified for reasons of bankruptcy.

An assurance from the Minister would relieve a great deal of press speculation. [Interruption.] I will certainly give way to the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) if he wishes to intervene. If he does not, I am sure that he will agree with a former Member of the House, Mr. Thomas Benyon, who is a director of the Society of Names. Last week, Mr. Benyon said that this is a time bomb adding uncertainty to the ability of the Major Government to keep its majority intact for the next two or three years. As the House is debating disqualification for the first time, these matters may be of considerable interest to 47 hon. Members. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South is not taking it more seriously. No one wants to see hon. Members being disqualified.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)


Mr. Fisher

We should like to see them beaten at the ballot box, but not necessarily disqualified.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. In the short time that I have been in the Chair, it appears to me that the type of disqualification that the hon. Member is talking about is not set out in the motion as a disqualification.

Mr. Fisher

That is true, but as we are debating the 1975 Act and amendments to it for the first time in three years, and it is an important current issue, an assurance from the Minister that Lloyd's names will not be handled separately would be an important assurance. I will willingly give way to the Minister if he wants to put the record straight.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend said that the last thing he wanted to see was Tory Members being disqualified. I will tell him straight. If we see 47 Tory Members up to their necks in debt and being made bankrupt, I hope that he will join me in the Lobby to make sure they are kicked out.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now return to the motion.

Mr. Fisher

My hon. Friend did not quite catch my drift. I would prefer to see them beaten at the ballot box where they deserve to be beaten, and I am sure that we agree about that.

I turn to the second category which is absolutely central to the amendments—those areas in which there is a clash of interests. We all know about the armed forces, the police and the judicial offices, but the categories added to schedule 1 by today's amendments all involve quangos. As the Minister said, the Government are adding 381 new posts to schedule 1. Those quangos were set up by the Government, as indeed were the previous 2,600 additions to the Act between 1987 and 1990. There are not many growth industries in Britain under this Government, but quangos are certainly one.

It is proper that people who head and work for quangos should be disqualified because of the potential clash of interests. They are, in effect, Government employees, and, like civil servants, they ought to be disqualified. The Government are the quango kings. Inevitably, the amendments will be repeated in the few years left to the Government because they are so intent on creating quangos-40,000 posts in 1,412 quangos, which spend an amazing one fifth of all Government expenditure.

My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) has pointed out that in Scotland one third of all Government expenditure is directed through quangos. As the Government are using quangos as an instrument of government, it is absolutely right that those who do the Government's work through those quangos should be disqualified from being Members of the House as if they were civil servants. It is interesting to note that the Government, by bringing forward the motion, accept the fact that those people are arms of Government and civil servants in all but name and conditions of work.

As the Government seem to imply by the motion, finance is the key. The quangos are public bodies spending public money and it is right that there should be a separation of powers to prevent a clash of interests. The Government do not always seem to understand that there might be such a clash of interests.

Baroness Denton, referring to the 804 appointments at the Department of Trade and Industry, said, "I cannot remember knowingly appointing a Labour supporter." The Government rigorously control the political complexion of the quangos—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Baroness Denton said that she never knowingly appointed a Labour appointee and if Conservative Members are proud of that and believe that that is the right way in which to handle quango appointments, let them intervene in the debate. The Minister's words are on the record and she has never taken them back.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

To put the record straight, the point that my noble Friend was making was that she does not consider the party political affiliations of people whom she appoints. She appoints people on merit. That is the important point. It has nothing to do with party politics.

Mr. Fisher

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is being deliberately humorous or disingenuous, but he knows perfectly well that Baroness Denton meant something totally different. She said that she was proud that she was appointing only non-Labour people.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

If I were my hon. Friend, I would not take any notice of the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), who is on record as saying that the BBC radio programme "Start the Week" is communist propaganda. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to take that view, he would be prepared to believe that Baroness Denton tried to appoint people on a neutral basis.

Mr. Fisher

If the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) will not accept the word of a Minister, perhaps he will accept the words of the Financial Times, which did a survey showing that, of the 10 largest quangos and the 30 largest quangos in the national health service, not one had a chairperson who was either a Liberal Democrat or a Labour supporter, but eight were paid-up members of the Conservative party. It is clear that the Government have a clear and consistent policy and that is why it is right that, because of the clash of interests, those people should be disqualifed from membership of the House.

What the Government do not seem to understand is the difference between their interests and the interests of Parliament or the interests of the Tory party and the interests of the Government. That they cannot make that distinction is to the Government's discredit. They need the separation of powers implicit in the Act, because for the Government it is a seamless robe.

I hope that the new Minister will bring a fresh eye and some intelligence to his responsibilities. I hope that he will bring a new look to his job—I am being nice to him again —and consider the role of disqualification and the clash of interests involved. He can make a start by reducing the number of quangos, by giving us a categorical assurance now that he will have no amnesty for Lloyd's names on bankruptcy and then by working with the Government to try to change the economic policies that are causing such ruin and shoving up the number of bankruptcies across the country to more than 32,000 in the past year.

The Opposition will not oppose the motion, but we shall keep a watchful eye on the Government's quango mania. We shall await the real disqualification act which will be the general election, when the Government will find that they are disqualified from office by the British people.

9.39 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)


Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Can you advise me how the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) can possibly comment, when he was not in the Chamber for the Minister's opening remarks?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That matter is not a point of order for me. Mr. Cryer.

Mr. Cryer

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister spoke so rapidly that I was unable to get to the Chamber in time to hear his maiden speech as a representative of the right-wing extremists in the Whips Office now in the Government. I am sorry that I missed it —all two minutes of it.

When this motion appeared in the Whip, all the reporters and Lobby correspondents sought it out immediately, to see whether it contained other than routine changes to the 1975 Act of the kind that are made from time to time. They wanted to make sure that the Government were not trying to get off the hook the 47 Tory Members of Parliament who are up to their necks in debt at Lloyd's. [Interruption.] In fact, the motion does not say that. However, that matter is of considerable concern, particularly to those of us who were here in 1981, when Tory after Tory said that Lloyd's should have all the self-regulation that it wanted because it was such a wonderful—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are straying down that road again, and I have already drawn that to the attention of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher). I hope that the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) will return to the subject of the debate.

Mr. Cryer

-I shall try my very best, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but Conservative Members were shouting from a sedentary position in a most unruly and undignified fashion, which brings disgrace to this great mother of Parliaments. I do not know how they can do it. It is quite appalling. I am grateful for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker, against that pin-stripe mob that is trying to break up democracy.

The proposed alteration to schedule 1 to the 1975 Act reflects the Government's penchant for appointing people instead of extending democratic principles. If the Government were concerned about some of those institutions, they could extend local authority democracy, by allowing some functions—if not all—to be undertaken in association with local authorities. The Government prefer to appoint people, which is a system of political patronage.

The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) knows that that is true. He might protest when we say that such appointments are based on Conservative political attitudes, but the Government's record of the past 14 years is one of dedication to the application of political prejudice in every possible walk of life. It has been a corrosive influence. The Government have used patronage—of which this measure is an example—and extended the powers and expenditure of quangos. That was suggested in a recent issue of the Financial Times. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher) mentioned, one fifth of Government expenditure is now made not through Parliament but through the allocation of moneys to quangos. It is clear from the explanatory note provided with the measure that some people are now paid honorariums, whereas before they did the job for nothing. The payment of those sums of money brings them within the scope of the legislation. That shows the extent of the patronage that the Government are doling out.

Labour will examine some of those appointments, to see whether they cannot be placed on a more democratic footing, instead of the terrible business of the Government handing out appointments on the basis that those appointed support the party in power. That has been a canker in our body politic. After the next general election, we shall take a good look at that situation, to see whether we can improve matters.

We can expect more such amendments, because of the Government's shifting sands of patronage. Many quango chairmen, chairwomen and members receive salaries that are way beyond the scope of ordinary people—they are very well paid. It is proof of the power of patronage that it buys people's support, even if there is doubt about that support in the beginning.

I have already mentioned Baroness Thatcher. It is worth remembering that she coined a phrase that echoed throughout her years as Prime Minister. She asked about any candidate, "Is he one of us?" and used that as the political test of reliability. If a Labour Government had applied the same test, they would have been hounded by the press, but because the vast majority of the press is on the side of the Conservative party, it pays little or no heed to the political corruption about which the Minister is now smiling.

The Minister is a former Whip and therefore in an ideal position to hand out patronage because, as a Whip, he has been bullying and bribing Tory Members for the past few years. He would tell them that if they were not present, they would not be allowed to go on free trips or become members of Select Committees. He knows all about patronage, which is very much part of the legislation. We shall examine the legislation again. We are unhappy about it as it stands, but this has been a useful debate to highlight the Tory party's patronage system.

9.45 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I, too, missed the beginning of the debate, but I have picked it up as I went along.

I have been scanning the list of new quangos which have been included or excluded, as the case may be. My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) is right. The Government have been establishing more quangos, but I cannot see listed the Norman Lamont legal aid defence fund, which should be there.

The ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer was able to get money indirectly from Asil Nadir, but also from the taxpayer—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying from the motion. Will he please confine his remarks to the motion?

Mr. Skinner

We are talking about whether people should be disqualified because they have jobs that are in some way connected with money paid by the Government, which means by the taxpayer. The ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer received money from the taxpayer, which means that for a short time he also had an office of profit under the Crown—he was being paid his salary but also received £4,000-odd from the taxpayer. That was Government money and he should therefore have been included in the list. That is my point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is very interesting, but it has nothing to do with the list.

Mr. Skinner

It has nothing to do with the present list. What I am trying to say is that people are disqualified for getting money from Government bodies, quangos or whatever one wants to call them.

I cite an example. When the 1974–79 Labour Government were elected, one of the first things they did was to hold a special mini-debate—you were probably here at the time, Mr. Deputy Speaker—about someone who had been elected to Parliament although he had an office of profit under the Crown. It had to be a Liberal, a Dr. Winstanley. He had been receiving money from the taxpayer and, therefore, through the Government. The Government suddenly realised that Dr. Winstanley should be barred as a Member of Parliament.

I think that it was Lord Glenamara, Ted Short at the time, who presented to the House a motion similar to that presented this evening by the Minister. I came into the Chamber and wondered what was happening. The Labour Government did not need the Liberals' support at the time as they still had a majority—we still had Stonehouse plus two. I found that the Labour Leader of the House was making arrangements to allow that Liberal whippersnapper off the hook, although he had broken the law.

The amount of money was small, but the Liberal was on a medical panel. and attended various panels and tribunals during the year. It happened on only a few occasions, but he was receiving a sum of money and that disqualified him. The Leader of the House he did not get my support; I think that I was the only one who refused—got the House to agree to retrospective legislation—[HON. MEMBERS: "Terrible."]—for a Liberal!

Mr. Riddick

Which way did the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) vote?

Mr. Skinner

I do not know what he was doing at the time. He may have voted in favour, because he finished up as a Minister. But I am not sure which way he voted, because he was not a Minister at the time; that came later.

My hon. Friend made sure that the wheels of industry turned—[HON. MEMBERS: "What about the IMF?"] It had nothing to do with the IMF.

I was trying to illustrate the fact that the amount of money involved in the earlier case was small and that a very fine line was drawn in the case involving the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. That case should be examined, as, indeed, should any case involving a Minister or anybody else who gets money from the Government and thereby has an office of profit under the Crown. That is the real reason why I am taking part in the debate.

The case that I mentioned also shows that Labour did not go in for the policy of looking after Labour people. They were not very good at doing that. That is sad when we think about it. Now we have experienced 14 years of Tory Government and they have put hard-line Tories in everywhere—health spivs and all the rest. But when Labour were in power they used to say, "We shall have one for their side and one for the other." What a carry-on. If I had been in power that would not have happened. We would have had a few more socialists on some of those bodies.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

Will the hon. Gentleman. te11 us whom the Labour Government appointed to be Her Majesty's ambassador in Washington and what relation he was of the Prime Minister of the day?

Mr. Skinner

It is well known that that was Peter Jay —[HON. MEMBERS: "Who was?"]—Jim Callaghan's son-in-law. [ Laughter.] I never considered him a socialist.

Mr. Riddick

Jim Callaghan?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is all very entertaining, but what has it got to do with the motion? Let us get back to the motion.

Mr. Skinner

I am asked all those questions arid I am expected to answer them, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I was talking about the fine line in the case of the former Chancellor of the Exchequer. There is another fine line to he drawn and that is why I believe the schedule should be examined afresh. We should consider the retrospective nature of what happens when former Ministers of the Crown and Members of the Cabinet become directors of privatised companies; in some cases they have taken the legislation to privatise those companies through the House of Commons. I am talking about water, electricity and so on. Nineteen former Tory Cabinet Ministers got 59 directorships between them, some of which were connected with the industries whose privatisation they had taken through the House of Commons. Those posts should be added to the schedule.

9.54 pm
Mr. David Davis

With the leave of the House, I thank hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, (Mr. Fisher), who have congratulated me on my appointment. I especially thank the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) for his compliments. I also wish to thank the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who I read in the weekend press, has been nominated for a ballroom dancing honour. I hope that he does well.

It is difficult to answer some of the questions that have been asked and still stay within order, but I will do my best. I shall start by referring to a previous debate. When I asked for some previous editions of Hansard, one of my officials wrote that, over the years, the debates have been less than colourful. We have changed that tonight. In 1983, Mr. Charles Morris said: a somewhat salutary thought for parliamentarians to note and remember, that, in a job where some might think madness and bankruptcy are distinct possibilities, perhaps occupational hazards, to come here with either involves an infringement of the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975."— [Official Report, 12 April 1983; Vol. 40, c. 766.] I think that he was right.

I say to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central that there is nothing in the amendment to alter the disqualification for bankruptcy. That disqualification comes under section 427 of the Insolvency Act 1986. There is nothing in the motion that changes that, nor am I aware of any intention to change it.

If the amendment introduced disqualification for the bankruptcy of ideas, the Opposition Benches would be rather vacant. In fact, they look rather vacant now.

Mr. Fisher

The record will show that all that the Minister said about the Lloyd's bankruptcy disqualification is that he had no knowledge of it, or that there was no intention. Could he give the House a categorical assurance that his Government will not change either the Insolvency Act or the 1975 Act to give any accommodation that might include Tory Members of Parliament made bankrupt by their dealings with the Lloyd's gambling den?

Mr. Davis

I do not think that people change laws on that basis anyway. The limit that I can give on anything is my knowledge of it, and I have given that.

It was suggested that over the years we have increased the number of quangos. In fact, in 1979 there were 2,167 quangos, whereas now there are 1,412. That puts it on a rather more even basis.

Mr. Cryer

Since the Minister has the figures, presumably in preparation for the debate, will he say how much money was administered by quangos in 1979 compared with today?

Mr. Davis

I do not have those figures. To take up a point that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Bolsover pursued, the purpose of this Act is to avoid even the appearance of any influence on Members of the House. It was disgraceful to suggest that Baroness Denton said that she appointed on a political basis. The important word in that statement was "knowingly". Appointments are made on merit and Ministers are not told of the applicant's political affiliation. It is not done on a "One for you, one for us" basis, which appears to have operated in the past. That was somewhat of an own goal.

The suggestion that the need for the Act is a characteristic of a Conservative Government misses one point. This is a 1975 Act. I cannot remember which party was in power then, but I do not think it was the Conservative party; it must have been the Labour party. That rather puts paid to that point, too. The whole point is to prevent there being even the appearance of what Opposition Members have asserted. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.


That Schedule 1 to the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 be amended as follows:—