§ Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East)
I wish to call attention to a report in The Sunday Times of 10 July that Members of the House had been offered, and had accepted, payment for the tabling of parliamentary questions; and to move,That the matter of the complaint, together with the issues referred to in the statement by the Speaker on 12th July, be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Madam Speaker announces that she has not selected the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton).
§ Mr. Brown
The motion is facilitated by the statement made yesterday by Madam Speaker. Its purpose is not to decide the matters of substance but to call the attention of the House to recent allegations and to refer them, and wider questions of principle, to the Committee of Privileges.
The specific allegation arises from a story in The Sunday Times of 10 July 1994. The allegation is:Two leading Tories were willing to table official questions in the House of Commons in return for £1,000.Madam Speaker, you reminded us yesterday of the section of the report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, which states:A financial inducement to take a particular course of action in Parliament may constitute a bribe and thus be an offence against the law of Parliament."—[Official Report, 12 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 829.]On page 119 of "Erskine May" we are told in a section headed "Corruption in the execution of a Member's duty":The acceptance by any Member of either House of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as such Member or of any fee, compensation or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to any bill, resolution, matter or thing submitted or intended to be submitted to the House or any committee thereof, is a breach of privilege. Members of the Commons who have been found guilty of such an offence have been expelled or committed. It is also a contempt for a Member to enter into an agreement with another person to advocate the claims of such person in the House, for pecuniary reward.The newspaper allegation is clearly that such a breach has been committed. The questions that were tabled relate to fictional matters—a drug called "Sigthin", and a company called "Githins". Both are anagrams of "Insight", and both are clearly bogus. It is therefore not open to anyone to claim a long-standing interest or alleged public interest in either the drug or the company. They are both clearly fictional.
It is also painfully clear that, if the drug and the company had been real entities, the only beneficiary of the parliamentary questions would have been the business men who procured the tabling of the questions. On the face of it, there is no public interest justification for tabling the questions.
The transcripts of conversations between Members of Parliament and the investigative reporters have been published. One Conservative Member is quoted as saying:The main point is the question you have asked will be answered…one way or another, so we will just have to wait and seeThe reporter then says:I will send you the £1,000 in the post now, then.The Conservative Member of Parliament then says:That's very kind of you.The reporter then says: 1006And thank you again for your help.A separate conversation with another Conservative Member of Parliament deals with the ethical issues involved. The reporter asks:Did you manage to have—you were going to talk to the Members' Interests people.The Conservative Member of Parliament replies:Yes, yes. I do not see any problem.The reporter then asks:There is no problem at all?The Conservative Member says:No. I would be quite happy to go ahead.The reporter then says:What do you want to do about paying you the £1,000?The Conservative Member then says:I don't really mind. Why don't you just send it to me? Do you want my home address?On the face of it, the relationship between the money and the tabled questions seems overwhelming. In any event, it is my contention that it is strong enough to justify referral to the Privileges Committee.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
Is my hon. Friend aware that I am no defender of many of the exploits of the tabloid press or the serious press when the press intrudes into people's private lives, be they Members of Parliament or anyone else? However, for the life of me, in this case I cannot understand why there should be any criticism of The Sunday Times. If The Sunday Times had not done what it did, we would not be debating, or referring to the Privileges Committee, the whole question whether parliamentary questions are being tabled for money. If anything, The Sunday Times is to be congratulated.
§ Mr. Brown
My hon. Friend has made his point. I will deal with precisely that point later, because my motion refers to that, just as it refers to the wider issues of principle—as, indeed, you did, Madam Speaker, yesterday. However, I would like to make my speech in my own way, because I want to persuade the whole House to support my motion.
The two hon. Members involved will want to tell their side of the story and should have the opportunity to do so. I understand that 20 Members of Parliament were approached—10 Labour and 10 Conservative. The 10 Labour Members and six Conservative Members who appear to have rejected the approach outright clearly have something of value to say.
Another Conservative Member allegedly offered to table a question about a fictional disease called "thising", which is another anagram of "Insight", and apparently wanted his cheque for £1,000 given to his favourite charity. That allegation should also be considered by the Committee of Privileges. It is the exchange of money specifically for the asking of parliamentary questions that I believe to be the breach of privilege. The use to which the money is put, no matter how noble or worth while, is wholly beside the point.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I trust that the hon. Gentleman will note that I requested exactly what Madam Speaker has given us today: the opportunity to have this matter considered by the most senior Committee of the House. I was deeply concerned about the activities of the individual who approached me. Before the hon. Gentleman says too much about me, he should remember that, if there are recordings, they will all be on tape.
§ Mr. Brown
I have already said that I believe that all the hon. Members mentioned in the allegations should, of course, have the opportunity to explain what they have done before the Committee of Privileges. That is the very reason why I am moving my motion.
I hope that the House will have noted that I am carefully avoiding naming individual Members. I have to set out the allegations to make the case for referral to the Committee of Privileges. I am trying to do so in a way that does not spark off a debate on the matters that I am asking the Committee to consider and not asking the House to determine this afternoon. It is a difficult line to tread, and I hope that the House understands that I am doing my best.
It is not possible to consider the ethics of taking a payment without looking at the ethics of offering payment—the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). "Erskine May" states on page 128, under the section on improper influence:Attempts by improper means to influence Members in their parliamentary conduct may be considered contempts. One of the methods by which such influence may be brought to bear is bribery and in 1695 the House of Commons resolvedto deal with this issue. When my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) raised that point, hon. Members laughed, thinking that 1695 was a long time ago. The resolution carried then is still the law of Parliament on bribery, and it is worth repeating to the House. The resolution states:the offer of money, or other advantage, to any Member of Parliament for the promoting of any matter whatsoever, depending or to be transacted in Parliament is a high crime and misdemeanour and tends to the subversion of the English constitution".That was before the Act of Union.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
My hon. Friend has just quoted from the rule. Is not consultancy, in principle, above that? Is it not fair to argue, as have a number of my hon. Friends, that the entering into a consultancy agreement by a Member of Parliament in return for money, in the knowledge that that consultancy requires the promotion of an interest that benefits a Member, is in breach of the law?
§ Mr. Brown
That is the third issue that I want to raise. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North, my hon. Friend the Member for Workington anticipates me.
I shall first deal with the issue of contempt—the offering of the bribe rather than the acceptance of it, if bribe it was. The Sunday Times story made it perfectly clear, at least to me, that Members of Parliament had been entrapped. It was also perfectly clear that Members of Parliament had been subjected to attempted entrapment.
The investigative journalists involved will say that they were acting within the ethics of their profession—[Interruption.] I am not always sure whether hon. Members are listening properly. What I said was that the investigative journalists involved would say that they were acting within the ethics of their profession—quite.
The Press Complaints Commission has an excellent code of practice—it would be excellent, if anyone took any 1008 notice of it—and it has something to say on the topic. It has quite a long section on misrepresentation. Section 6(iii) states:Subterfuge can be justified only in the public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by any other means.In all these clauses the public interest includes:(a) Detecting or exposing crime or serious misdemeanour.
§ Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)
Given the nature of the rumours that we have heard about hon. Members tabling questions for money, it is clear that evidence of that would never become available, as those spending the money would not expose the action. Does my hon. Friend agree that The Sunday Times has done British democracy a favour through the investigation in exposing such gross behaviour, which must be scrutinised by the House of Commons?
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
Is my hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) has made a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, which has now said that it will investigate his complaint? Would it be right for the PCC to investigate and pronounce judgment before the Committee of Privileges has had a chance to sit? It may not start sitting until October, and it may not produce anything until January or February. What would happen if the PCC came to a verdict before the Committee of Privileges?
§ Mr. Brown
I was not aware that the complaint had been made. We are trying to establish an organisation with authority, and there is already an established body that has the authority to make investigations in its own different arena. I am certain that it is not for me to tell it how to proceed or to conduct its affairs. It is clearly open to the "Insight" team to mount a defence of their actions on the grounds of public interest. I share what I think is the general prejudice against entrapment.
§ Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South)
I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, because surely there would be a defence if the "Insight" team had been trying to reveal an activity that it was suspected was happening in this place. I have been a Member only seven years, but I have spoken to a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House, and no one has ever heard of an instance of someone attempting to bribe a Member of Parliament to table a question in the House. Is not that the reason we are having this debate?
§ Mr. Brown
The reason that we are having this debate is that a number of hon. Members wrote to Madam Speaker following the publication of The Sunday Times article. You, Madam Speaker, made your statement to the House yesterday, which facilitated this motion. That is the reason we are having today's debate.
I am trying hard to introduce the motion in a neutral way, without denying the House the explanation of what lies behind it. I do not think that I am helped in that by interventions that invite me to go further than I should now into the matters of substance. I hope that, if the Committee of Privileges decides that it wishes to meet the "Insight" team, they will, if asked, willingly co-operate with its inquiry.
§ Mr. Nicholls
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the way in which he is presenting his motion.
The "Insight" team have also said that they started their entrapment procedure because a business man had told them that he was in the business of giving Members of Parliament money to table questions. Will the "Insight" team be obliged to answer the questions that should be put to them: who is that business man, and what real evidence have the "Insight" team got?
§ Mr. Brown
That is exactly what I asked the House not to do in response to the last intervention. Clearly, that is a matter for the Committee of Privileges to consider. My motion seeks to get the issue—and, indeed, some wider issues—to the Committee of Privileges and to allow it to consider how best to proceed. Certainly it is not my place to tell it how to proceed.
§ Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman
This is a serious debate, and not a matter for joking. Will the remit of the Committee include those Members of the House who engage an excessive number of research assistants, many from America, who obtain information from the Library to enable them to get their D.Phil, doctorate or whatever? That is a nuisance to every Member of the House.
§ Mr. Brown
Frankly, I had not given that matter the consideration that I perhaps should have done. Again, I feel that I am being drawn into the details of the matter, when I want to deal at this stage with the broader questions of principle.
Yesterday, Madam Speaker, you spoke of theurgent need to clarify the law of Parliament in that area.You gave that as a specific reason for granting the motion today. You also said that the Committee would havepower to inquire not only into the matter of the particular complaint, but into the facts surrounding and reasonably connected with it, and into the principles of the law and custom of privilege which are concerned. I hope that it will use that power for the assistance of the House in a difficult area."—[Official Report, 12 July 1994; Vol.246, c. 829.]It is a difficult area.
An excellent research paper prepared by the home affairs section of the House of Commons Library sets out the background to the topic, and explores the problems. There is a widespread fear among many who originally supported the Register of Members' Interests that it acts more as a licence than as a safeguard.
§ Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)
The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the Committee of Privileges investigating the allegations against individual Members. However, Madam Speaker referred specifically to The Sunday Times. Will the inquiry that the hon. Gentleman envisages include a thorough inquiry into The Sunday Times, and into why it makes wild allegations every time there is a meeting overseas, so that, whenever my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister comes back to report, it is eclipsed? Will it also make inquiries into the allegation that The Sunday Times has said that it intends to 1010 get rid of the Government by causing by-elections? Those are allegations that I have heard from The Sunday Times itself.
§ Mr. Brown
The motion invites the Committee of Privileges to examine the issues dealt with in The Sunday Times story—the cash-for-questions row. It invites it separately to consider the wider questions of principle that are involved in the relationship between Members of Parliament's public duty and their private business interests. That is what I seek to refer to the Committee of Privileges. I am closely paralleling the statement that you, Madam Speaker, made yesterday.
The hon. Gentleman asks that the Committee should investigate more widely. I am not sure that it will want to investigate quite so widely as he wants it to do. Nevertheless, I hope that it will examine the broad issues of principle, rather than merely the narrow issue that has given focus to the motion today.
§ Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the public would find it utterly baffling, indeed incomprehensible, if we gave any impression that the House gave equal sense of seriousness to the activities of some journalists on The Sunday Times and to the alleged bribery of Members of Parliament? Those two issues are not of equal importance. [HON. MEMBERS: "Yes, they are."] Conservative Members say that they are of equal importance. They are certainly not of equal importance to the people we represent. It is vital that the Committee of Privileges acknowledges that, not least because it would be ludicrous if a decision was made in the end which condemned the activities of The Sunday Times and condemned the activities of the hon. Members. They would never have been found out if it had not been for The Sunday Times.
§ Mr. Brown
I am trying to get the Committee up and moving. I certainly do not intend to tell it what its decision should be. It is difficult for me to respond to hypothetical conclusions of the Committee of Privileges when it has not even been set up yet. The purpose of the motion is to set it up and give it the widest possible remit, including the broader issues of principle.
§ Mr. Den Dover (Chorley)
Earlier, the hon. Gentleman said that he understood that 20 Members had been approached by The Sunday Times. Has the hon. Gentleman any evidence, since he tabled the motion, that 10 Labour Members were approached, or has he had no evidence at all?
§ Mr. Brown
Those matters are referred to in the story. Clearly it will be open to the Committee of Privileges to invite the "Insight" team to come before it and say whom it approached and what the responses were. The point that I was trying to make to the House was that 16 Members from both sides of the House rejected the approach outright, and that their reasons for so doing would clearly be of interest to the Committee of Privileges. That is the only point that I make in that matter.
I do not want to go through the recent well publicised causes for concern. It will suffice to say that there is widespread public disquiet about the relationship between the public duties of Members of Parliament and their private business interests. Our rules must ensure that there is no improper overlap between the two.
1011 I know that, as the then Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), told the Committee which considered the matter a few years ago, there are profound problems of interpretation, enforcement and punishment. In my view, there is an even more profound problem in not tackling the issues. My motion enables the Committee of Privileges to try to do so.
An amendment has been tabled but not selected which suggests that, unless there are pressing reasons to the contrary, the Committee should follow its usual procedure in recent years and keep its proceedings in the public domain. I hope that the Committee will be able to do that, not merely because there is public interest in the issue but because, if Parliament looks at its own affairs and how we regulate the relationships between public and private interests, it is right that the public should see us doing it, and should understand the outcome.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
I intervene simply and briefly to express the hope that the House will agree to the motion. As you said in your statement yesterday, which has given precedence to the motion today, Madam Speaker, the press report at the weekend which led to your receiving a number of complaints, including that from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), plainly raised serious and difficult issues.
I am not entirely sure that the hon. Gentleman achieved the neutrality that was his ambition. Perhaps that is what provoked so many interventions. Certainly I do not think that it would be right for me as Leader of the House to follow down his path of commentary. I have no doubt that the proper course is for the House now to remit those complaints to the Committee of Privileges for its consideration and advice.
§ Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)
Madam Speaker, will the Leader of the House tell us how he intends to implement that part of your statement which asked for urgency? I am sure that he is aware that, on occasions in the past when matters have been referred to the Committee of Privileges, it has taken a very long time to come to a decision—perhaps for good reasons. Does he agree that, on this occasion, it is important that consideration is urgent, and that he should use all his powers as Leader of the House to set up the Committee and let it get on with its work as quickly as possible?
§ Mr. Newton
I was about to come to that. It is obviously for the Committee, when it is set up, to decide how to proceed. If the motion is agreed, the Government will, of course, undertake appropriate consultation with a view to tabling a motion to nominate the Committee as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I beg to move, That the Question be now put.
§ Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw)
Very few hon. Members have ever been called before a Privileges Committee, and I wish to take a few minutes to explain exactly what can happen. That is why I tabled my amendment today.
The sad fact is that if the Committee decides that it wants to hand out a public spanking—for example, to a recalcitrant trade union leader such as Arthur Scargill—it will hold all its hearings in public, and its proceedings will gain a great deal of publicity.
On the other hand, there is a tendency for a Privileges Committee to say that it is there to protect the House rather than the public. When that happens, there is a feedback to the culprit which says, "Grovel, apologise, purge your contempt and say you will never do it again." Proceedings will drag on for three or four months, and then the Committee will quietly produce a report which says that the hon. Member concerned apologised for his bad behaviour and that, as far as it is concerned, no further action should be taken.
A Committee will sit in private to reach that conclusion, it will hear virtually no evidence and its report will not be debated in the House. The matter goes into limbo. And that is exactly what happened to me.
I was the whistleblower in 1974, when I wrote a piece in Labour Weekly which alleged that there were Members for hire. That was at the time of Poulson and T. Dan Smith, and allegations such as those about Harold Wilson and the slagheaps and Tony Crosland, the Foreign Secretary, being given a coffee pot. My piece in Labour Weekly said that those allegations were nonsense, and that the number of Members out of 650 in the House who were susceptible to a proposition could be counted on one hand. Immediately the tabloids splashed across their front pages, "Name the guilty five." On the day when the T. Dan Smith trial ended—when what had been sub judice was no longer sub judice—I was the subject of a terrific amount of investigation.
The hon. Member for Peterborough at that time, Sir Harmar Nicholls, stood in the House and moved that the matter be referred to a Privileges Committee. That was between the two elections of 1974, when we had a majority of 22. I might add that things were done differently in those days, because I had to leave the Chamber immediately. With respect to you, Madam Speaker, I think it was the rule at that time that the Members accused had to leave the Chamber.
§ Mr. Ashton
Exactly, but I had to leave.
The matter went upstairs to the Committee, and word came back that I should apologise and that no further action would be taken. I refused, and I put up a defiant defence. I was helped in that by my hon. and learned Friend Arthur Davidson, then the Member for Accrington and now a leading libel lawyer in Fleet street. We said that we had the facts in a file which was about a foot thick and there were immediate panic stations around the place.
Members of Parliament were, at that time, very badly paid. There were even advertisements in the whip on Friday saying that, if a Member wanted a £10 trip to Iceland to study the cod war, and he wanted to take his wife and two kids, it could be arranged. It was as blatant as that. A man came to me at the time and said that he wanted to make a commercial which said that the man who wound up 1013 Big Ben wore a Timex watch. "All we would have to do," he said, "is film a man walking across the bridge and down through the door into Big Ben." He asked if I could arrange it, and said that there would be a good fee for doing that.
I wrote to the Leader of House and asked whether that could be arranged. He wrote back, and hit the ceiling. But that was part of a specific campaign to get a Register of Members' Interests, which Eddie Milne, Phillip Whitehead and I and a few others were engaged in. We constantly wrote articles saying that the matter should be brought out into the open and that there should be a register—and eventually a register was brought out.
My point is that the Privileges Committee decided at that time that it would sit in private and would not publish any evidence. I alleged at the time that Members were renting out the banqueting rooms and staging receptions, and that fees of £300 had been paid for scotch whisky receptions on Budget days.
I asked for the catering booking forms so that I could produce them to the Committee, but the Catering Committee said no. I said to the Committee of Privileges that I wanted those booking forms, but I was told that I could not have them. I did not object to the fact that I could not have them, but I did object that the fact that I had asked for them was not even reported in Hansard. None of it was reported in Hansard, and all the report said was that the Committee had sat on several occasions and had had deliberations.
I was asked whether I wanted to go before the Committee—my hon. and learned Friend Arthur Davidson said that I should not go because the lawyers and the Attorney-General would tear me to shreds—or whether I wanted to write and ask questions. I wrote to them; they asked me questions; and we wrote back. It went on for months, which was what everybody wanted.
As the October election was coming up in 1974, there was a strange mood around the House. People were saying to me that they knew that I was right, but that we could not fight an election in October while all this was going on. The hon. Member for Slagthorpe, North would come up and say that the hon. Member for Slagthorpe, South might be a bit dodgy, but that the allegation rubbed off on him. "It rubs off on us all," I was told, "so for God's sake drop it."There was constant pressure on me to drop the matter.I am afraid that I was not a popular person at that time, but the campaign ultimately resulted in the setting up of the Register of Members' Interests. That was not done until two years later when Poulson had gone bankrupt and had had to reveal the payments which he had made.
The Committee met again and recommended that three hon. Members—Reggie Maudling, Albert Roberts and John Cordle—should be suspended for six months. Michael Foot said—I do not think that Labour had a majority then—that there were two Members from one side and only one from the other. We could not have that, as we would be accused of rigging a majority for the Government of the day.
There was a tremendous kerfuffle. John Cordle did not wait for the House to decide on the matter, and handed in his resignation. The other two did wait and, I am sad to say, the House divided along political lines—perhaps because of the climate at that time. Reggie Maudling's suspension came up first, and the Conservatives voted solidly against the proposal. When it came to Albert Roberts, the Labour party voted solidly to keep him in as well.
1014 We got the Register of Members' Interests set up, but because there was not a clear majority in the House we could not get the House's full agreement. That meant that the register was toothless in a way because, although it said that Members had to register their consultancies, it did not say that they had to register any offers or that the people who were making the offer had to register.
That is important because if the people making an offer had to register, nobody would make an offer. It is as simple as that. If it were against the law to make an offer to a Member—which it should be—nobody would make an offer. But we could not get that through the House at the time, and that very important part had to be left out.
What we are debating today has a different dimension, and a very important one. The question—with respect to my hon. Friends who were talking about The Sunday Times—is one of bugging. I do not object to newspaper investigations at all. I object to the growth in the use of tape recorders which we have seen in the past two years. I sat on the Select Committee on National Heritage which looked at the matter.
Within the past 18 months, a tape recorder has been placed under a Cabinet Minister's bed, the results of which were then splashed in the papers. In another example an offer of £2,000 was made by a prominent politician at a railway station, and one of the people involved in the incident was wearing a mike. We now have an instance where a conversation has been taped and where telephones have been bugged. The royal family's telephone conversations have been bugged, and then printed. I hope that the Committee will look at the growth of technology which did not exist 20 years ago when the House was not televised and was not even on the radio.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
I concur with virtually everything that the hon. Gentleman has said. He has been in the Chamber and may not be aware that this afternoon the editor in charge of The Sunday Times Insight team—he is in the Gallery this afternoon and is hearing what I am saying—admitted on the record that his team had been researching this story and trying to stand it up since January. They had investigated a number of Members, and had been unable to pin the story on any particular Member at any time, and they had to resort to subterfuge to set up the story.
§ Mr. Ashton
I do not want to comment on what the hon. Gentleman has said. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) said at the beginning of the debate, we should not produce evidence which might be prejudicial to any inquiry. We are talking about the general merits of the matter.
The Committee must certainly take a look at electronic surveillance. That problem has been compared with the banning of journalists from the Terrace because of allegations that they were harassing Members. A long tradition of trust with the journalists' lobby has been built up, but we can no longer talk to journalists without fearing that they may have microphones or tape recorders in their pockets. We can no longer use the telephone without wondering whether we are speaking on lobby terms or whether we are being recorded. The Committee must look into that too, because all this technology is a new dimension of privilege, and the House has never before examined the matter.
1015 I tabled my amendment just to make sure that members of the Committee know that everything said in it must be subject to full public scrutiny—perhaps not all the deliberations, but certainly all the evidence given to the Committee.
§ Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is essential that there be a public record? If there is not, for the next few months there will be nothing but speculation in the newspapers to the effect that the Privileges Committee has heard this or that, or recommended this or that, or probed this or that. We need an open record of what goes on, so that we can all judge on the basis of fact, not hearsay.
§ Mr. Ashton
My hon. Friend is of course right. I believe that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) made a mistake by going to the Press Complaints Commission. That will only result in a verdict being given by a body before this House gives its verdict, thereby pre-empting it.
I hope that the Committee will adhere to my hon. Friend's suggestion and insist that every scrap of evidence be published.
§ Madam Speaker
May I draw to the attention of the House the fact that a number of hon. Members want to speak in this debate? I ask them to exercise voluntary restraint in respect of the length of their speeches. Secondly, I draw their attention to the fact that the motion is a very narrow one, and I hope that they will read it before speaking.
§ Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North)
Madam Speaker, the day before yesterday I made a complaint to you about bribery and the surreptitious use of bugging devices within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster. I begin by setting out the facts on which that complaint was based.
On Wednesday 29 June a Mr. Jonathan Calvert came to see me at the House of Commons by appointment. Several days earlier he had left telephone messages, saying that he wished to discuss a consultancy matter with John Gorst and Associates Ltd., a consultancy that I formed six years before I was elected to this House. It is also registered as a business and public relations consultancy in the Register of Members' Interests.
I took Mr. Calvert, a young man in his late twenties or early thirties, to a bench seat off the Central Lobby, and he immediately explained that he had been left some money which he wished to invest in a drugs company that was unable to establish the facts about an uncommon disease. He spelt it out as an unpronounceable illness called "thising aphonitus infeston". Before deciding whether to proceed with an investment, Mr. Calvert explained that he needed information from the Department of Health about the incidence of this disease. He asked whether I would table a parliamentary question for which he was prepared to pay £1,000. He did not require any regular consultancy; it was just that one-off question to which he sought an answer.
I explained to him that it was not proper for a Member of Parliament to accept money for tabling questions. He 1016 seemed to think that that was either pedantic or unhelpful, so I explained, as The Sunday Times reported, that although it might not be illegal it was certainly not very nice if Members of Parliament asked questions in return for money.
I did not comment, although the thought crossed my mind, that his request was more than somewhat improper. I am used to certain types of business people, unfamiliar with the ways of Parliament, thinking that money can buy whatever they want. So I was inclined to put his request down to ignorance or naivety.
I therefore confined myself to suggesting that if Mr. Calvert set out on paper what he wanted to know and sent it to me I would consider tabling the question for nothing. I could see no objection at that time to asking a question about the incidence of an unusual disease. As Mr. Calvert had ostensibly come to see me about the possibility of my company undertaking consultancy work, I concluded the 10 or 15-minute meeting by saying that, if in the future he felt the need for consultancy, I would be perfectly willing to discuss some sort of arrangement.
I hope that the House will take the view, irrespective of Members' views on the desirability or otherwise of Members having outside interests, that this was a perfectly correct response to both the letter and the spirit of our regulations. Certainly it was a dubious approach, and I hope that I responded correctly.
After Mr. Calvert's departure I consulted a medical dictionary in the Library. There was no reference to the so-called disease he had mentioned. Meanwhile I also decided that there was something that did not quite ring true about Mr. Calvert. At the same time, I was inclined to suspect that he was a slightly cranky individual of a type not unfamiliar to Members of Parliament from their surgeries. Indeed, on checking his telephone number, which was in the Richmond area, I could not understand why he had not consulted his own Member of Parliament. Even though it appeared that his Member was a Minister, there was no good reason why the information that Mr. Calvert sought could not have been obtained by a Minister through normal correspondence.
Thereafter I gave no further thought to Mr. Calvert—or rather, not until Saturday 9 July—10 days later—when I returned a call from The Sunday Times, in the course of which I was informed that the paper intended publishing a report to the effect that two Members of Parliament had accepted money in return for tabling parliamentary questions. It was also revealed to me that the Mr. Calvert who had come to see me in the House of Commons was in fact a member of the paper's staff.
I was indignant at this subterfuge, but more to the point, I recognised that a deliberate, seemingly criminal attempt had been made to bribe me, and that there had been nothing naive or unknowing about the proposition put to me by Mr. Jonathan Calvert.
When, later that evening, I obtained an early edition of The Sunday Times, I also took exception to what I took to be a libellous innuendo. I rang the paper and remonstrated with the editor of the column. During our conversation he revealed to me that he had a transcript of what I had said, thereby making it perfectly clear that Mr. Calvert had been using a concealed recording device throughout our conversation.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The hon. Gentleman has referred to bribery. What is the difference between 1017 payment for a one-off service under the heading of consultancy and payment for a consultancy that lasts for a period?
§ Sir John Gorst
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am trying to deploy a case. I do not wish to dodge the question, but I hope that he will understand from my subsequent remarks that I am discussing the two points in this motion about which I have personal knowledge.
Hon. Members will be well aware that "Erskine May" states on page 128, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown) has already said:Attempts by improper means to influence Members in their parliamentary conduct may be considered contempts.I contend that offering money for tabling a question constitutes such a contempt. Before I reach that point, I hope that the House will allow me to finish what was saying about Mr. Calvert.
It was only because I believed that I was being offered money out of ignorance or naivety rather than duplicity that I did not report the conversation I have outlined sooner. I have explained to the House why I now think differently.
I wish to go further, however, and argue that those who from the start seek in the precincts of the House to cause a Member to commit a contempt by accepting bribes, are themselves guilty of committing a contempt and should be dealt with accordingly. Their motives are irrelevant. They should operate within the laws of Parliament and not above them. Should they seek to justify their conduct on the grounds of public interest, I would submit that they are abusing and usurping powers that properly belong either to Madam Speaker or to the House.
§ Sir John Gorst
No. I shall not give way as I realise that many other hon. Members wish to speak.
Who are these members of the fourth estate anyway? Who are these so-called guardians of the public interest who are arrogating to themselves exceptional powers and rights: the right to break the law; the right to offer felonious bribes; the right to invade the precincts and privileges of the mother of Parliaments? Such contemptuous arrogance has not been seen since the days of the robber barons.
The power of the press has grown, is growing and needs to be diminished. As a voice for the grievances of the nation it is essential, invaluable and must not be fettered, but as a power above the law, without accountability, it has no rights, no role and no function in our parliamentary democracy.
There are those who plead eloquently against the erosion of the sovereignty of Parliament in Europe. What price that sovereignty if it is to be subservient to the Murdoch empire, an empire in the ascendant that has a higher budget than the British Empire ever had in its decline? Against such mighty and overweening assertiveness, what is the value of the ancient, jealously guarded privileges accorded to the elected representatives of the people? What is their value if they are to be subordinated to the news editor of The Sunday Times, who places his concept of the public interest as superior to that of the constitution?
1018 Finally, I turn to the use of clandestine bugging devices. Although there is no explicit reference to their use in the Palace of Westminster, I would draw the attention of hon. Members to page 115 of "Erskine May":Generally speaking, any act…which…impedes either House in the performance of its functions, or which…has a tendency, directly or indirectly, to produce such results may be treated as a contempt even though there is no precedent of the offence.".In this case, such recording devices were used without my knowledge within the precincts of the Palace of Westminster.
The use of bugging devices in any circumstances in the Palace of Westminster could impede uninhibited discussion between Members and Ministers, constituents, or accredited members of the lobby, or between Government and Opposition parties.
As that is a practice not permitted to such authorities as the police, the security forces or indeed any official acting under the authority of you, Madam Speaker, it would be wrong in my view to permit it to journalists. Moreover, the use of recording devices in such circumstances places improper influence and pressure on Members of the House and therefore ought to be treated as a serious contempt.
Bribery and bugging by any section of the media are a gross abuse of Parliament. To censure and outlaw it inside the privileged precincts of the House is not an infringement of the liberty of the press. Those practices are a violation of freedom, not a protection of it.
Corrupt means to expose corruption are a corruption in themselves. We do not sanction corrupt methods in the fight against terrorism in Northern Ireland, nor should we tolerate them in this place. Deception and trickery are the tools of a totalitarian state; they have no place in this country.
Across the span of our public life we have a variety of properly constituted inspectorates. Are we now to tolerate a secret self-appointed journalistic police answerable only to the commercial imperatives of the transatlantic Rupert Murdoch?
If something is to be done—and I support the motion wholeheartedly—if censure or penalties are to be imposed, I hope that the Committee of Privileges will ensure that The Sunday Times is denied access to any privileged facilities of the Palace of Westminster and that it will not be allowed to return until it has purged its contempt and given assurances that there will be no repetition of this disreputable conduct.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I support the motion before the House and, as a former member of the Committee of Privileges, I do not wish to comment on the individual cases. The matter of the next Committee will be for the House to determine. However, it is sensible to set the framework against which these issues have come into the public domain.
Without regard to the individual details that have been given, if people observing Parliament, which is widely reported in the press and on television, were to be persuaded that the transactions that we present to them as being a conflict of ideas and interests were really just a cover for financial arrangements which were concealed from them, their confidence in the House would rightly disappear.
I have long thought—and I hinted at it in the debate when you were elected to the Chair, Madam Speaker—that the threats to democracy in Britain come from quite 1019 surprising places, not least from those who seek to replace our work by moving it to other places at Millbank and elsewhere.
It is important that this House, which has a very long history—I think it is 700 years next year since the model Parliament was called—should recognise that in a sense the whole development of Parliament has been a struggle by the common people to prevent the country from being run by rich people.
It was the King who conquered—William the Conqueror came to Westminster abbey on Christmas day 1066—and his power was power by conquest. He owned the country, so he ran it. Similarly, when the barons went to Runnymede—an activity sometimes misunderstood as having played a significant part in the development of democracy—the feudal landlords told the King that they were not prepared to have him run the country because they were landlords and they owned the land. The serfs who suffered under the landlords never really benefited from Magna Carta.
I shall not take the House through any more history—we all take school children round this place—but it is worth remembering that in 1832, which is not so very long ago, only 2 per cent. of the population had the vote and they were all rich white men. The Chartists and the suffragettes wanted the vote. Why was that? It was because they wanted to use the ballot box to countervail the power of money.
That is what the whole parliamentary story is about. People did not want the vote because they had done an A-level in government; they wanted it in order to buy collectively what they could not afford individually. That is what the history of the labour movement means. People said, "Many of us cannot afford houses or proper education, health care or pensions. We will band together and campaign for the vote. We will then campaign for candidates who, when elected, will be able to use the power of Parliament to countervail the power of money." If we allow that idea to be put in question by giving the impression that money—by means of subterfuge—still runs the proceedings of the House of Commons, we destroy the whole thing at a stroke.
Then there is the question of privilege. There are two views of privilege, one of which is that its purpose is to protect Members of Parliament from being criticised outside. I have never taken that view. Clearly, if a Member of Parliament receives a death threat—"If you vote for such and such a Bill, we will kill you"—that is a breach of privilege. Why is that? It is because it prevents that Member of Parliament from performing the function for which he or she was elected. Privilege is there to protect the electors, so that the Parliament that they have elected can perform the functions for which they elected it.
The Committee of Privileges recently dealt with an interesting case raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms Short). It concerned an employee of Birmingham city council. When that council promoted a Bill to allow a road race in Birmingham, that employee—in his personal capacity—petitioned against it. The council then tried to move him from his job as a punishment for petitioning against his employer.
I am proud to have played some part in what followed. The Committee of Privileges ruled that Birmingham city 1020 council was guilty of a breach of privilege by threatening a citizen, thus preventing him from coming to Parliament. I hope that when the Committee meets on this occasion it will bear in mind that view of privilege—that it is there to protect those who elect us so that Parliament can work for them against those who will always seek to get their results by means of money.
Some Members of Parliament are already governed by very strict rules. I take it that the Leader of the House and other Front Benchers are governed by the same rules that governed me when I was a Secretary of State. They are contained in "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", a copy of which I have kept. The document will vary from Government to Government, but it is sent to every Minister by the Prime Minister of the day. My copy is copy No. 21, dated 23 April 1976; Jim Callaghan, who was then Prime Minister, sent the memorandum to all of us. I will quote two of the rules.
The first of those rules states:It is a well-established and recognised rule that no Minister or public servant should accept gifts, hospitality or services from anyone which would, or might appear to, place him under an obligation.The second passage, which is equally short, states:It is a principle of public life that Ministers must so order their affairs that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their private interests and their public duties.My opinion—which I submitted, unsuccessfully, to the Select Committee on Members' Interests—is that every Member of Parliament should be covered by those rules. What is so special about Ministers that they are public servants? Are we not public servants? Do we not table questions? I table many questions for business men who come to me and say, "I have an invention" or "I have an export problem", but I would not dream of either expecting or receiving money for doing that, either in a personal capacity or by setting myself up as a consultant. I do not put myself in any position above that, but Members of Parliament are elected to act as consultants to the British people: that is what we are here for.
Why do people write to Members of Parliament and visit their surgeries? It is because they want our advice: they want to consult us about how their problems might be resolved. That argument, I think, is both powerful and easy to advance, because the rules are already there for Ministers. I presume that the current wording is very similar to what I read out, although it may vary slightly—indeed, the present Government published the rules.
When I put the matter to the Select Committee on Members' Interests, it would not allow the document to be published. It was frightened, because the document was marked "confidential". Ministers were governed by rules that were secret, while the rest of us were not.
We often boast that we are a high court of Parliament. If that is so, Members taking the oath should swear to "tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth." Rather than being an oath of allegiance to the Crown—I shall not go into that now—the oath that we take in the House should have some bearing on the duties that we perform. I drafted such an oath and submitted a Bill that dealt with it. It read:I…Solemnly declare and affirmthat is from the coronation oath—That I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to the peoples of the United Kingdom, according to their respective laws and customs"—preserving inviolably their civil liberties and democratic rights…through their elected representatives in the House of 1021 Commons, and will faithfully and truly declare my mind and opinion on all matters that come before me without fear or favour.That is from the Privy Councillor's oath, which the Lord President has declined to publish. Happily, I did it for him some time ago.
If Parliament is to be credible, people must know that when we come here we are public servants. No one would argue that we do not bring our experience to the House or that we may not do other things in parallel—some Members of Parliament write, for instance—but that is quite different from being paid to perform an aspect of one's parliamentary duties.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. His speech is interesting, but I seem to recall his saying on the radio that he had failed to persuade members of his own party of various things that he thought were right, and then saying that he had best explain or put forward what he disagreed with. If the point of view in the second part of his speech includes his diary form, think that many people will find points to criticise; the first part was rather better.
§ Mr. Benn
I will conclude by putting to the House some proposals that I believe the Committee should consider. First, I propose that every Member of Parliament should be required to list the sources, though not the amounts, of all his or her financial interests. Secondly, the procedure for Ministers should apply to all of us. Thirdly, certain financial interests should be held to disqualify a person from serving in the House of Commons. As you know, Madam Speaker, an office of profit under the Crown disqualifies: it is not possible to serve the Executive and be a member of the legislature. That is an old principle and is the reason why Members of Parliament wishing to retire apply for the Chiltern Hundreds. But are there not other offices which should disqualify? I think that at one stage people working for contractors to Government Departments were included. If people are engaged in making money as a result of being in Parliament, is that not a disqualifying office? I believe that the rules, whatever they are, should be embodied in statute and not just in the "old boy" regulations of the House.
I also believe that every candidate should publish his or her interests with the nominations papers, and that all organisations making payments of any kind to any Member of Parliament should be required to make a declaration to that effect in a separate register. If an organisation pays a Member of Parliament, it should be under a statutory responsibility to declare, "We paid that Member for that purpose." All lobbyists should declare the names of all persons whom they employ for that purpose, and the list should be published. When a Member declares an interest when speaking or voting—as he should—that interest should be printed in Hansard, having been picked up from the Register. The oath should oblige us to do all those things.
No doubt the Committee of Privileges will examine the question of the Members concerned and what happened in the current instance in detail, some of which has been touched on today. However, I urge the House not to allow 1022 this opportunity to deal with the wider question to pass. If people at home not only hear what is happening in the House but wonder whether the newspapers pay for things to be done which they subsequently report independently, as part of the democratic process, the House will do itself a disservice and will richly merit criticism.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. First, however, I should like to thank you personally, Madam Speaker, for responding to my letter and to those of many others giving us an opportunity to have this debate. As a result, I hope that the Privileges Committee will be able to look into the matter.
I want to make it clear to Opposition Members that I have no objection to the Privileges Committee sitting in public or to everything being recorded. In fact, I look forward to the tape recordings of my conversations being heard in full. I welcome that. I believe that they would have the same effect as the Richard Nixon tapes had on Richard Nixon and on the individual who obtained those recordings. [Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. There are some rather loud conversations taking place. I am sure that we all want to hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say.
§ Mr. Walker
From time to time The Sunday Times gives us titbits of news which it thinks will titillate the interest of the public at large and help the newspaper's circulation. I am concerned that from now on the newspapers should not use edited versions of recordings in order to increase their circulation. I have made my view clear: I am happy to have the tapes involving me heard and printed in full in the Committee report. I welcome the fact that the Privileges Committee has the powers that it has and I trust that it will use them.
The Sunday Times claims that the methods used were justified and in the public interest. Consequently, I believe that it could not object if I were to tell the House the name and address of the business man, the potential investor and job creator, who told me that he had given up being a haulage contractor because he had come into a substantial inheritance which he wished to invest in a company manufacturing a new drug that would be a cure for a particular type of serious throat problem. The House will recollect that last year I was off ill for quite some time with just such a health problem. Was I not the right chap to approach with that sort of instant cure? I should certainly have thought so. The idea of a cure together with the prospect of jobs was what made me interested in the gentleman—or rather the agent provocateur, con man, liar and cheat—who tried to get me to accept a cheque, which I refused, and who recorded all our conversations on the telephone and all the conversations held in my room in the House without my knowledge.
If Jonathan Calvert of 35 Cambridge Cottages, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 3AY is listening, I hope that he will recollect that I also have his telephone number—081 940 2534—on which I have spoken to his wife. I obtained the clear impression that he was genuine.
I ask hon. Members to think carefully. The right to ask questions and to have questions answered is the 1023 cornerstone of our unwritten constitution. Anyone tampering with that for whatever motive—or ulterior motive—should be dealt with severely by Parliament.
I am prepared—I imagine that I have no choice—to appear before the Committee of Privileges. If I have erred, as I often do—I live in a house full of women who constantly remind me of that—the Committee will quite properly point out my erring ways. If The Sunday Times has erred—I believe that it has erred in a ghastly way—the Committee should treat it properly as well.
§ Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)
I hope that the House will vote for the motion, and that the Leader of the House will ensure that the Committee is set up speedily, which I know he will want to do. I am sure that that is the mood of the House.
At this stage, I do not intend to dwell on the behaviour of the press. It is right that that should be investigated and, like the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), I am certainly not convinced that the press complaints procedure is an effective guardian of the public interest. It may be that the behaviour of the press in this context needs to come back to us in the House.
I hope that your statement, Madam Speaker, was so clear that the Committee of Privileges will be under no misapprehension. I believe that both halves of the motion should be followed comprehensively. The Committee should look not only into the specific matter of the complaints relating to two colleagues, but consider all the matters that flow from that and are related to it. That means that three separate matters need to be examined by the Committee.
The first is that there may well be contempt of Parliament by colleagues, because one of the allegations clearly implies that hon. Members might be in contempt. I should add that we are all and always prospectively at risk of that, and I do not want to suggest that at different times any of us might not be. It is clear from the wording on page 119 of "Erskine May" thatThe acceptance by any Member of either House of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as such Member or of any fee, compensation or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to any bill, resolution, matter or thing submittedis a breach of privilege and puts the Member in contempt.
Two types of effort are made to influence us here. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) gave me a specific example of a type of effort made by many. When he ceased to be the leader of our party, he was approached by a consultancy firm offering him a five-figure sum for one year simply to book rooms for entertaining and to look after clients of a consultancy. That is entirely inappropriate. My right hon. Friend declined that offer clearly, having, in his own words, been "astounded" that it had been made. That is one level of activity which involves using the building and facilitating contacts.
Another level of activity is attempting to influence the business in the Chamber—speaking, voting and tabling motions and questions. The matters raised in the motion and in The Sunday Times relate to that much more central matter of the business of Parliament. Attempts were made to influence the business of Parliament, with money as the reward.
1024 Those of us who have been taught the criminal law are taught about the legal difference between attempting to do something which can actually be done, such as stealing something, or attempting to do something illegal that one cannot do, for example because there is nothing to steal. I hope that the Committee will not find on a technicality that, because there was no real company and because people were pretending something, there was not an offence. I hope that the Committee will exclude that, because the issue is as serious as if it were a real company and a real individual seeking to influence us in some way.
Secondly, there may be contempt—on the face of it, it looks as if there is—by those who attempted to bribe 20 hon. Members. I do not know whether other people have done that before, but your statement, Madam Speaker, made it clear that you wanted the wide rather than the narrow set of issues to be considered.
It is also clear that the Committee can find such action to be in breach of privilege, and that it can deal with it. On both of those matters, you rightly made the point yesterday, Madam Speaker, that the law of the land was not clear. There is ambiguity as to whether, in ordinary criminal law, such action could also land anyone before the courts—when would contempt in this place also be illegal outside? That matter should be sorted out.
We must know whether any person who approached our 20 colleagues was guilty of a criminal offence, and whether hon. Members who respond to such an approach and accept and pocket money are also guilty of a criminal offence. The matter should be made clear, and the public should know what the position is. If the law needs to be amended, it should be. The Committee should deal with the matter.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) alluded to the third issue, which is a subsidiary one but linked to the main issues, as your statement, Madam Speaker, made clear. It relates to whether the Register of Members' Interests is sufficient to achieve the purposes for which it was intended.
§ Mr. Hughes
The hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) makes the point from a sedentary position—it is not, and there are several reasons for that.
First, hon. Members do not have to declare an interest until a month afterwards. Secondly, the Register, although it is published annually, updated periodically in a loose form and can be inspected, is by definition not up to date in a public form. The relevance of an interest may be past by the time it is in the public domain. It may be no good, for example, for people to discover only a year afterwards that an hon. Member was given money for an air ticket to North Korea. The relevance may be when the payment was made, not later.
Thirdly, and perhaps most important, currently we do not have to declare the value of the interest. The register is almost useless unless the actual amount of money that passes hands appears in it. There is all the difference in the world between being paid tuppence and being paid £1 million to do something. The amounts that people receive for their non-parliamentary duties should be explicitly included in the register for everyone to see. [Interruption.] The register should include everyone, and all the money that hon. Members receive other than as a result of their parliamentary duties.
1025 Another issue may also be debated later tonight—an appropriate amendment has been tabled, although I do not know yet whether it has been accepted. I have argued my case on the issue, and I have previously forced votes on it. In my view, all the money that we receive from elsewhere should be deducted from what we earn as a Member of Parliament. [Interruption.] I should add that that view is not shared by every one of my parliamentary colleagues, let alone other hon. Members. A significant number of people share my view, and it has been placed on the record before. Many hon. Members resist such a view. It would embarrass them publicly if their constituents knew how much money they earn as a result of being elected to this place which they would not have earned if they had not been elected.
In any event, however, it cannot be right that the taxpayer foots the bill for answers to questions from which hon. Members can gain private financial reward, because, by this means, the taxpayer is lining the pockets of hon. Members who accept money.
When hon. Members go to the Table Office and table an early-day motion, they are required to say whether they have a relevant interest to declare. There is no reason why there should not be the same requirement when we table a question. We should declare an interest. If we are in breach, at least we have been alerted, and have failed to declare the interest knowingly.
It may be argued that it is also nonsense for the taxpayer to pay, through the licence fee, the British Broadcasting Corporation, which then pays hon. Members to appear on television. We are elected to represent different views. [Interruption.] It does on certain occasions. Television and radio payments should also be in the public domain.
When we visit our constituents, a common view is that Members of Parliament are here for their own advancement and interest. A common view is that we are here to make a profit for ourselves. A common view is that we do financially very well and that we have our snouts in the trough.
If we are to enhance democracy, the Committee should consider that issue as widely as possible; otherwise, we will be regarded as open to the same form of corruption as some other democracies around the world. Your statement, Madam Speaker, made it clear that you would find that unacceptable. I hope that the Committee will be as tough as possible, to ensure that the system is clearly organised to be protection against any risk of corruption of this sort again.
§ Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)
I think that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and others raised some interesting points about the Press Complaints Commission, and, in particular, my complaint to it, and I intend to consider what they have said.
Madam Speaker, I am thoroughly relieved that you have proposed the setting up of the Committee of Privileges. It means that I will have my peers from this House, and not the press, sitting in judgment over me. I too, therefore, support the motion.
I very much regret what I hope the House will accept was a lack of judgment on my part rather than anything worse, and I apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and the House that it is in part actions by me which have made it necessary for you to initiate the debate.
1026 I feel that the House will agree that now is not the time to go through in detail the sequence of events that took place. I will, of course, be talking to the Committee. But as the House, I think, knows, I was approached by a Mr. Jonathan Calvert—that name again. He claimed to be a business man, but he turned out later to be a Sunday Times journalist.
I recognise that I was unwise to have even considered doing what he asked me to do. Consultancy was mentioned. He told me that he had been advised by a former constituent of mine that I was always prepared to help small business men. He talked about his Yorkshire connections, but I accept that I made an error of judgment in agreeing to table a question and in agreeing initially to accept a fee.
I can tell the House that soon after I started to reflect on what I had agreed. I came to my own conclusion that I could not justify accepting a fee, and I decided that I would not accept the payment. This was before the Department of Social Security had told me that it did not know anything about the fictitious company and before I knew that I was the victim of an elaborate Sunday Times scam.
I returned to my Yorkshire home last Thursday. The cheque arrived on Friday morning. I sent the cheque back by return of post on that Friday.
Madam Speaker, I am grateful for your decision to refer the behaviour of The Sunday Times to the Committee of Privileges. It does seem to me to be somewhat dubious, to say the least, that a journalist from a national newspaper should masquerade as a business man and tell a Member of Parliament a tissue of lies to manufacture a story.
§ Mr. Riddick
No, I am not going to give way.
Beyond the challenge to my own integrity, which I deeply regret, the thing that has mortified me the most is that my judgment may have undermined the general standing of Members of Parliament, and even perhaps have damaged the reputation of this Parliament. I regard it as an enormous honour and privilege to serve in the House of Commons and to be able to help my constituents as their Member of Parliament. I am sure that that is the view of most—if not all—hon. Members.
I apologise for the trouble that I have created for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, for whom I have so enjoyed working, and for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the very time when he was fighting for Britain's interests in Naples. But most of all—[Interruption.]
§ Sir John Gorst
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) is virtually making an apology to the House. On such occasions, the House usually hears hon. Members in silence and toleration. I wonder whether you could encourage such conduct on this occasion.
§ Madam Speaker
When any hon. Member is speaking, irrespective of what he is saying, he should be heard with courtesy and in silence. I hope that that will be so throughout this debate.
§ Mr. Riddick
Most of all, for undermining—to whatever degree—the standing of the House, I wish to apologise to you, Madam Speaker and to every hon. 1027 Member. I look forward to giving evidence to the Select Committee on Privileges, in which I have complete faith and confidence.
§ 6.1 pm
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
I want to make a short contribution on a narrow point but to take a little further the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and that by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).
To the best of my knowledge, the motion provides an opportunity, which the House should seize, for us to attend in detail for the first time in some 15 years to the immunities granted to Members of Parliament. They are immunities—[Interruption.]
§ Madam Speaker
Order. I have just asked for order for one hon. Member, and other hon. Members are equally entitled to it. Will those who are having meetings do so outside the Chamber? May I have the doors closed? Will hon. Members either come in or leave? I do not want any more meetings in the Chamber. An hon. Member is on his feet and I want to hear him.
§ Mr. Rooker
Thank you, Madam Speaker.
This debate provides the House with an opportunity that should be grasped. Many hon. Members in the Chamber today—perhaps the majority—were probably elected after 1979, after some turbulent Sessions during which one hon. Member resigned and three were called to book, after the Select Committee that investigated the conduct of Members reported and after various other events in the late 1970s which, of course, brought into being the Register of Members' Interests.
In many ways, we have been here before. When we examined the immunity of Members of Parliament in the past, we were found wanting—we cannot fail this time. Although we have to ask the Privileges Committee to examine the immunities from the law of the land which are granted to Members of Parliament and which set us apart from our fellow citizens, it is not generally appreciated that our immunities go beyond free speech.
I often hear it said on the radio in the morning that Members of Parliament in Italy or Russia are voting to grant or remove immunity from prosecution for some malfeasance, and I think that at least that does not happen here. However, the fact is that we have certain immunities that go beyond that of free speech. Free speech is the crucial immunity; it is very narrow but sets us apart from our constituents. It is a specific immunity in respect of our duties in the House. It therefore elevates our duties in this House above everything else and separates us from our fellow citizens. That is where we should draw the line.
We hear about "the law of Parliament" or "the High Court of Parliament"—indeed, we heard such language in your statement yesterday, Madam Speaker—but I submit that there is no such thing. I think that we should all be equal before the common and criminal law. It is a matter that we, as a House, have been asked to deal with in the past but which the House has refused to address. I remind the House why that was so.
In respect of our parliamentary duties and our actions in Parliament, we, as Members of Parliament, have an immunity in the criminal law from charges of corruption, 1028 bribery and attempted bribery. Outside we are equal; inside we are not. I do not think that that should be the case. I want the Select Committee to widen its remit, as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has suggested.
We govern ourselves essentially by self-regulation, but we have to ask ourselves whether the Committee of Privileges and the Register of Members' Interests are good enough. Do our constituents believe that we all receive equal treatment? The Register of Members' Interests is of fairly recent origin—it did not exist when I was elected just over 20 years ago. To some extent, it has been strengthened, but is it good enough? It has already been called into question today. I wonder whether the ultimate sanction of an inquiry by the Committee of Privileges is sufficient but, fortunately, we do not have to reinvent the wheel.
I should like the Committee of Privileges to revisit the report of the Royal Commission on standards of conduct in public life, which has never been debated in the House. It was published in July 1976 after an inquiry that commenced in December 1974. It has never been the subject of debate. I asked my colleagues in the Labour Government and I have asked this Government by means of parliamentary questions in the early 1980s to allow the House to debate the report.
I do not deny that many of the report's recommendations, in so far as they affect our fellow citizens in business and local government, have been implemented over the years, but some of its recommendations relating to this place have not been dealt with. The report was published under the guidance of the commission's chairman, Lord Salmon, in July 1976, 18 years ago. It is Cmnd. 6524. Let us consider dates for a moment. The Register of Members' Interests was set up by resolution in June 1975; and the Royal Commission on standards of conduct in public life was sitting at that time and taking evidence from various people.
I draw the House's attention to the report's conclusions. Chapter 17 is entitled "The law affecting Members of Parliament" and runs to only 12 paragraphs. The conclusions and recommendations are worth putting on record. The final paragraph-311-states:Membership of Parliament is a great honour and carries with it a special duty to maintain the highest standards of probity, and this duty has almost invariably been strictly observed. Nevertheless in view of our report as a whole, and especially in the light of the points set out in the foregoing paragraph, we recommend that Parliament should consider bringing corruption, bribery and attempted bribery of a Member of Parliament acting in his Parliamentary capacity within the ambit of the criminal law. Our recommendation is limited to this single point, and we do not raise any questions about other aspects of Parliamentary privilege and related matters.That recommendation has never been debated by the House or by any Select Committee. Part of the background to that recommendation is the fact that the commission felt strongly that Parliament is not a public body for the purposes of the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889; Members of Parliament are not agents for the purposes of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906; and, in fact, membership of this House is not a public office for the purposes of the common law. Of course Ministers, in their capacity as Ministers, are public officials, so they are separate. But our status is unique. In this country we are immune; we are the prosecutors, the jury and the judge. That is wrong. Now the Privileges Committee has the opportunity to address that issue. I make no comment 1029 whatever on the merits of the arguments. I know that. some hon. Members have done so, but I think that they have been unwise, bearing in mind the fact that the Select Committee on Privileges is not yet constituted.
I finish by reminding the House that during my exchanges with the Government concerning the lack of serious attention to the report, I once asked the Home Secretarywhat proposal he has in mind to improve the standards of conduct in public life.The answer that I received was:To set a good example to others."—[Official Report, 15 June 1979; Vol. 968, c. 343.]That was in the days when we had a gent as Home Secretary; he is now Lord Whitelaw. His answer was not a Willieism; it was actually true. We are here to set a good example to others.
The lack of attention that the House has given over the years to the royal commission report as it affects our vested interests means that we have failed in our duty to our constituents. I look upon the motion as an opportunity for us to make amends for our negligence in the 18 years since the report was published.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)
I shall make two brief points. First, I had a telephone call last week; I believe that it was from a Mr. Calvert, but unfortunately I threw away the pink slip. I gave the name to my secretary and said, "I have never heard of this guy, and I have never heard of the company. Could you please ring him?" That was the end of it.
I do not want to comment on the position of my two hon. Friends. One of them has explained his position, and the matter will go to the Committee. However, one or two aspects involving The Sunday Times need examining. In connection with entrapment and other such ensnaring schemes, the press code mentions suspicion of a misdemeanour, and the general public interest. The only suspicion that the newspaper could have had of me derives from the fact that, like most of the other Tory Members who were contacted, I am a member of Lloyd's. So I do not think that The Sunday Times could claim that what it did was in the public interest.
The Committee must examine that matter, because that was the newspaper's only possible excuse for bribing Members of Parliament, for coming on the premises of the House with recording equipment and for encouraging Members of Parliament to table questions, knowing full well that those questions would cost the taxpayer money. Perhaps for a start The Sunday Times could reimburse the two Departments for the cost of answering them. I hope that the Committee investigates carefully the role of The Sunday Times in the saga.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said that when one signs an early-day motion and has an interest in a company, trade association or whatever, one's interest must be marked as having been registered. I do not see why that cannot apply to questions, too.
In any case, I think that questions are a hugely overrated technique. Why should one want to table a question, unless one wanted information quickly? Surely if one wants information one can write to a Minister, ask for a meeting with a Minister or ring him up. Only in extreme cases would one want to table a question. I have not had the answers that I wanted to the questions that I have tabled 1030 during the past year. I have always found it far more helpful to write to a Minister. Perhaps one consequence of this unhappy saga will be that less taxpayers' money will be wasted in answering questions—apart, that is, from questions for oral answer.
The subject of Members' outside interests has been touched on, and the inquiry may consider that subject in some detail. I declare an interest as a paid director of a company, or a paid consultant to a trade association. I do not hide such connections. I am proud of the role that I play. However, if the Committee is to examine interests it must also consider Members who are sponsored by trade unions, and Opposition Members who are paid by airlines from other countries to visit them. If Members will be influenced by directorships, surely they will be equally influenced by unions sponsoring them in their constituencies and paying for their offices and other expenses. On that note, I feel that the matter should be committed, and that is why I support the motion.
§ Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)
At least two thoughts occurred to me while I was listening to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) telling us about the banqueter who offered a five-figure sum as an inducement to the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel). First, I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman had reported the improper approach to the House authorities. Secondly, I wondered who got the job after he had turned it down.
I do not think that this has been an especially edifying parliamentary occasion. Conservative Members, for the most part, have not approached the debate with the seriousness and humility that I had imagined they would display. It has not been a pretty sight to watch them braying at the Murdoch newspaper empire—that was not a sound that we heard when on polling day The Sun ran pictures of the former Leader of the Opposition on its front page, headlined:Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights?Nor did we hear it the next day, when The Sun trumpeted:It's The Sun wot won it".It seemed then that the devil Murdoch could be supped with using the shortest of spoons. So it is not convincing when Conservative Members now claim that the Murdoch empire is engaged in a profoundly anti-Conservative crusade.
I have no animus against the two individuals involved in the story. Indeed, with one of them, the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), I have a friendly relationship. I simply wish, as I suppose he now wishes, that he had not been quite so zealous in his unsubstantiated denunciations of the activities of Monklands district councillors in the very week when he was making what he now concedes were errors of judgment. Certainly if a Monklands district councillor had accepted £1,000 from anyone for doing anything in the council he would now be behind bars. That may be a lesson to Members of Parliament to avoid casually imputing dishonesty to others, especially people who cannot answer back.
I am no zealot about work outside Parliament. I do not agree with those of my hon. Friends who say that we should not have other jobs, nor with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, who says that we should hand the money back. I occasionally write for money, for 1031 newspapers and magazines including occasionally, in years gone by, The Sunday Times under a previous editor. However, there is all the difference in the world between work of that nature, and registered consultancies with companies—again, I disagree with some of my hon. Friends here—and the acceptance of money for one-off parliamentary acts such as tabling a question.
Somebody asked me today what the moral difference was between a consultancy and a one-off question. I put it to him with what I hope is not too colourful a metaphor to use in the presence of ladies, including yourself, Madam Speaker. At least a consultancy is transparent, rather like a declaration of marriage between the company and the Member of Parliament. Everyone can see that the Member has that relationship, and knows that the marriage will involve the invoking of conjugal rights by one party or the other from time to time. But the act of tabling a question for a big one-off fee is more akin to a five-minute knee-trembler down by the railway line in exchange for a quick cheque. The difference between the two kinds of commerce is like the difference between such rampant commercial promiscuity and open transparent marriage.
It will not do for Conservative Members to think that the public regard whatever sin has been committed by The Sunday Times in the same light as whatever sin has been committed by Members of Parliament who have accepted money in that way. In fact, most members of the public will regard The Sunday Times as having carried out a signal public duty in exposing transactions that ought not to have taken place, as at least one hon. Member has had the grace to concede this evening. In exposing that, the newspaper has done a public duty.
I hope that what The Sunday Times has done is not used as an excuse for the introduction of new curbs against the press or new privacy laws, as has been attempted in the recent past in the House. Such legislation would build high walls and dig deep moats around the lives of Members of Parliament and powerful and rich people so that they might repel all would-be boarders who wanted to see what those rich, powerful and important people—people like us, business people and others—were actually doing.
The tossing around of the word "bribery" in respect of what The Sunday Times did is ill advised because bribery is a criminal offence and, as a criminal offence, requires criminal intent. My dear friend the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who is a barrister, has told me that the Latin phrase used is "mens rea", which I take to mean the question of the intention behind the money being offered. There cannot be criminal intent in offering money to expose malfeasance or to expose an abuse in public life; that cannot be true. It is simply a contradiction in terms. If the money was offered for the noble purpose of exposing a wrongdoing, it should not be condemned with the ignoble use of the word "bribery".
I wish the Committee godspeed. I hope that it goes about its work diligently, I hope that it does so publicly and I hope that it does so with the view of improving the standing of this House in the public eye, compared with the rather parlous state it is in, I fear, at the minute.
§ Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)
Your statement yesterday, Madam Speaker, which was the catalyst for this evening's debate, will be remembered in the House as a wise adjudication and as a timely opportunity to examine the relationship between the media and this House. I have worked—I declare an interest—for The Sunday Times. I believe that The Sunday Times "Insight" team has had a long and honourable tradition of exposing corruption and treachery. When I worked for The Sunday Times, we were able to expose two hitherto unknown traitors and I believe that that was in the public interest. In the 1960s, the "Insight" team gained considerable admiration for its work in exposing the Whitehall cover-up of Kim Philby. Bruce Page and Philip Knightley were primarily responsible for the investigation and exposure of that episode.
I fear that since those days, investigative journalism has changed. I fear that since the days of Watergate, the journalistic school of Woodward and Bernstein has encouraged journalists to target people in public life. It has made it the acme of journalists' ambition to bring down somebody in public life. In the case of Woodward and Bernstein, it was, of course, the late Richard Nixon.
The reality is that, in this case, clandestine recordings have been made. Conversations have been taped illicitly in the Palace of Westminster. That raises important issues which, I hope, the Committee will investigate. If The Sunday Times can demonstrate a legitimate complaint from an authentic source—the Privileges Committee will need to take evidence on that topic—I well recognise the newspaper's right to pursue its investigations. Investigative journalism is not, however, a licence to invade privacy. According to the terms of the code of practice published by the Press Complaints Commission, clandestine methods, such as recording, are justifiable only when there is no other method of obtaining the information.
If there was widespread corruption or, indeed, any corruption in the House, and if there had been rumours, hon. Members on both sides would have heard those rumours. We now know that, since January, The Sunday Times has been on a quest to ferret out corruption. If the journalists were in pursuit of a single legitimate, authentic complaint, they could, of course, have targeted the person or persons who were the subject of the complaint. However, we now know that hon. Members who, in my judgment, are of considerable probity were approached and offered money. They are individuals whose previous reputation is completely untarnished, even by rumour. The journalists who undertook the investigation will have to answer some very severe questions. Was this, for example, the only way in which they could obtain the evidence? Was there any supporting evidence that justified their actions?
The fact is that the relationship between Members of Parliament and the media will now be investigated by the Committee and I welcome that. I recall making allegations in the House about Robert Maxwell. Soon afterwards, I was interviewed in the Lobby by a journalist in the pay of Robert Maxwell who manufactured a completely bogus story alleging that I had a pecuniary interest in making my remarks and complaints. In fact—
§ Mr. Allason
Is he? Well, Alistair, I regret to say that you cost your newspaper a great deal of money.
1033 What is more remarkable is that a few days after an apology had been made in the High Court, the same journalist went round many Opposition Members attempting to create an early-day motion that was critical of my conduct. I have many friends among Opposition Members and I was alerted to what was happening. Again, that matter became the subject of litigation.
The conduct of the press has now got completely out of control in this House. Although there is always the justification of public interest, I hope that the Committee will look carefully at the way in which journalists behave, not just in the Palace, but elsewhere.
§ Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)
My hon. Friend will know that The Sunday Times has asserted that 20 names were chosen at random. The newspaper drew a blank on 16 of them. Does he agree that the Committee should brook no refusal by The Sunday Times to supply the names of all those approached so that we may know either the scale of the operation that was mounted or whether a truly random sample was put together?
§ Mr. Allason
My hon. Friend makes an important point. You will have noticed during the afternoon, Madam Speaker, that several hon. Members have declared that they were the subject of approaches from The Sunday Times. What is curious is that as far as am aware—I have sat through the debate from the beginning—no Opposition Member has declared that he was approached by The Sunday Times. It is important that The Sunday Times declares the matter fully to the Committee; there should be no excuses.
If the excuse is used that the newspaper has to protect its sources, I remind you, Madam Speaker, and the Committee that on the previous occasion that that defence was deployed—during the Vassall tribunal when two journalists went to prison for refusing to reveal their sources—the reason why the journalists went to prison was that they did not have any sources. They had made up the story and it was on that occasion that the two journalists were exposed and Fleet street itself was exposed for the most disgraceful hypocrisy.
I carry no brief to prevent journalists from investigating issues in the public interest. I have seen no evidence at all so far that anything that has taken place in the past few days, which has tarnished the reputation of hon. Members whom I count among my friends, has been in the public interest.
§ Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)
When we bring visitors around this place and they attempt to sit down on the green Benches, they are shouted at by the policemen. I have often wondered why that happened. I found out—I do not know whether the story is true—that it is not allowed on the ground that it could just be that someone sat in the place where their Member of Parliament sat and pushed a bribe down the back of the seat. I must say that, religiously, for the last 11 years I have looked down the back of my seat and I have never found any used fivers, indeed, not even a 50p piece. So bribery has affected and has interested the House over many years. Since I was elected, I notice that I have tabled 6,919 questions. If I had received £1,000 a throw for each of those, I would have 1034 netted a cool £7 million, which would have meant I could have faxed this speech from Mustique or some other exotic place.
Criticism of The Sunday Times is simply out of place. If not one hon. Member had accepted the £1,000, we would have had a strong case for referring The Sunday Times to the Committee of Privileges, if, indeed, we had ever found out about it, which somehow I doubt. However, two hon. Members did accept the bait and they have done themselves and the rest of the House a grave disservice. I listened carefully to the speech made by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick). It was a difficult speech for him to make and we were right to listen to it very carefully. With respect, I would have had more sympathy with him if I had not heard him recently attacking members of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers for trying to get a decent return for their services in operating the railway—£1,000 would have gone down very well there.
§ Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)
None of us, of course, is conducting a trial. We are trying to establish the ground rules for the Committee, which will look into the matter. Since the matter has implications for the whole House, because, as several hon. Members have pointed out, the perception of people outside is affected by it, may I ask my hon. Friend a fairly straight question? If The Sunday Times had asked 20 hon. Members to take money and no one had taken it, would the paper have run that as a major story?
§ Mr. Banks
My hon. Friend obviously missed the point, but I said that I doubted very much that we would have heard of the story. But the fact is that we have heard of it and, of course, we now have to deal with it. I do not think that we should turn it into a general attack on The Sunday Times or the press, although we can all feel disquiet about the way in which it went about getting its information. Regrettably, it did get some evidence and we must address that and not attack The Sunday Times.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was right. There is a view among people outside that we are all in this place for ourselves. It is not true, we know that it is not true, but, unfortunately, incidents such as this do not help.
I am very worried about the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), which is the reason why I am making this speech. He began by suggesting that consultancies were, in many respects, no different from the one-off payment. That worries me because I have a number of consultancies and I must consider that. I act as a parliamentary adviser to three trade unions, for which I receive intermittent payments, which go to my constituency. I also receive money from the International Fund for Animal Welfare to pay a full-time worker because I do much work in that area. I table a lot of questions connected with animal welfare. They are not specifically requested and they are not paid for on a question-by-question basis. However, the sort of things that are being said place worries in my mind and make me feel that we should look carefully at the issue. I may add, I also act as the parliamentary adviser to the London Association of Beekeepers, for which I receive 12 pots of honey and I would pleased to give you one, Madam Speaker, if you were to need it.
§ Mr. Banks
That is a very sweet point.
At the end of last year, I gave a cheque to the Fees Office for £8,000: the excess of my office costs. Those consultancies paid for that, in effect. I am putting those points on the record because one needs to consider them as well.
It is quite clear that the Register of Members' Interests is deficient, which our good friend, our dear, departed colleague Bob Cryer was always saying. First, if we are to declare interests, we must declare how much we receive. Secondly, we must declare from whom that money comes and, thirdly, for what was that money given, what services were provided in exchange for that money. Interests must either be transparent so that everyone can see them, or we must stop them completely and say that Members of Parliament cannot serve any outside interest whatever for which they receive payments. That may be the way in which to go forward, but the Committee of Privileges must consider it.
Whatever emerges from this highly unfortunate matter, it is clear that we cannot continue in the way in which we currently operate. If we bring about a change which restores us in the eyes of those we serve, The Sunday Times should be thanked for doing us a great service.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)
I was grateful to be given the chance to intervene during the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) but my intervention did not quite come out in the way that I intended.
I agree that many people think that we should not have a continuous line of people ruling the country without letting ordinary people come in for one generation or for five years or 10 years. That was one of the reasons why on a previous occasion I argued with the right hon. Gentleman that there was good reason for having the House of Lords, so that some families who are continually represented in Parliament may have a seat without keeping the rest of us out.
The other point about which I feel strongly is that the greatest power over Members of Parliament, the way in which they vote and what they do is the Whips, the party system, which I expressed inelegantly in my intervention.
However, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield has said that, both in opposition and in government, hon. Members may find themselves losing an argument and then being asked in public to say things that they cannot say whole-heartedly, to put it gently, and merely do the best that they can. I suspect that there is far more of that behaviour than there is of hon. Members who may be bought or induced to do something for money.
I hope that the Committee, if it is the right one, will quickly say that, for tabled written and oral questions, there should be a distinguishing mark to indicate areas in which hon. Members have an interest in the same way that the first hon. Member listed on an early-day motion is marked. I do not understand why the first hon. Member only is marked as having an interest and not every other hon. Member who has signed it. There may be logistical problems, but I think that only the first name of the six is marked. I apologise if I have got that wrong, but I believe that I have described the situation accurately.
1036 We ought to have a system which induces the best to happen and reduces the worst. There are fewer bought Members of Parliament now than there were in the 1930s. I am not saying that all those who were subsidised from outside in the 1930s were bad Members of Parliament. The House has good reason to be grateful to some who were supported, even by newspaper editors, during their times in the wilderness. I declare that I once received £200 from The Sunday Times for writing an article.
§ Mr. Bottomley
I may have been overpaid. We also ought to avoid being too sanctimonious.
When I was in Government at a junior level for a time, someone asked me if I kept a diary. I said no. They said that, if I kept a diary, I would be able to earn more money, have more accurate and more interesting reflections and that the details which might be a blur six years later would be down in black and white, with who said what to whom. They said that that would make a good living afterwards or would help to illuminate the process of government. It is difficult to be clear about what is right and what is wrong, but having a discussion about it is a good idea.
I disagree with those who think that we ought to apply the same standards for the press and for Members of Parliament. Members of Parliament should set what we expect to be our minimum standards and the press in general should set what it expects to be its minimum standards. Our standards should be higher than those of the press.
There are parallels between the activities of a Back-Bench Member of Parliament and an editor of a newspaper. It is not the written rules which basically control what we say on the Floor of the House, but what people around us are willing to tolerate. It is fair to say that people around journalism are willing to tolerate more, on a consistent basis, that is wrong than we are in the House. There is as much ambition and competition to be the writer of a front-page story in The Sunday Times as there is to be elected to this House and to serve as a Member of Parliament. I am not saying that that ambition and competition always produces bad people. It does not. Indeed, it produces some of the very best. On the way, however, there are casualties. The way in which newspapers proceed and the habits that they adopt deserve examination, preferably by them.
I hope that the Committee of Privileges will be able to bring in special advisers on the press. I hope, for example, that it will consult someone like Professor Stephenson from City university, who runs a journalism course. I hope also that it will take advice from someone like Ray Snoddy of the Financial Times, who is one of the more respected of those who comment on the media. It would be appropriate to ask someone like that who could provide advice to the Committee of Privileges on the elements of the reference that relate to the conduct of the press.
I hope also that the Committee will produce separate reports on the parliamentary side and the press side. To bundle everything in one report would be wrong and would help to distract attention from initiatives that might properly be taken that would be useful, effective and proportionate.
As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) said, it is to be hoped that the Committee will pay attention to the Salmon committee's recommendation, 1037 which reflects, probably, the most pointed contribution that has been made to the debate. That could make a difference. It would allow whistle blowers throughout the country to say, "I have some knowledge of a payment. Was it declared by the person who made the payment?" That might lead to a self-checking system.
I have the feeling that the press makes a significant contribution to our country because most of us want to try to do things that the press will not be able to nail us for.
My personal test—I do not pretend to be especially good at all this—is that of the local newspaper. I ask myself whether I am doing something that I am prepared to read about in my local newspaper. If the answer is yes, I ask myself whether I have sent it a press notice. I know, of course, that it will ignore it.
Let us suppose that I am going to the middle east with the Israeli Government or the Palestine Liberation Organisation, or both, or to another area of the world. Am I willing to say it out loud? If I am, have I done it ? That is guidance that I have found useful.
We should have the courage to say almost anything in public. If it is said on the Floor of the House, it can be virtually guaranteed that the press will ignore it. If it is taken up, however, it will come as no surprise and it will appear somewhere on the record.
My first parliamentary question was tabled two years before I was elected to this place. The late Sir Brandon Rhys Williams kindly agreed to table a question on family allowance for the first child. Many people want questions answered in Parliament for many different reasons. It is not a new concept and it is not a bad one. I hope that we shall not give those outside the idea that it is bad to contact a Member and ask for information or help.
Yesterday, at my surgery, I dealt with many different cases. I hope that constituents will never feel thy or embarrassed—the issues may involve business or personal matters, immigration, tax problems or criminal proceedings—in approaching their Member because any of us has been put off, as it were, from the job that we were elected to do.
I regret that which has caused the debate. I believe that the reference to the Committee of Privileges is the right response. The procedure is the best way of getting these issues off the Floor of the House after a short debate. There can be a better debate when we have received the considered views of those who have taken evidence.
There can be no secret sources in this story with the exception of the person who originally said to journalists, "I think that people are taking money that they should not be taking." I look forward to knowing that the Committee of Privileges has had all the tape recordings, all the journalists' notes and all the electronic records in the newspaper's files. On the one occasion that I had seriously to go to law with a newspaper it transpired that most of the things that some of the staff had been saying after I had first made my complaint were falsehoods.
We should follow the audit trail. I understand the problems that may ensue when stories change, but in this instance there should be no secret sources. All the information should be available to the Committee.
§ Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)
I shall be specific and extremely brief.
I remain concerned that there may be a stitch-up by the Committee of Privileges over its report. I am concerned about the Committee's composition. I refer my hon. Friends to your ruling yesterday, Madam Speaker. You said:Of course all the rules of the House will be respected."—[Official Report, 12 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 831]I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to the resolution in paragraph 24 of the first report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests in 1991, which I referred to yesterday, which deals with conflict of interest. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman, when replying to the debate, should give us an assurance that no Members who are consultants to any organisation will be a member of the Committee of Privileges to be appointed.
Furthermore, no Members should be appointed to it who are directors of companies which have lobbied, are lobbying or could in future lobby Ministers on behalf of those companies, or ask questions or table motions. I believe—[HON. MEMBERS: "And trade unions?"] Yes, trade unions as well.
We need specific assurances on these matters. If they are not forthcoming, the public will accuse the Committee of Privileges of stitching up a bad report.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
I do not take the view that is taken by some outside this place, that the House of Commons is more or less corrupt and that every Member can be bribed to table questions or to act for commercial lobbyists. If a comparison were to be made with other Parliaments, I believe it likely that the House would be found to be relatively clean. It does no service to the cause of parliamentary democracy to give a different impression.
For a considerable time, however, as my right hon. and hon. Friends know, there has been anxiety about the way in which parliamentary facilities, such as questions, early-day motions and letters to Ministers, can be used for commercial purposes.
I remember the controversy before the Register of Members' Interests was introduced. It was argued that we were all honourable Members, and that there was no need for a register. Those who took that view said that the register would impugn our motives even in tabling a question. Now that Enoch Powell is no longer a Member, no one, as far as I am aware, disputes the need for a register. It is accepted.
I see little value in a register that does not give real information about the value of an outside interest. I have written to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests—the hon. Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith)—on several occasions, and my point was pursued. My view is simple and clear. Why not give the value of the outside interest? Is it small or large? Why should we not be told? Why should the public not be given that information? Why should a Member feel that the interest is so secretive that in no circumstances should it be revealed?
We all know that there is little or no effective control over lobbyists and the manner in which they use the House. 1039 There is a film—many of us want to see it—that sets out the way in which certain lobbyists go about their business. That is the sort of film that we should see.
I can remember the various occasions when our late colleague, Bob Cryer, raised these matters. He did so not to undermine or discredit Parliament but to ensure that we had a clean Parliament. He wanted to ensure that, where there were outside interests, lobbyists, and payments being made to Members, that information should be available and that everything should be above board. He took that view in the name of parliamentary democracy. In my view, he was right. Incidentally, we much miss him and the work that he undertook day after day in the House.
It is understandable that criticism has been made about The Sunday Times. As I said in an intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), I think that on the whole The Sunday Times did a job that needed to be done. It is almost inevitable that in future, if we table a question and we have an interest, we shall be expected to declare that interest. That reform will almost certainly come about. The debate is taking place in the light of what The Sunday Times did.
I am always willing to criticise newspapers, but in trying to spotlight a weakness in our parliamentary procedure—outside interests and commercial interests—The Sunday Times did no harm. It will be for the Committee of Privileges to tell me that I am wrong. My view is that The Sunday Times acted in the public interest. If anything, it should be congratulated.
There is a cynical attitude outside this place. Perhaps some Conservative Members will disagree with me, but it is felt by some that we are all in politics for our own good, that more or less all of us can be bought, and all the rest of it. We must dispel that view. We must make the point clearly that we are not in it for our own interests. We must make it clear that Parliament and parliamentary democracy are of the greatest value to the British people and that all our civil liberties would not last five minutes without this place. That is the historical value of the House of Commons.
It is unfortunate that people have a cynical attitude to Parliament. It is essential that we dispel that attitude, not only in our interests as individual Members, but in the interests of parliamentary democracy and our successors in the years, and hopefully centuries, during which this place will continue. It is essential that we do that in the interests of what we are trying to establish and maintain.
There is, perhaps linked to the cynical view, a great deal of concern over what has occurred and what the two hon. Members are accused of. After our debate today, the matter will go to a Committee and it could then be more or less buried. The summer recess is coming up and, by the time the Committee meets, other matters will be on the agenda and public and parliamentary interest in this matter might have faded away.
I hope that we will have a report by the end of the year. These are matters of crucial importance. However much hon. Members may have criticised The Sunday Times, I do not believe any hon. Member has disputed the fact that these matters are important. If the matters are important and if they are to go to the Privileges Committee, we should have a report as quickly as possible. I hope that the Leader of the House will bear that point in mind because 1040 that view is shared by many hon. Members. Obviously the report will be debated and it may be disputed. However, we should not leave it in abeyance for a year or so. The sooner we have that report, the better for this House and for our reputation.
§ Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)
May I first apologise fervently to you, Madam Speaker, for attempting on 11 July to raise a point of order which you ruled out of order because I was trying to suggest that more issues should be considered than just the behaviour of individual Members? I should, of course, have realised that you would have considered the issue more widely and the statement that you made yesterday showed that.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Points of order are concerned with our Standing Orders or breaches of procedure. I caution Members not to raise points of order just because they want to make a point or a comment, which is what so often happens.
§ Mr. Connarty
I thought that I was in order then, but you ruled me out of order because you knew better than I did.
The point that I was trying to make is very salient to today's debate. I wish to suggest, like many other hon. Members, that the remit of the Privileges Committee should be to look seriously at the inadequacies of the register that we hold at this moment. I tried to make the point that the value of the interest is important.
Sadly, I disagree with my good friend and someone I have admired for some time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who suggested, rather weakly, that value should not be included in the register. That undermined the very splendid case that he made. I also disagree with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). He is another good friend of mine and someone I admire. He said that a consultancy was in some way different from taking an individual payment for a particular issue. He said that it was all about a marriage.
I suggest that all hon. Members are already married. To take a consultancy is an infidelity, because we are married to our constituents and to the people we represent. It is actually a bit on the side, when one is so good that one is paid for the service one renders. That is totally inappropriate to this House.
Anything that anyone does in this House which is directly related to influencing the business of the Houses of Parliament or clearly designed by action or inaction to do that should be done only because of someone's beliefs or judgment and not because there is any question of influence by the taking of money for anything that connects us to a party outside which can profit from our actions in this House. We are here to represent our constituents and their interests in a broader frame.
I have stated in the House, and have put it on the record, that I receive money, or my constituency party receives money, from the Union of Communication Workers. It is entirely consistent with the wishes of my constituency party that I defend the Post Office and post office workers. If there were ever a difference, I would suggest to my constituency party that it should let that money go by, so that I could represent my constituents properly and honestly.
1041 I attempted to raise the question of the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), who asked a question about power in Scottish Question Time on 6 July. That hon. Member is a consultant to Scottish Power. He admits that he has a car from Scottish Power. He has not, in fact, declared how much he has in the register. It was interesting that my hon. Friend the Member for Hillhead, whose entry is next to that of the hon. Member for Ayr, has entered the fact that he is an unpaid political consultant for an organisation.
§ Mr. Bill Walker
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it not the convention of the House that, if an hon. Member is going to make points about another hon. Member, courtesy requires that that hon. Member should be notified about that in advance?
§ Madam Speaker
The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I had assumed that, in this debate, Members would be very circumspect, and that that is what happened. Has the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) notified the hon. Member concerned?
§ Mr. Connarty
The hon. Gentleman has, in fact, been informed. We have discussed the matter at some length. He is aware of the points that I am trying to make and continue to make.
§ Madam Speaker
Order. May I make myself clear? Has the hon. Member for Falkirk, East informed the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie), not simply had a conversation with him at some time?
§ Mr. Connarty
I formally informed the hon. Gentleman of this, yes.
As a result of what I have described, articles appeared in the Daily Record. In my opinion, and in the opinion of other hon. Members who have spoken, someone who receives a consultancy fee should enter it so that people know the value that is placed on the services.
The question that occurred to me was, what is a consultancy for? The hon. Member for Ayr has said that he has not asked any questions on behalf of Scottish Power in the time that he has been a member of this place arid has been a consultant. It appears to me that, if a company is willing to pay a large sum of money, as yet unspecified as it is not declared in the Register of Members' Interests, and someone does nothing on that company's behalf for two years, that company is getting a very bad deal.
No one in the public domain outside this House believes for a minute that, if someone takes a consultancy fee, something is not being done for it to advantage those who pay the fee.
§ Mr. Connarty
In a moment.
As an hon. Member who pays Scottish Power for his electricity, I am concerned that it is paying a sum of money to an hon. Member to do nothing for the company or for me as one of its customers. That does not make sense. It does not stack up.
§ Mr. Foulkes
Does my hon. Friend accept that it is always possible to pay someone to keep quiet? The fact that Scottish Power is planning to build a huge interconnector through my constituency, about which the 1042 hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) has kept completely quiet despite the fact that many of his constituents are up in arms about it, may have some connection with that.
§ Mr. Connarty
The point has been well made, and I do not need to repeat it. It seems to me that silence can be bought as much as speech. That is a matter of judgment for the electors in the constituency of Ayr.
§ Mr. Connarty
I have no intention of giving way further in this very brief contribution to the debate.
My point is that there is a question about immunity and privilege in the House in respect of what people can say in the House about members of the public outside, who may be entirely and utterly innocent. When I took up a case in the medical field, I was threatened on occasions by an organisation called the Medical Protection Association. It said that it would take litigation against me. I squared it with the association by telling it that, if it thought that I would be silenced by that threat, it was not on. We have that privilege to protect us in speaking on behalf of our constituents.
When that privilege is abused, and when someone consistently gets up and accuses, on the record, council officials, councillors, or a council of being corrupt and of using dubious practices, such people sully the names of many hard-working officials in local authorities up and down the country. That happened in respect of the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Dover (Mr. Shaw) in respect of Monklands. They did that continually and without justification. I sat in this place at 2 am to defend those officials, whom I know to be honest, upright citizens. The Privileges Committee should consider how we can curtail that kind of thing.
I repeat the words of Lord Whitelaw, which were quoted earlier. The point of this House is to set a good example. It should be part of the Committee's remit to see how we can better set a good example. My father used to say: "Civility costs nothing, and honesty earns admiration." That should be the aim of the Privileges Committee.
§ Mr. Nicholas Brown
In moving my motion, I sought to do two things: to refer to the Privileges Committee the allegations contained in The Sunday Times article, and the circumstances in which they were made, and separately, to refer to the Privileges Committee the wider questions of the public duties and private interests of Members of Parliament. All hon. Members who have spoken in the debate have emphasised different aspects, but no one has spoken against the motion. Therefore, I assume that the motion commands a consensus in the House, and I hope that it will be agreed without a Division.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the matter of the complaint, together with the issues referred to in the statement by the Speaker on 12th July, be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
§ Mr. Phil Gallie (Ayr)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My understanding is that my name was raised in the Chamber a short time ago, and the individual who raised it suggested that I had been informed that that was his intention. That is not the case; I have had no 1043 information about it. I accept that, last Monday, I was informed belatedly that my name was to be raised, but today I have received no such notification.
I understand that the comments made on Monday referred to the question that I asked at Scottish Question Time about nuclear generation. I want to make it quite clear that nuclear generation has nothing to do with Scottish Power—with which, I openly acknowledge, I have an association.
§ Madam Speaker
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made that quite clear. I went out of my way only a few moments ago to ask twice very clearly whether the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty) had informed the hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Gallie) that he was to refer to him in this debate. I accepted the word of the hon. Member for Falkirk, East, as an honourable Member of the House, that he had informed the hon. Member for Ayr beforehand. I seem to have been mistaken in that—perhaps I might now have an explanation.
§ Mr. Connarty
If you, Madam Speaker, did say, "in this debate" I apologise. I do not recall you saying that. I did, quite timeously, inform the hon. Gentleman, and phoned his office on Monday. I said that I would be raising the issue of his connection with the consultancy, and that—
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Let me make it quite clear: I twice during this debate referred to the matter. I deprecate the answer that the hon. Gentleman has given me. We shall now move on with our business.