§ Relevant document: First Report of the Committee of Privileges (HC27)
§ Madam Speaker
I have not selected the manuscript amendment that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) submitted to me. No doubt he will deploy the arguments used in that amendment in his speech this evening.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
I beg to move,That Mr. Tony Benn be discharged from the Committee of Privileges.The motion has been tabled in response to the first special report from the Committee of Privileges of 21 November. That report is very brief; I will read it to the House in full as it sets out both the background to the motion and the arguments for it. It says:At the meeting of the Committee of Privileges which took place on 1 November, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield, Mr. Tony Benn, drew attention to part of a speech he had made in the House on the previous day in which he had said:'Whatever the decision of the House or the Committee, I am no longer prepared to accept the present restrictions and if I return to attend future meetings of the Committee of Privileges it is my intention to issue my personal report of those proceedings that I attend. My reports will be based on notes made at meetings of the Privileges Committee and they will be as fair and accurate as I can make them. It will be for the House to determine how to deal with that matter, but I believe that I have a duty to make my own position plain in advance. I hope that the House will understand and respect my reasons for doing so.'
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Will the right hon. Gentleman's proposal this evening apply to future meetings of the Committee of Privileges on matters unrelated to this particular complaint?
§ Mr. Newton
That point will probably become clear from my subsequent remarks.
The report continues:Mr. Benn issued a summary of the meeting to the press and the public later that day. Your Committee recognises that the action taken by Mr. Benn was in consequence of his long-held belief that all proceedings of select committees whether deliberation or evidence should be open to the public. Whatever the merits or otherwise of this view we cannot condone Mr. Benn's action in publishing any report of a deliberative meeting. This is clearly contrary to the rules of the House which apply to all select committees and which only the House itself can change. Since Mr. Benn has declared his intention of summarising future meetings we have no alternative but to recommend to the House that he should be removed from the Committee forthwith.As the right hon. Gentleman fairly acknowledged in his speech on 31 October, it is for the House to determine how to deal with this matter.
No one disputes the right hon. Gentleman's integrity or the sincerity of his view that all Committee proceedings, including deliberation, should take place in public. For that reason, I can say for myself and, I suspect, for others, that it gives me no pleasure at all to move this motion.
I must, however, also say equally clearly that, like the Committee generally, I profoundly disagree with the position that the right hon. Gentleman has taken up. I must, of course, emphasise that the point at issue here is not—this may be the point that the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has in mind—whether the Committee 719 should take some or all of its evidence in public. The House has already reaffirmed that that is a matter for the Committee itself to decide.
Indeed, in a sense it is not even the issue whether the Committee should deliberate in public, although I must say for myself and, I suspect, many others, that I believe public deliberation—that is to say, discussion in public of how to proceed, of the content of evidence heard and of the conclusions to be drawn—would profoundly damage the search for consensus which is a key factor in the public standing and influence of our Select Committees generally.
§ Mr. Newton
May I complete my remarks? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to contribute to the debate.
The essential point of the Committee's report, which underlies the motion, is that the Standing Orders of the House contain no provision for any Select Committee to undertake such deliberation in public. The House can, of course, change its rules on that, or any other matter, if it wishes, although I think that most hon. Members would agree that such a change could sensibly be contemplated, let alone made, only after a very thorough discussion of all the arguments, including the effects on the work of Select Committees.
§ Mr. Madden
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene as I do not intend to speak in the debate, but merely wish to ask a question before he concludes his remarks. For the benefit of the House, can he give us a clear sign whether he is giving a commitment that the evidence given to the Privileges Committee will be published without undue delay? Also, if any deletions are made, who would be authorised to make them?
§ Mr. Newton
It has been generally accepted—certainly it was indicated on behalf of the Committee—that every expectation is that all the evidence heard would be published, subject only to excisions, which the Committee would have to agree, for example, relating to court proceedings or to what might be construed in some senses as the irresponsible use of the privilege of the Committee to make allegations against other persons for which there appeared to be no foundation. The presumption is that the evidence would be published in full. Any decision to do otherwise would have to be taken by the Committee. I hope that that is clear.
§ Mr. Skinner
In the past 20 years, many changes have been made in Parliament—starting with the Register of Members' Interests and, more recently, televising this place. Why do the Leader of the House and his friends want to keep to that old-fashioned view about Committees meeting in private? Is it not time that they came up to date?
§ Mr. Newton
May I answer first, rather than be drawn into serial interventions, and then I will gladly give way to my hon. Friend.
720 I hope that it is clear to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who has undoubtedly studied the report of the Committee's deliberations—the votes that took place on various motions—that the view that he attributed to me, as if I were expressing it on behalf of the Government, was widely shared by the majority of Committee members. I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson).
§ Mr. Newton
Meanwhile, in the absence of any such changes being made by the House, surely it must be clear that such a change ought not to be brought about by one right hon. Member, however distinguished and sincere, deciding to substitute his rules for those of the House.
The Select Committee on Privileges has been asked to deal with serious issues relating to the conduct of hon. Members and the reputation of this House. It is important for the House as a whole that the Committee should make progress with its inquiries and agree a report. The Committee has found itself unable to make progress until the confidentiality of its deliberations can be assured. It has accordingly asked the House to change its membership and the motion that we are debating has been moved at the Committee's request. For that reason, I ask right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the motion.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I am grateful to the Leader of the House for the spirit in which he moved the motion and the words that he used. I ask the indulgence of the House to allow me to present a different case, which raises important constitutional questions.
The motion before the House is very simple—that I be removed from the Select Committee on Privileges on the grounds that I have written reports about the deliberations of that Committee. If the matter were as simple as that—my replacement by someone else—it would not warrant a debate, for many other Members of the House are as well or better qualified to sit on the Privileges Committee, and I make no special claim on my own behalf.
The real issue that we are debating, however, is very different, and the Leader of the House touched on it. It is whether the House should in this case reaffirm its existing practice that no report should ever be published which deals with the deliberations of the Privileges Committee. I hope to persuade the House to reconsider the matter by voting against the motion that the Leader of the House has moved. I regret the fact that the debate has come so late, as I think it raises an important matter.
May I first deal with some preliminary questions which Members are entitled to have disposed of? First, a vote against the motion is in no sense a vote against the Speaker. The Speaker asked for a report to be made to allow the House to reach its decisions in an orderly manner, and the Speaker is in no way committed to the recommendations of the Procedure Committee.
Secondly, it is a House of Commons matter, and it can be decided on its merits. The Leader of the House referred to voting, and I should like to make the same point. Three of my longest-serving Labour parliamentary colleagues voted to remove me, and Conservative Members should be quite free to reach an independent judgment on the matter.
721 Thirdly, the House can amend, and has amended, Privileges Committee reports, and the House is under no obligation whatever to accept the report of the Committee. For example, in 1986—I was on the Privileges Committee then, as I have been for 10 years—there was a leak from the Environment Select Committee, and the Privileges Committee recommended that Richard Evans, the Lobby correspondent of The Times, should have his Lobby pass withdrawn for six months.
As a member of the Committee, I voted against the recommendation, and I tabled an amendment which read:Your Committee thinks it right to recommend to the House that all proceedings of Select Committees should be exempted from any protection of privilege, and that all such Select Committees be advised to conduct their business in open session and to make all their papers public when they are sent to Honourable members.At least my position on the matter is a consistent one.
When the report was brought to the House, it was defeated following an amendment by the right hon. and learned Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). I participated in that debate, and I have looked at the people who voted against the Privileges Committee report. They included Mrs. Thatcher, Michael Foot, the then leader of the Liberal party, the present leader of the Labour party and two members of the Privileges Committee—the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson), who has just intervened, and the hon. Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell). Therefore, there is a clear precedent for the Committee to have its recommendations rejected.
The fourth preliminary point which I want to clear away before I come to my argument relates to reports being issued. I was not arguing in Committee about the openness of evidence, although I believe that there should be openness, but that reports should be issued after each meeting of the Committee under the auspices of the Clerk of the House.
The draft report which I moved—which the Committee rejected—very simply said:That minutes of each meeting, covering the evidence and the deliberations of the Committee, should be prepared by an official reporter, under the supervision of the Clerk of the Committee and published as soon as possible … That individual members of the Committee should be free to comment on those proceedings as is the case with the proceedings in the House itself.Hon. Members may wonder what will happen if the House tonight rejects the Privileges Committee report. The answer is simple—the Privileges Committee will have to think again, as it did in earlier cases. But it is open to us tonight to change the procedure if we decide to reject the report. I hope that the Leader of the House will not tell us that the procedure is so tight that even a vote tonight against the motion cannot change it. Of course it can, and that is why I am speaking at some depth on the matter.
I shall briefly recall to the House the background to the events, although I am sure that everybody is familiar with them. In July, after reports appeared in the press about the alleged payment of money to hon. Members in return for asking parliamentary questions, the House referred the matter to the Privileges Committee. As the senior member of the Committee, it was my duty to summon the Committee, which I did. I moved the Leader of the House into the Chair in accordance with practice, and he will 722 recall that the Committee had to adjourn rather prematurely because it had no authority to sit doing the summer recess.
At that meeting, I argued the point that I am now making—that the Committee should take evidence in public and deliberate in public. But the Committee decided to defer a decision on the matter until after the recess. On 18 October, the Committee met again, and the matter of holding evidence in public was put before the Committee. On the Chairman's casting vote—about which I make no complaint, as it was his casting vote—the Committee decided not to hear evidence in public.
On 31 October, in the light of the Committee's decision, the Opposition moved that that decision be reversed. During the course of that debate, I made the statement, which the Leader of the House quoted tonight, that I intended to publish a report of the Committee's proceedings. I do not believe in the leaking and briefing that characterises this place, where a quiet word is had in the Corridor. If you want to say it, publish it—that is the principle on which I have tried to operate.
I acted openly and honestly. I said that I would publish a report; I circulated a note to that effect to members of the Committee, as the right hon. Gentleman will remember. I was asked at a meeting of the Committee whether I intended to publish such a report. I said that I did, and I did it. I gave it to the Speaker; I gave it to the Clerk—I brought the very first copy to him—and I put it in the Library. It is still in the Library for anyone who wants to read it.
No member of the Committee complained about the accuracy of what I had written. One Government Member actually complimented me on having produced a "fair and balanced" report, which was the best that I could do.
On 2 November, Madam Speaker, without being triggered by a special question, announced that she thought that the matter was so important that the Committee should report on it. That is the basis of the report now before the House. On 21 November, the Committee met and recommended that I be removed from the Committee. That is the basis of the motion before us.
The real issue is not about me in any sense; it is about whether deliberations on this issue should be held in private. I should like to rehearse the arguments for secrecy so that hon. Members realise that I have addressed them with some seriousness.
The first argument is that the Committee of Privileges has always deliberated in secret, as have other Select Committees. The question before us is whether the Committee of Privileges should deliberate in secret in this case—I hope to show the reasons against such secrecy.
The second argument in favour of secrecy is that it would be unfair to witnesses for the Committee to be held in public. Many witnesses, however, would want to heard in public—perhaps the Committee would not want to hear them, but I will not go into that now.
The third argument is that public hearings would make a media circus of the proceedings. For heaven's sake, what have we had but a media circus on this matter from the very beginning? The fourth argument is that public hearings might lead to a breach of natural justice. I heard one hon. Member describe the editor of The Guardian as a "whore out of hell" under the protection of privilege. If natural justice is breached, it can be breached in the House as well.
723 The fifth argument in favour of secrecy is that the evidence would be published later, so what does it matter? Under present practice, however, the deliberations of the Committee will never be reported.
The sixth argument, the most extraordinary one of all, was put by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who said that members of the Committee would not feel free to speak their minds if they knew that they were to be reported. The House has debated the matter twice, on 13 July and 31 October, and I never saw any sign of hon. Members being inhibited from commenting. In this case, there cannot be a difference between the Privileges Committee and the House.
People think that it is the evidence presented to the Committee of Privileges which is interesting; for my part, it is not. What is interesting is how senior Members of the House approach the problem before them. From the point of view of the public, it is an understanding of the workings of the Committee which I have always found so interesting and which makes me rather sorry that I may not remain as a member of that Committee.
I do not accept any of the arguments for secrecy. Reports are often made about discussions of other Committees, even Cabinet committees—what was Bernard Ingham doing for years but briefing people on what had happened? Indeed, some Labour party committees of which I have been a member have very occasionally leaked. I cannot really accept that the need for secrecy is a valid argument. Why should the Committee of Privileges be so uniquely protected?
I believe that the issue before us is of unique importance, and it is uniquely important that the public should know what individual members of the Committee say about issues before it, as well as hearing their conclusion.
The Nolan committee, which the Prime Minister announced, will cover much of the same ground as the Committee of Privileges, including the secondary part of our inquiries. I understand that it will be holding public hearings, and I hope to give evidence to it.
I come now to the cases before the Committee. The media had been, and have been, publishing reports that suggested that there may have been bribery, corruption, fraud, blackmail and forgery involving Members, directly or indirectly. I do not know whether those allegations are true, but one thing is certain; those charges have gravely damaged the democratic process, and I shall tell the House why. Some of our constituents may now be wondering whether, when they elect Members of Parliament to represent them, some of the Members that they have elected—only a tiny minority, but some of them—may have been using their position not to represent their constituents but to peddle their influence for money.
That is what makes it a uniquely important question. Were such a suspicion to become widespread—I very much hope that it would not—it could completely undermine the basis of trust between the electors and Members of Parliament. I think, and I say to the House, that it must face the fact that there is legitimate concern on that score—a concern that is deepened by the apparent determination of the House not to allow its deliberations to be known.
I shall now discuss another aspect of the matter. 'That is that there is in this case a straight conflict of loyalty between our duty as Members of Parliament to those 724 people who elected us, and our obligations to follow the conventions of the House. Parliament cannot survive if it is a closed little club to which all Members of Parliament are supposed to transfer their allegiance as soon as they come here, because it is a fact that our first responsibility must be to those people who sent us here. I think that, if we subordinated that responsibility to ancient conventions of the House, we should be betraying the trust put in us by those who elected us.
If I were to accept the conventions that the House apparently wishes to impose again tonight, consider what I would be doing. If someone wrote to me from Chesterfield and asked, "What is being said on the Committee about these cases?" I would say, "I cannot tell you." Even if they said to me, "What are you saying on the Committee? Tell me", I could not tell them, because the restrictions cover my own reporting of my own comments in the Committee.
How can I possibly accept such a restriction? The right—[Laughter] I am sorry, but that is the view. Hon. Members can laugh; they often do laugh, and I shall come to some examples of the punishment that they have imposed on people who have tried to argue that case in earlier centuries.
It would be a wholly unacceptable limitation, not on my rights—I have no rights in the matter—but on the rights of those who elected me, to know what is being done in their name. With all the talk about free—
§ Mr. Benn
I shall just finish this paragraph; then I shall give way.
With all the talk about open government and freedom of information and league tables, is the House of Commons Privileges Committee to say that it will not move? I think that the House had better take seriously the arguments that I am putting forward, because they are serious arguments and I believe that they are very widely shared by a lot of people, judging by the enormous amount of mail that I have had on the matter, from many people who have said, "We have never agreed with anything that you have ever said before in your life, but on this question, we believe that you are right."
§ Sir John Gorst
What is the difference between the example that the right hon. Gentleman has given and, for example, a constituent of the Prime Minister asking him to reveal what took place in Cabinet? It might be argued that, after all, he elected the Prime Minister; why should not the Prime Minister have the same obligation to him as the right hon. Gentleman claims for his constituents?
§ Mr. Benn
All Prime Ministers employ hundreds of press officers to tell their constituents what a marvellous job they are doing. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh".] Well, one has to accept the fact. However, there is a total difference: between the two cases. If one is here as a Member of Parliament representing one's constituency on a House of Commons matter, one's duty is to them. If one is the Head of a Government, one has to justify what one's Government have done. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made an error.
I now come, if I may, to the attitude to the cases that are before the Committee. First, there are different ways to consider how the matter should be approached. The first way is trial by media. Stories of sleaze and scandal 725 may help to sell newspapers and boost circulation, and I suspect that that is why they have had such extensive coverage, but that is no basis for tackling the matter.
Secondly, there could be trial by Members of Parliament. There is another view, which I think may have influenced some of my colleagues—it even came out in part in the speech of the Leader of the House—that the House of Commons should somehow proceed as quickly as possible to deal with the matter. I think that some Opposition Members think that what I have done is to delay their opportunity to expose some Government Members for political advantage.
I do not take that view. As I shall show, the matter should not be handled by the Committee of Privileges at all. I believe that what is at issue is the reputation of the House of Commons as a whole. The most serious criticism of all that can be levelled in relation to this subject is against the House for setting such low standards and for failing to maintain them, raise them or do anything about the problem.
On the subject of individual Members, as I told the Leader of the House, I am not a muck raker by instinct. I am not so interested in what hon. Members have or have not done, but I am interested in how the House of Commons could have allowed a situation to develop in which it is apparently possible for such things to be done within the standards that we have accepted.
I shall tell the House what I believe the Committee should do, as I might not be there to argue the case when the report is made. First, the House should decide that service in the House of Commons is a public service, and that the use of parliamentary influence in return for payment should itself be treated as a breach of privilege.
Secondly, the principles that underlie the rules applying to Ministers—which apply to the Leader of the House and which applied to me for 11 years—should, with suitable amendments, be applicable to every Member of Parliament. One of those principles is that there should be no conflict between the private interests of Members and their public duty.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Does what the right hon. Gentleman is now relating to the House fall within the terms of the motion?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
It is going fairly wide, but I trust that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will keep within the terms of the order.
§ Mr. Benn
Madam Deputy Speaker, not only am I not going wide of the order, but I am giving reasons why I should not be removed from the Committee of Privileges by saying what I believe the Committee should do in the circumstances. That is why I should like to serve on the Committee, and that is what I would say were I on it.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and I am glad to see that he is wearing his Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve tie. I am listening carefully to what he is saying—as, I am sure, are all hon. Members, because we all care as deeply as he does about the way we conduct our proceedings.
726 First, is the right hon. Gentleman saying that if, in future, an hon. Member writes regular columns for a newspaper and uses material to which he has had access because he is a Member of the House, that would be excluded? Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some Conservative Members, myself included, wrote to the Speaker to ask for the matter to be referred to the Committee of Privileges because of the behaviour of the newspaper person who came here? If so, has the right hon. Gentleman taken that on board in his considerations?
§ Mr. Benn
Peddling one's position as a Member of Parliament to buy political influence for a private employer is totally different from the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. If the hon. Gentleman takes that view, it is permissible—all my papers have been given to the British library in any case—[Interruption.] If that is his argument, I do not think that it merits any serious consideration—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Benn
Thirdly, the powers to investigate hon. Members who breach the rules should be transferred to a court, as happens with contested election petitions. The House may know that, in the 19th century, when an election was contested or bribery was alleged, an election committee, like the Committee of Privileges, would meet. But that election committee always voted with the majority party in the House, and the House wisely decided to transfer the power to judges in an election court. Two judges sat without a jury and reported to the House, which acted on their report. The matter under discussion should be dealt with in the same way.
Legislation should be introduced to enforce the rules by extending the list of offices that lead to disqualification—from Government contractors to those who peddle their influence for money. That should be dealt with by statute. It should be illegal for any outside organisation to pay Members to exercise their influence in the way that has been alleged. If I paid an elector to vote for me, I would be guilty of bribery and would be unseated from this House. I see no difference—
§ Mr. Devlin
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Seriously, this is not in order. The motion relates to whether the right hon. Gentleman should be discharged from the Committee. I am sure that we are all fascinated by what the right hon. Gentleman has to say about how Parliament should be run, but surely that is a proper subject for a newspaper article, not for this debate?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Before the right hon. Gentleman continues—[Interruption.] I do not expect hon. Members to intervene when I—or any other hon. Member—am speaking. The right hon. Gentleman has certainly been deploying his case in some detail. I hope 727 now that he will stick rather more closely to the terms of the motion, also bearing in mind the fact that this is a short debate, and that others will wish to speak in it.
§ Mr. Skinner
Further to the point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend is putting a case in defence of remaining on the Committee. In the process, he is being threatened by Tory Members, and seemingly by you, with the idea that, if he does not shut up, he will be gagged. That says something about this place, that does.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
By long-standing practice, our speeches should be relevant in this place. While it is perfectly permissible to sketch in some background, it is a different matter when the background becomes the foreground.
§ Mr. Benn
I do not want to fall out with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am explaining how the contribution that I wish to make to the Privileges Committee justifies my remaining on that Committee.
I shall finish with the recommendation that I shall make to the Nolan committee, if it will hear me, even if I am thrown off the Committee of Privileges. In addition to the Register of Members' Interests, I believe that every parliamentary candidate should register his interests, and returning officers should send those interests out to every elector with the polling cards, so that people can know these things before they vote.
If the motion to remove me is agreed to, I shall still be able to submit the same points to the Nolan committee, and I shall also be allowed to speak once the Privileges Committee report is finally published.
It is for the House to decide what to do about the actions that I have taken. If it decides to remove me, I shall make no complaint. I ask for no special favours. If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of the same offence that has been repeated century after century when people have tried to bring the activities of Parliament to public attention. In the 17th century, Members who circulated their own speeches made in Parliament were punished. Dr. Johnson never came to the House: he bribed officials to help him write his parliamentary reports. Cobbett and Hansard were put in prison.
The truth is—I know it is painful for the House to recognise—that most of the improvements to our democracy have been made by people on principle breaking the rules. I hope that the House will be persuaded to change—
§ Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
All this was surely just as true when the right hon. Gentleman first joined the Privileges Committee. The rules on secrecy were exactly the same then, so why has it taken him all these years to make this stand?
§ Mr. Benn
I shall give the hon. Lady the simple reason. There has never been a case of bribery, fraud, corruption, blackmail and forgery brought before the Committee until 728 this date. The hon. Lady spoke about breaking the rules. She would not have the vote if the Pankhursts had not chained themselves to the railings.
The House often has to face the fact that unfair rules are contested. My experience of the political process is that the last people to get the message are those in the House of Commons itself. The message is fully understood. The hon. Lady would not have the vote but for the suffragettes. In a modest and non-controversial way, I am pushing the conventions.
§ Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)
I had not intended to intervene in the debate, although I shall support my right hon. Friend. I am a little worried about the line that he is taking of a one-man campaign against the abuse of this place and the ineffectiveness of the Committee. I remind the House that other people on the Select Committee feel just as strongly, and take the line that the proceedings should be in public. I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend for taking that line, as long as he makes it quite clear that he is not the only one on the Committee who holds a principle and has a judgment on how this place and the Committee should be run.
§ Mr. Benn
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for voting for me, but they are not trying to remove him from the Committee. I have to defend myself because mine is the only name on the Order Paper. My hon. Friend wanted to resign from the Committee, but I was opposed to that because I believe that one should stay on and fight one's corner. That is the difference between us, and it is an appropriate point.
Constitutional reform is moving to the top of the political agenda, and the House might inch cautiously towards a reform of its own procedures. If the House decides to retreat again behind the traditional practice of deliberating in secret, it will be a great mistake and will damage the House.
Hon. Members will have to decide on a free vote. I say openly to the House that I would not feel able to continue to be a member of the Privileges Committee if it was to be a condition of my membership that the practice of secrecy was to be maintained and I could not tell my constituents what I was saying in the Committee.
§ Dr. Spink
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made accusations of crimes and corruption such as fraud and blackmail which be believes have taken place. If he believes that and does not come to the Committee with an open mind, would he be a proper person to sit on the Committee?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
If I had thought that the right hon Gentleman was out of order when he made the point, I would have intervened.
§ Mr. Benn
The hon. Gentleman was not listening. said "charges" of bribery, fraud and blackmail, and expressed no judgment on the matter. I have not associated myself with any of them.
729 For all the reasons that I have given, I ask hon. Members to reject the motion, and invite the Committee of Privileges to think again about a matter that may be rather more serious for our electors than the House itself seems ready to accept.
§ Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)
On 2 November Madam Speaker stressed that the behaviour of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) had implications that were of great importance for Select Committees generally. Therefore, I should like to speak on that matter, because as Chairman of the Liaison Committee I entirely agree with Madam Speaker and feel bound to say that the view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman has many dangers.
Much of what the right hon. Gentleman said was not to the point, which is simply whether Select Committees deliberate in public and in particular whether the actions of one member should be allowed to override the decision of the Committee and the rules of the House. He put forward various reasons why he thought that should be so.
In many ways this is a sad occasion, because the right hon. Gentleman has done great service to the House. I can think of no one who, in listening to some of his speeches, has given me more delight. He has a keen mind. However, I feel bound to say that on this occasion he is fundamentally and profoundly wrong.
It is important that hon. Members should be allowed to deliberate in private, for the simple reason that they may change their minds. They may be persuaded by the arguments. When the right hon. Gentleman goes into a Committee it is virtually inconceivable that during the course of the deliberations he may change his mind.
The real point that I want to make is that it is through deliberations in private that Committees reach a consensus. The reality is that over recent years we have introduced a system of departmentally related Select Committee which have been a great improvement in getting the Government called to account. One of the strengths of those Committees has been the fact that they have produced unanimous reports. We all know that a Committee's report is far more likely to have influence and to call the Government to account if it is unanimous than if it splits along party lines.
It is a difficult process. Hon. Members have to listen to all the arguments in the light of the evidence they have taken, very often in public, and then weigh the arguments and persuade each other of the right outcome.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a number of hon. Members, including me, who believe, and voted accordingly, that the Committee should be open to the press and public, nevertheless accept—and here I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—that its deliberations should be in private, and for very much the reasons stated by the right hon. Gentleman?
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there are those of us who strongly believe, no less so than my right hon. Friend, that the proceedings should be in public, but equally strongly believe that to have the deliberations and the reaching of conclusions in public would be like a jury 730 reaching its decision in public? I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands the distinction between the two views.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
The hon. Gentleman and I are reaching a consensus, and one which I hope is widespread throughout the House—so much so that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield is alone in the position he holds.
Committees must reach a consensus and it would be difficult to do so in public, not least because very often the view, the process and the consensus are not what the Government want. We do not really want the Whips listening to every word said during the deliberations.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The right hon. Gentleman said that he would not necessarily like the Whips to listen. May I put to him a problem in the Select Committee on Members' Interests? A Whip has now been appointed to that Committee. Its very credibility is completely undermined. Will he oppose that appointment?
§ Sir Terence Higgins
That is a separate issue that the House might wish to consider. I feel bound to say to the hon. Gentleman— [Interruption.] Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. As the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has just intervened, I do not now expect a sedentary intervention from him.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
The hon. Gentleman made an important point that the House might wish to consider on another occasion. I have considerable sympathy for his view.
Much of what the right hon. Member for Chesterfield said related to and was a repetition of what was said in the debate on whether the Privileges Committee should take evidence in public. It did not relate to whether the Committee should deliberate in public. The right hon. Gentleman takes a partisan view about everything.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what is wrong with that: this House does not carry out its duty as effectively and efficiently as it should if all its work is done on a party political basis. It is not true to say that there are no issues on which we can reach a consensus, and everything must be done on a party political basis. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) both take that view, but I do not share it. The House does not carry out its democratic duties as efficiently if it decides that everything must be done on a straight—I feel bound to use the word "hack"—party political line. The operation of Committees has been much more effective as a result of reaching a consensus.
The rules of the House have been refined over many years, so there is much to be said for them. At the same time, if there is to be a change, the House must debate it and reach a conclusion on it. But the right hon. Gentleman sought effectively to hold the Committee and the House to ransom. Whatever else the House and the Committee might want to decide, the right hon. Gentleman thinks that his views should prevail. That is not a modest approach to the issue. Once the House has considered the matter, as it should, it will conclude that the arguments for continuing to deliberate in private are extremely strong—in my view, they are overwhelming.
731 Those who truly have the House's interests at heart will not take the view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman this evening. It is right that the House should vote in favour of the motion and he should be removed from the Committee, sad though I find it, because few people have made such a notable contribution to the House.
§ 11.6 pm
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)
I wish to make just a few observations on the motion, without discussing the specific case with which the Privileges Committee is currently dealing.
I much regret the fact that the House must debate this motion and that the Privileges Committee has found it necessary to refer the matter to the House. I regret the fact that the position of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has become the focus of attention, rather than the normal workings of the Privileges Committee and the serious allegations into which it should have been inquiring before now. Everybody should regret the delay that has taken place between July and this issue now coming to light, given that the Committee has not yet had an occasion on which to examine the substantive issue. Had the House accepted the motion which we tabled on 31 October, this would not have arisen and it would not have been necessary to debate the motion moved by the Lord President.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
I welcome what the hon. Lady has said so far. We are in danger of fighting the last battle in the wrong ditch. Much of what has been said this evening has ensured that the scent has gone cold in terms of the original allegations about which the House should be concerned.
The hon. Lady says that we could have united on the Labour party motion, on which I agreed with her and for which I voted at the time. Did not that distinguish between evidence sessions and deliberative sessions? That is the point before the House tonight, but we are now being invited to open up the whole proceedings, including the deliberative sessions, on which there is no unanimity.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman is right, and I remind the House that the motion that we tabled suggested that the Committee of Privileges should exercise its power under Standing Order No. 108, so that when examining witnesses it would sit in public except for clear and compelling reasons. Our motion did not ask for the Committee's deliberations to be in public—although in fairness to my right hon. Friend, he made his personal position clear in the debate on that motion.
If the House had accepted that motion, the Committee would have been able to reach agreement and my right hon. Friend would not have been moved to issue the document that he did, following the first sitting of the Committee.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made it clear throughout the Committee's deliberations that he would not accept anything short of its deliberations being made public—and the right hon. Gentleman has followed that independent line. Who is to say that he would not have gone down that road even if the House had accepted the motion?
§ Mrs. Taylor
Some of us are at a disadvantage because we are not members of the Committee of Privileges, and 732 the whole House is at a disadvantage because of the ruling that we cannot be party to all the Committee's decisions and discussions. If the House had accepted the motion on 31 October, the atmosphere in which the Committee operated would have been different and less divisive, and it would not have become a partisan issue.
I share the regret expressed by the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) that there was united opposition to the motion on the Government Benches. We tabled the motion in the hope of securing recognition of the validity of our argument, not to divide parties. We tried to be reasonable, and if that motion had been passed and evidence was taken in public, the whole issue might not have arisen.
§ Sir Terence Higgins
I did not make the remarks that the hon. Lady attributed to me. I clearly expressed the opposite view.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I confused the right hon. Gentleman with the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer).
The totality of opposition among Government Members to the 31 October motion made this a partisan issue, and that has not proved beneficial to the subsequent work of the Committee of Privileges or to subsequent debates on the Floor of the House.
It is unfortunate that the basic allegations that are the subject of the Committee's inquiries and public concern about them have been pushed to one side and that my right hon. Friend has become the focus of attention.
§ Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking)
The allegations have been pushed to one side only because the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) insisted on being the focus of attention. If he had kept quiet, we could have got on perfectly well.
§ Mrs. Taylor
If our motion had been agreed to on 31 October, the allegations would have been discussed much more quickly.
My right hon. Friend's conduct and decisions were undertaken without consulting my right hon. and hon. Friends, but I respect my right hon. Friend. As others have said, he has strong feelings and a strong feel for parliamentary traditions. He also understands well that it is sometimes necessary to kick at those traditions to bring about change. The question before the House is whether my right hon. Friend's unilateral action justified delaying the Committee's inquiries, which was the consequence of his action.
It is difficult to determine the Committee's position because its members are not allowed to leak its discussions. I understand, however, that the Committee of Privileges has not yet finalised its decisions on how to proceed with the examination of witnesses, nor has it excluded the possibility of hearing witnesses in public. If that is indeed the case, my right hon. Friend's actions have been pre-emptive, in that he has not exhausted all the opportunities to ensure that the Committee meets in public for at least part of the time.
As for the debate about whether the Committee's deliberations as well as its taking of evidence should be public, I should make my position clear. I believe that evidence of the kind that the Committee of Privileges will need to take should, whenever possible, be taken in public. That was the essence of the motion that we tabled 733 at the end of October—although we made provision for the Committee to hear evidence in private if there was good and compelling reason for it to do so.
Personally, I do not think it best for the deliberations of a Select Committee to take place in public. I support the view expressed a few moments ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick): I think that the position is very similar to that involving juries, and I do not think that it would be helpful to the workings of Committees to make their deliberations public.
§ Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby)
Will my hon. Friend make an exception? Let us suppose that a vote was taken during a deliberative Committee meeting. Could I tell my constituents that during a meeting of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, when we discussed the Pergau issue, I voted in favour of Lady Thatcher and Charles Powell being brought before the Committee? Does my hon. Friend agree that, if a partisan vote takes place in a Committee, it should be published?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I think my hon. Friend will know that votes taken on such Committees are made public—although not necessarily immediately; that may be his point. Certainly the deliberations of such Committees are not made public, and I feel that that might inhibit valuable discussion.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said that tonight's vote should be a matter for the House, not a question of party affiliation. I think that his comments about the way in which his colleagues have already voted on the question of his remaining a member of the Committee show that Opposition Members on the Committee did not treat this as a partisan matter, and I believe that they will not do so this evening. Opposition Members view this as a genuinely free vote, and I hope that Conservative Members will approach it in the same way—although I must say that there has been some disappointment about the unanimity of their voting on all issues relating to the Committee of Privileges in recent months.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield pointed out that the House was not obliged to accept a report from the Committee of Privileges. That is true, as were other technical comments that he made, but I take issue with one of his remarks: he said that if the House supported the motion, no reports dealing with deliberations should ever be published. Whatever the outcome of tonight's vote, the House can always make that decision at any subsequent date, and can always recommend to any Select Committee—including the Committee of Privileges—that such deliberations should be made public in future.
My right hon. Friend has drawn a distinction between the conventions of the House and the interests of those who elect us. I do not think that there always has to be such a distinction. My right hon. Friend had not exhausted all the possible ways to get part of what he wanted out of the Committee of Privileges—the part of our resolution moved on 31 October relating to the examination of evidence in public. I still believe that that is the most important objective. I know that my right hon. Friend, who has raised some serious issues, wants to ensure that the public interest is defended, but, although I sympathise 734 with his intention, I cannot support his tactics. He has not explored all the possibilities for getting what is in the public interest.
It would be overridingly in the public interest to have the relevant parts of the Privileges Committee sitting in public. I am afraid that my right hon. Friend's actions have not helped to achieve that objective. The Privileges Committee has not reached a final decision and I still hope that it will be able to consider the widespread anxiety outside the House about the allegations, the issues raised in the debate on 31 October and the possibility of taking at least some evidence in public in order to restore public confidence in the Privileges Committee and in the House.
§ Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)
We have a curious situation. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is recognised as a distinguished, if at times eccentric, parliamentarian. This is one of his eccentricities. He is in this place because he was democratically elected with a majority of 6,414 by the electors in his constituency. He accepted that it was right that the views of a majority of them should prevail and send him to this place, just as each of us has been sent here by a majority of our electors.
The right hon. Gentleman arrives in this place by a democratic process but then behaves as an autocrat—all but he must abide by the majority decision. He is part of a Committee that the House democratically agreed under its rules should deliberate in private. The right hon. Gentleman accepts democracy when it suits him but rejects it when it suits him. That is the road to anarchy,
§ Sir David Mitchell
I shall not be long; the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker.
As I said, that is the road to anarchy. If we vote tonight—and it looks as if we shall—on whether to remove the right hon. Gentleman from the Committee, I shall vote in favour but with great regret because I think that the Committee would have been all the better for having the benefit of his advice. However, he cannot come to the Committee having been elected as a democrat and then not abide by the democratic process.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
I greatly regret the withdrawal or loss of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) from the Select Committee on Privileges, not least because he enlivens its proceedings and, more important, brings to its deliberations his intelligence and his talents and great experience as a parliamentarian. The Committee will be the poorer for his loss.
The central point, however, is a simple one: there is a division, still unresolved, among members of the Committee as to whether we should take evidence in public. It is no secret that that that is the view taken by members of my party. We have very strong views about that. Making committee deliberations public is a minority view. I think that my right hon. Friend, who normally approaches matters with great clarity, confused the two issues in his speech. We all know that it is common 735 practice for Select Committees to hear evidence in public, but I know of no Select Committee—let alone the Privileges Committee— which deliberates in public.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Nolan Committee in order to bolster his case, but he has not done that. I am a member of the Nolan Committee and I hope that most of the Committee's evidence will be heard in public— I am sure that is what Lord Nolan would wish—but there has been no suggestion that the Committee should deliberate in public and, so far as I know, we have no intention of so doing.
Although analogies are very difficult in this area, I think that the courts and the trial process offer at least a rough guide. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, evidence is taken from witnesses in public, and that is as it should be, but when the jury retires there is no report of the discussion that takes place. Common sense dictates that certain issues should be discussed with others privately in the hope of having a very frank exchange and reaching agreement.
In conclusion, to mix up the two issues is to do the House a disservice. The issue of whether witnesses should be heard in public is quite separate from the issue of whether Committees' deliberations should be reported as they proceed—let alone that members of the Privileges Committee should be entitled to make a running commentary on the proceedings as they develop.
§ Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)
I am particularly sorry that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who I think is the oldest serving Privy Councillor in the House, should find himself in dispute with a Committee on which he has served for 12 years. He has never found it necessary to make this point before now.
The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) suggested how the vote on the matter should proceed, and I think that all hon. Members agree with her. Everyone wants it to proceed as quickly as possible—not least the people concerned, who have obviously had a very unpleasant time while the matter has been hanging over their heads.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield tried to raise emotions about the matter by comparing it with Hansard or Mrs. Pankhurst. That is somewhat ridiculous, to put it mildly. There is a difference between the way in which Select Committees work and the way in which matters on the Floor of the House operate. On the Floor of the House there is an obvious political divide which is seen time and again in the Division Lobbies.
I have served on Select Committees and I have been Chairman of the Procedure Committee for the past 12 years. It is amazing how much members of a Select Committee work together to try to produce a completely unanimous report, because they know that such a report will have a specific effect. There is a great difference between the political operation of proceedings on the Floor of the House and the operation of Select Committees upstairs.
§ Mr. Bill Michie
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why, when we debated and voted on whether parts of the Select Committee's investigation should be made public, on a tied vote, the Committee Chairman gave status quo as a reason for voting to keep the investigation private? As as I understand it, there is no status quo for a Select 736 Committee. There is certainly no politics involved. To this day, it has never been explained to me why the Chairman took that view.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I believe that I speak with some little authority on this. On the whole—I do not say without exception—the Chairman of a Committee will vote in one of two ways. He will vote either to have the matter heard again or to stay with the way in which the matter has proceeded until that moment. I cannot tell what was in the mind of the Chairman—the hon. Gentleman must ask him and not me—but those are the two matters that a Chairman would normally take into account.
I need not go over the difference between the taking of evidence and a Committee's deliberations. That has already been thoroughly debated. There are, however, times when all the evidence should not be taken in public, especially if, as may well have been the case in this Committee, one wants to cross-question a witness at some length. It seems, therefore, much more sensible not to have half the evidence come out when there is still as much cross-examination again to take place at a later sitting. That problem is real and must be considered. It must be understood, however, that the Committee can decide: the House should not be the decider of that matter—it should be left to the Committee, the people considering the situation, to decide.
That point leads me to one of the most deliberately misleading points in the speech by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. He has suggested that there is a degree of secrecy and he seems to feel that something is going to be covered up. In my judgment, that is not the way in which the Committee of Privileges has worked in the past. In previous reports from the Committee of Privileges, the evidence has been published and the cross-questioning has been published. The public have been able to see exactly what has gone on in the evidence-taking.
§ Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman has used the word "see". The relevant word is "read", not "see". We are talking about "reading" as well as about "seeing" and "hearing".
§ Sir Peter Emery
I am willing to be taken to task on that matter. I am saying that members of the public can see in the writings and the publications exactly what has taken place. There is no secrecy or no cover-up in that. That is the major point. There is no way in which the House will stop a debate on the report. It will come to the House and will be debated fully. I have no doubt that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield will speak again in that debate. He will have that right and nobody will stop him from doing so.
The Select Committee on Procedure has looked at the matter in a slightly different way. It has considered not the deliberate leaking of information by a member of a Committee, but the unofficial leaking of matters considered by the Committee and the deliberations of a Committee. Paragraph 225 of the report, "The Workings of the Select Committee System," from the 1989–90 Session says:publication causes even more immediate harm, in that it can affect the way in which the Committee subsequently deals with the Report. Sometimes that is exactly the intended effect—motivated perhaps by a desire to marshal support for, or more likely against, an individual recommendation or set of conclusions. On other occasions the aim of a leak may be to ensure that a particular extract from a draft 737 Report … will leave the desired political impression on the public consciousness, an impression which may not be erased when the Report is eventually published formally.Paragraph 226 of the report states:leaks … are subversive of the Select Committee system as a whole and are therefore, quite apart from being wrong in principle, extremely short-sighted.What worries me is that, if the right hon. Member for Chesterfield won the vote tonight, the working of every Select Committee would be affected. The secrecy of deliberation is all-important. Anyone who has served on a departmental Select Committee knows the arguments that take place between members, often across party lines, before the recommendations are made. If those arguments took place in public, it would massively alter the way in which members argued their case during the Committee's deliberations.
§ Sir John Gorst
If what my right hon. Friend describes were to take place, the result would be that most Select Committees would reach their conclusions by means of private deliberations in the corridors outside the Committees.
§ Sir Peter Emery
That is exactly the point, and that is the last thing that I want.
There is an overwhelming case to support what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House suggested. It would be wrong to allow an individual to alter the procedures for the workings of Select Committees. Those procedures have stood the test of time and there is no way in which secrecy could be maintained. The public will know exactly what has happened and they will know the recommendations.
It is essential that we pass the motion, for the defence of Select Committee proceedings.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
There will be a vote and I shall be voting against the motion, but I accept that the Committee faced a difficult decision. I accept that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) realised the difficulties; hence their reason for voting with the rest of the Committee.
The Committee was faced with a difficult decision because it would have been difficult to proceed if one member—my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—because of his integrity, as the Leader of the House stated, decided to do as he promised in the House. In those circumstances, the Committee clearly could not proceed and I understand the reasons.
I understand the reasons, so why do I intend to vote against the motion? The explanation is simple and clear. Evidence to the Committee should be in public and the deliberations should be in private. I am strongly of that view—no less strongly than my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield.
The allegations made against some hon. Members are serious. Hon. Members on both sides of the House think that the standing of the House is in question and that is a matter of great concern. Outside, people feel that there is sleaze and that Members of Parliament are on the make—not just some Members, but virtually all of us. It is 738 important for the public to understand that that is not so. If some hon. Members have behaved in a way that they should not have, it does not mean that the rest of the House of Commons should be viewed in the same light, but we do not know if that is so, as it is up to the Committee to decide and report to the House.
I cannot for the life of me understand why the evidence should be heard in private. The right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir Peter Emery) asked why some hon. Members said that the Committee's deliberations will be secret, as the reports will be published. Of course they will—that is not in dispute—but, in the main, people outside this place will not see those reports. They will be seen only by parliamentarians, the press and those who take the closest possible interest in public affairs. Our constituents will not go to the public library or write to the Vote Office to ask to see the report.
If the evidence is taken in public, it will be reported and filmed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) pointed out. People will see it on the television screen and judge accordingly. That is why it is important.
Mr. Edward Gamier (Harborough)
I fondly, and perhaps naively, think that we are interested in justice and truth. In the hon. Gentleman's argument, is there not a danger that we will lose sight of that justice and truth?
In allowing the publication of evidence as it is given, one will inhibit the finding of truth and justice because newspapers will report tendentiously and partially. In a court—where evidence can be given in open court—the judge can control the errant journalist who misreports the court. The Committee will not have such powers, and surely there is a danger—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. Interventions should be short in any case, but particularly so tonight.
§ Mr. Winnick
Clearly the Committee cannot be conducted as if it were a court. The argument that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward is that no evidence at all should be taken by Committees, and that is totally unacceptable.
It is necessary to vote against the motion because my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield has made a stand. I shall support him tonight because I believe that the restrictions on the proceedings being televised or reported are wrong, and they can no longer be defended. The main argument in favour of the motion is basically that the Privileges Committee has always acted in this way. Of course it has, but the time has come for a change. It is important for the standing of the House. The public are no longer willing to accept the view that all of this must be in private and that, in due course, a report will be published.
I accept entirely—hence my earlier intervention—that the deliberations must be in private, and this is where I disagree with my right hon. Friend. It would be a denial of justice if the deliberations were held in public. But as far as the main work of the Committee in taking evidence is concerned, it is necessary that it be in public. If the action that my right hon. Friend has taken has in some way persuaded the majority of the Committee that the evidence should be taken in public, he will have done very useful work—not only for the Committee but for the House as whole. That is the reason why I shall be voting against the motion.
§ Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)
I shall be very brief. When I was appointed to the Committee on Privileges, I really did count it to be a privilege. When I went to that Committee for the first time and saw the other members, I felt that I was amongst those Members of the House who would speak for the House as a whole, and not for their party. Above all, I felt that they would not speak for their own personal interests and ambitions. What horrifies me is that the Committee has now been delayed by nearly three months as a result of what has happened.
That may be acceptable to members of the Committee, but the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said that it was quite disgraceful that that should be so, and that we should have got down to the heart of the matter. Of course we should have, and that is what we all really want to do. The actions of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) have made that quite impossible for the Committee. I deplore that, and we must put this affair behind us and get on with the task that we were given, which was to pass judgment—I say this and I mean it—as individual members of the Committee; riot as members of the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative parties. The sooner we do so, the better it will be for the House and for the view that the country takes of the House.
§ Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)
The hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) put his views very well on behalf of the members of the Committee who would have liked to see the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) remain a member of the Committee on Privileges.
It must be put on the record that the majority of Opposition Members voted for the meetings of the Committee to be held in public, but we were not aware at the time the first debate took place that the goalposts would be moved, and that we would then have a debate about the deliberative sessions also being held in public. That was a subsequent matter which was laid before the Committee. No matter how we had voted on the original motion, I do not believe that there would have been unanimity at that time, and we would not have therefore avoided the debate this evening. We are in a extraordinary position, because, despite having had a vote in the Committee of Privileges and a vote on the Floor of the House, some hon. Members are still demurring from the decision reached on those occasions.
Hon. Members must ultimately ask themselves whether something is so intrinsically evil that they cannot continue as members of the Committee. Despite the fact that I would like to see the evidence of that Committee taken in public, I do not believe that the issue merits the stance taken by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. I suspect that it is a case of fighting the wrong battle in the last ditch. The right hon. Gentleman has led us along on an engaging argument, as he has done so often in the past, with which most can agree for 90 per cent. of the way, only to find that the final 10 per cent. is so far beyond that which was originally argued that it loses the support of the majority of those who might otherwise wish to support him.
I regret that we are in that position as a result of the publication of the right hon. Gentleman's version of Hansard, "Bennsard", which he says follows on from the 740 tradition of Cobbett and Hansard. In many ways, his publication follows the tradition of people such as Bakunin, because it has more to do with anarchy than democracy and abiding by majority decisions. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to insist on his own way, rather than abiding by a decision of the House.
The other issue before us is simple: the reputation of the House. As long ago as July, we were charged by the House with responsibility to decide on the issue of cash payments for questions. That matter has dragged on. We are agreed that that matter has brought the reputation of Parliament into disrepute and that it needs to be resolved quickly. In many ways, the scent has gone cold. Other issues must now be resolved: for example, the House has already referred the case of Mr. Peter Preston and the articles published by The Guardian to the Committee.
How can the Committee make progress if it has to spend all its time in a quagmire of debates on procedural questions and wrangling about the motion before the House? It is time wasting self-indulgence. It does nothing to enhance the reputation of the House and that is why I shall support the motion in the name of the Leader of the House.
§ Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)
I support the decision that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House took in casting his vote in the Committee in favour of the status quo. That follows precedent. It has been the tradition of all the Committees that that involving privileges is one which must be held in private.
It is absurd not only that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) should have succeeded in delaying the Committee's proceedings for so long, but that he should have made his stand on the publication of his own view, not of the evidence before the Committee, but of the deliberations of the Committee. That was surely the one aspect of those two aspects that commanded no support in the Committee.
It is crucial that we undertake the prime purpose required of us by Madam Speaker to investigate the allegations against hon. Members. The idea that such an investigation should be held in public and before the television lights, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) would have us believe, is nothing more or less than soundbite judgment. I refuse to believe that that idea should be given any consideration in the laws of natural justice. We should not move towards a judicial procedure being hijacked in that fashion.
As for proceedings in the House, it is essential that the proper precedents are followed and the proper actions taken. The sooner we do that, the better.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I opposed the original motion. If I recall it correctly, I voted against those on my Front Bench, because I believed that the Privileges Committee was riddled with commercial interests.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will forgive me for what I am about to say, but I think that what he is doing is wrong. I have told him that privately and I think that he understands the position that I take.
741 I want to dwell on the issue of speaking freely. I have spent 12 years on the Public Accounts Committee, nine years on the Select Committee on Members' Interests and seven years on the Select Committee on Procedure. I have seen minds changed inside those Committees. I can remember hearing the Brown inquiry and the Mates inquiry, when people visibly changed their conclusions. They would never have done that had the cameras or the press been present in those Committees. They would never have reviewed their position.
I can remember a Procedure Committee meeting in 1990. I am not breaching privilege by saying that we were discussing a select committee for Northern Ireland. I do not want to reveal what happened on that occasion, but the Chairman of the Committee will remember the discussion. We could never have had that discussion if the Committee had met in public. I believe that what we did was in the public interest.
Over the years, I have sat on the Public Accounts Committee, when we have taken evidence. On one or two occasions I asked witnesses, "Would you be prepared to speak more freely if the public were not admitted to this Committee?" and have received an affirmative response. The truth is that people will not always speak freely if they know that what they say will be published.
I take the example of Mr. Ian Greer, giving evidence on lobbying to the Select Committee on Members' Interests. I can remember, without going into detail, a specific issue that Mr. Greer believed would be commercially sensitive. I shall not reveal what it was. I believe that we took the right decision in not publishing that information.
It being one and a half hours after the commencement of the proceedings on the motion, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER put the Question, pursuant to Order [9 December].
§ The House divided: Ayes 181, Noes 52.743
|Division No. 19]||[23.50 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)||Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)|
|Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan||Chapman, Sydney|
|Alexander, Richard||Churchill, Mr|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)||Clappison, James|
|Allason, Rupert (Torbay)||Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)|
|Alton, David||Coe, Sebastian|
|Amess, David||Conway, Derek|
|Arbuthnot, James||Coombs, Simon (Swindon)|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Cope, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Alkins, Robert||Currie, Mrs Edwina (S' D'by'ire)|
|Atkinson, Peter (Haxham)||Davies, Quentin (Stamford)|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)||Day, Stephen|
|Baldry,Tony||Deva, Nirj Joseph|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Devlin,Tim|
|Boswell, Tim||Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen|
|Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia||Duncan, Alan|
|Bowis, John||Dunn, Bob|
|Brandreth, Gyles||Durant, Sir Anthony|
|Bright, Sir Graham||Eggar, Tim|
|Browning, Mrs. Angela||Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter|
|Butcher, John||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatfield)|
|Butler, Peter||Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)|
|Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)||Evans, Roger (Monmouth)|
|Evennett, David||Marshall, John (Hendon S)|
|Faber, David||Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian|
|Fabricant, Michael||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Field, Barry (Isle of Wight)||Merchant, Piers|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)|
|Forth, Eric||Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW)|
|Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)||Moate, Sir Roger|
|Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)||Needham, Rt Hon Richard|
|Freeman, Rt Hon Roger||Nelson, Anthony|
|French, Douglas||Neubert, Sir Michael|
|Gallie, Phil||Newton, Rt Hon Tony|
|Garnier, Edward||Nicholson, David (Taunton)|
|Gillan, Cheryl||Nicholson, Emma (Devon West)|
|Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles||Norris, Steve|
|Gorst, Sir John||Onslow, Rt Hon Sir Cranley|
|Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)||Oppenheim, Phillip|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn||Ottaway, Richard|
|Hague, William||Paice, James|
|Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy||Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Hannam, Sir John||Pickles, Eric|
|Hargreaves, Andrew||Portillo, Rt Hon Michael|
|Redwood, Rt Hon John|
|Harris, David||Rendel, David|
|Haselhurst, Alan||Richards, Rod|
|Heald, Oliver||Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm|
|Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S)|
|Heathcoat-Amory, David||Robinson, Mark (Somerton)|
|Hendry, Charles||Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence||Ryder, Rt Hon Richard|
|Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Shaw, Sir Giles(Pudsey)|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian|
|Hughes, Robert G (Harrow W)||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)||Shersby, Michael|
|Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas||Smith, Tim(Beaconsfield)|
|Jack, Michael||Spencer, Sir Derek|
|Jenkin, Bernard||Spicer, Sir James (W Dorset)|
|Jessel, Toby||Spink, Dr Robert|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Spring, Richard|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Sproat, Iain|
|Squire, Robin (Hornchurch)|
|Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Jones, Robert B (W Hertfdshr)||Steel, Rt Hon Sir David|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Steen, Anthony|
|Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine||Stewart, Allan|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Streeter, Gary|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)||Taylor, Ian (Esher)|
|Knight, Greg (Derby N)||Taylor, John M(Solihull)|
|Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Kynoch, George (Kincardine)||Thompson, Sir Donald (C'er V)|
|Lait Mrs Jacqui||Thurnham, Peter|
|Lang, Rt Hon Ian||Trend, Michael|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Waller, Gary|
|Lidington, David||Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)|
|Lightbown, David||Waterson, Nigel|
|Lilley, Rt Hon Peter||Watts, John|
|Lloyd, Rt Hon Peter (Fareham)||Wells, Bowen|
|Luff, Peter||Whittingdale, John|
|Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas||Widdecombe, Ann|
|MacGregor, Rt Hon John||Willetts, David|
|MacKay, Andrew||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Maclean, David||Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)|
|Madel, Sir David||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Maitland, Lady Olga||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Malone, Gerald||Mr. Simon Burns and|
|Mans, Keith||Mr. Michael Bates.|
|Austin-Walker, John||Illsley, Eric|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Lewis, Terry|
|Barnes, Harry||Litherland, Robert|
|Bayley, Hugh||Livingstone, Ken|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Llwyd, Elfyn|
|Burden, Richard||Macdonald, Calum|
|Caravan, Dennis||Mackinlay, Andrew|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Madden, Max|
|Clapham, Michael||Mahon, Alice|
|Cohen, Harry||Marek, Dr John|
|Connarty, Michael||Meale, Alan|
|Corston, Jean||Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)|
|Cunningham, Jim (Covy SE)||Morley, Elliot|
|Dalyell, Tam||Mullin, Chris|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'dge H'I)||Pickthall, Colin|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret||Pope, Greg|
|Fatchett, Derek||Simpson, Alan|
|Gerrard, Neil||Skinner, Dennis|
|Gordon, Mildred||Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)|
|Grant Bernie (Tottenham)||Wareing, Robert N|
|Gunnell, John||Watson, Mike|
|Hain, Peter||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Hall, Mike||Williams, Alan W (Carmarthan)|
|Hanson, David||Winnick, David|
|Hoyle, Doug||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Jeremy Corbyn and|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Ronnie Campbell.|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
That Mr. Tony Benn be discharged from the Committee Privileges.