HC Deb 02 November 1994 vol 248 cc1570-607 3.45 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In the light of your wise and understandable statement, and as the Government knew perfectly well as far back as 10 May that a letter had been written on House of Commons notepaper, is not it rather odd that we should give preference above other business to a debate such as this at this time? We must remember how long the Government have known about the letter and surely your statement rather alters events, does it not?

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The motion on privilege is extremely narrowly drawn—as you reminded us when we considered a similar motion earlier this week. In view of last night's events, there will be a clear temptation in today's debate for hon. Members on both sides to discuss the proceedings of the Privileges Committee. That is something which you warned us against previously and which I am sure you will warn us against today.

Secondly, anyone voting for the motion today cannot have any idea whether, if carried, the complaint will be considered by the Committee in public or in private, or how the proceedings of the Committee will be arranged.

Madam Speaker

Order. Could I have a point of order for me?

Mr. Madden

I believe that to consider the motion today would be premature. Could it be withdrawn to enable us to consider it when the proceedings of the Privileges Committee are themselves clear and made known to the House?

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)


Madam Speaker

Order. I can deal with the two points of order now. I think that I have captured the mood of the House on this matter. There is certainly no conflict between the motion before us today and the statement that I made earlier. The motion is in perfect order and it is ready for debate. Quite frankly, the House has a responsibility, at this stage, to deal with the motion now.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As you know, during the time that you have been in the Chair and prior to that, there have been countless instances every year of people, both inside and outside the House, using House of Commons notepaper when they should not have done so. Can you tell me on how many occasions such people have used the notepaper but not had it brought before the Privileges Committee?

Madam Speaker

Of course, I cannot give the hon. Member a figure for that at this stage, but I shall certainly have some research carried out and do my best to respond to his question. It is not a point of order for me, but I am always willing to give as much information as I can to individual hon. Members.

3.48 pm
Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

I wish to call attention to the alleged action of The Guardian newspaper in representing that a letter sent by it to the Ritz hotel, Paris, was sent in the name of an honourable Member of this House.

I beg to move, That the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges.

There are occasions when I would give my eye teeth to address the House in prime time and on an important issue, but this is not one of them. This debate opens up all sorts of predictable criticism and offers us assorted traps into which we can all fall. I fully understand that in a debate such as this it would be very easy to sound pompous, sanctimonious and utterly party political, but when we seek to defend our collective reputations and, more importantly, the status and symbols of the House, there will always be a risk of allegations of hypocrisy, oversensitivity and being out of touch.

While the debate is, of necessity, about a possible abuse of the House and contempt of Parliament, I hope that the whole House would be just as concerned if the victim of this alleged conspiracy, impersonation and forgery were the proverbial Joe Bloggs, whose letter heading did not have a portcullis or the words "House of Commons".

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I would have much more sympathy with the case being made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) if the information about the use of a piece of notepaper purporting to come from the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) had been brought to the attention of the House when the right hon. Gentleman himself knew about it. He knew about it on 10 May. The Cabinet Secretary knew about it on 18 May. Why was not the House so informed at that time if it is so important now?

Mr. Wilshire

I am happy for other hon. Members to make their case in their way, but I prefer to make my case in the way that I think is best.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is a point for you. You have emphasised, understandably, that this is a matter of precedence over other business. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) says, the matter was known about in the public print on 10 May and the Cabinet Secretary wrote letters on 18 May. Why is it given precedence?

Madam Speaker

The hon. Member cannot disrupt our proceedings in this way with points of order that are really not points of order. It has been determined that this matter takes precedence today and it is the responsibility and duty of the House to debate it. It is about time that we faced up to some duties in the House.

Mr. Wilshire


Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

In view of the points that have just been raised, does my hon. Friend accept that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary apparently considered referring the matter to the Press Complaints Commission, but as at that time Mr. Peter Preston was a member of the Commission, they felt that it was not worth doing so?

Mr. Wilshire

Again, those are interesting points, but I should like to press ahead.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can we now assume that the rules involving raising matters at the earliest possible moment no longer apply?

Madam Speaker

As I have told the House and the hon. Member, the motion before us and the way in which we are proceeding are completely in order according to the business of the House and precedents that have stood us in good stead over many years.

Mr. Wilshire

Thank you, Madam Speaker. All that I can say is that as soon as I knew about the matter, I raised it with you on Monday morning.

I also want to make it clear at the outset that in saying what I say this afternoon I do not seek to criticise all journalists and all editors when I criticise one. I make no claims at all to be better than or different from anyone else. I know that I run the risk of setting myself up for abuse and criticism, but so be it. That is the lot of all politicians.

All I know is that if I was caught forging faxes, however much I felt that I could justify it, I would expect to be pilloried by every newspaper in the land, and that is a fate that I would richly deserve. If, when I was found out, I indulged in self-righteous self-justification, I would rightly deserve the contempt of every fair-minded person.

Again at the outset I want to say that I am anxious to try to avoid cheap party politics. [Interruption.] I guessed that that would get a hollow laugh. All I can say is, please hear me out and then judge at the end whether I am playing party politics.

I am relieved that you, Madam Speaker, have made it clear that the debate must confine itself to narrow issues—in fact, the issues in my motion—because those are the issues that I wanted to raise when I wrote to you on Monday. Whatever an hon. Member may or may not have done is not part of the issue, although I can quite understand why there are people in the House who want to pursue that story.

This issue is sufficiently important to require separate and immediate attention. What concerns us today are the methods employed by a respected national newspaper when investigating a Member of Parliament. At best, those methods were ethically flawed; at worst, they were downright criminal. Whichever they were, they were a flagrant abuse of the House and need to be investigated.

I say that for three reasons. Those in a privileged position must be above reproach—at least, that is the message that newspapers have been trumpeting these past few weeks. I am perfectly happy to accept that Members of Parliament are in a privileged position, even if most of us do not have much power. I am, however, clear in my mind that newspaper editors are in an equally privileged position and wield substantial power.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that Mr. Peter Preston acted in the public interest in revealing the fact that Conservative Members failed to register pecuniary interests: yes or no?

Mr. Wilshire

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself and hear me out, he will get his answer.

If editors maintain that Members of Parliament should be above reproach, it follows that they also should be beyond reproach. My second reason is that two of the most important duties of all Members of Parliament are to stand up for the rights of the individual and for the rule of law. Perhaps the greatest threat to both is the belief held by people in powerful positions that the ends justify the means. Down that route lurks the jackboot and the lynch mob.

If I understand history correctly, this Parliament came into existence to protect the citizen from arbitrary abuse and victimisation. Throughout Parliament's history, we have had to square up to the over-mighty who seek to place themselves above the law.

My third reason is the total lack of a proper apology by the editor of The Guardian. From time to time, we all allow our enthusiasm to run away with us and do things that we later regret. When I do that, I find people willing to accept a proper apology, while I want to hide in a dark corner for quite a while. But not so the editor of The Guardian. Over the past few days, and again in Mr. Preston's letter of resignation from the Press Complaints Commission last night, the nation has been treated to the mocking of decency and honesty, and to the attempted justification of deceit and deception.

Mr. Malcolm Wicks (Croydon, North-West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilshire

No. I will press on because I have been generous with interventions up to now.

My description of the details of the allegations is based on comments made by Mr. Preston, Mr. Al Fayed and reports in The Guardian. In the circumstances, I hope that the House will find all those sources reliable. Last autumn, Mr. Al Fayed told Mr. Preston about a Ritz hotel bill. Quite how or why an extremely busy international tycoon found time to interest himself in such a matter of detail is not reported, as far as I can discover. Mr. Preston wanted a copy of that bill, while Mr. Al Fayed wanted to protect his own reputation and that of his hotel. They concocted a plan to forge a fax.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance. Are we debating whether the matter should be considered by the Committee of Privileges, or are we debating what should be discussed by the Committee at a later date?

Madam Speaker

That is a very good point of order. We are debating today whether the House should refer the matter to the Privileges Committee. I have just read the motion for the umpteenth time and it is very narrow. Although references may be made to certain matters, they should not be detailed and ought to be brief. The House should keep it in mind that it is considering only whether the matter should go before the Privileges Committee for detailed investigation there.

Mr. Wilshire

I shall certainly try to keep my reasons for wanting the matter referred as brief as I possibly can.

As I said, because Mr. Preston wanted a copy of the bill, a plan was concocted to forge a fax. I am no lawyer, but that sounds like a criminal conspiracy to me. As a result, Mr. Preston arranged for the top of a letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), on official House of Commons stationery, to be stuck to the top of a fax to make it appear that it came from a Member of Parliament. That sounds remarkably like forgery to me.

Finally, Mr. Preston worded the fax to suggest that the sender was my right hon. Friend's private secretary. Lawyers to whom I have spoken tell me that that sounds remarkably like impersonation. Thus, it appears to me that Mr. Preston has admitted not only to an abuse of Parliament, but to criminal activity. That is why I have referred the matter to the police.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Wilshire

No—I have detained the House long enough. I want to make a couple more points; then I am sure that you, Madam Speaker, could call the hon. Gentleman to speak, if he is on your list.

I can think of no better way to sum up my case than to quote something that I heard on Radio 4 on Monday morning: I think that anyone other than a Member of Parliament writing on parliamentary paper is unacceptable and I think that there does need to be some investigation into exactly what happened. I don't think it's right for others than Members of Parliament to take on that role, and I think there are some questions that need to be answered there.

I agree with every word of that comment made by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), Labour's shadow Leader of the House. Thus the hon. Lady and I stand united across the party political divide. That is why I want the matter referred to the Privileges Committee. That is why I want to hear its verdict and its views on possible punishment. That is also why I welcome the verdict of a jury and the punishment handed down by a judge.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)


Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Leader of the House is Chairman of the Privileges Committee, which will deal with the matter. He used his casting vote on a previous occasion, and I have no doubt that if it meets again he will use it for this matter. I want to know why he can take part in the debate, leading on behalf of the Government, when he will be acting as judge and jury.

Mr. Newton

As I had indicated to you, Madam Speaker, I felt it appropriate to say a word, but really only two sentences. First, as Leader of the House, I hope that the House will accept my hon. Friend's motion. Secondly, as Chairman of the Privileges Committee, I think that the House will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment beyond that.

4.2 pm

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I, too, will be brief as the matter before the House is relatively straightforward and the motion is very narrow.

I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I very much regret the extravagant and intemperate language that he used, which did not help his case.

The basis of the complaint is that the editor—[Interruption.] If we are able to consider the matter carefully, it will do the House a great deal of good; it is an extremely important issue.

The basis of the complaint that the hon. Gentleman made, in respect of allegations that the editor of The Guardian used House of Commons notepaper and forged the signature of a member of staff of a Member of the House, is very serious, and on Monday, you, Madam Speaker, instigated inquiries through the Serjeant at Arms.

The motion proposes that the matter be referred to the Privileges Committee. Clearly, there has been a prima facie breach of parliamentary privilege. I repeat what I said on Monday morning, which the hon. Member for Spelthorne quoted. I made it clear, as soon as I heard the allegations against Mr. Preston, that for anyone other than a Member of Parliament to use official notepaper is completely unacceptable, as it clearly is for anyone to forge any signature. It is unacceptable behaviour for an editor of a newspaper or, indeed, for anyone else. Anyone who receives a letter on House of Commons writing paper must be able to believe that the letter is genuine, not least to protect our ability to serve our constituents. When we write to doctors, lawyers or, indeed, anyone else, those recipients must feel confident that the letters are genuine.

The reference to the Privileges Committee is therefore inevitable and entirely appropriate. I do not seek to defend the actions of the editor of The Guardian, or to justify them. Mr. Preston has said that, in retrospect, he may have been wrong to do what he did. He was wrong; he was foolish; and it is right for the Committee to consider his actions.

I hope that the Committee will also consider when hon. Members first knew of the fax, and of the forgery that forms the subject of this inquiry. It is important that the Committee finds out who knew about the forgery, when they knew about it and why, if Members of Parliament knew that there had been a flagrant breach of this kind, they did not report it earlier to you, Madam Speaker.

Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Why does the hon. Lady think that the timing is relevant? The important point is that either this was done, or it was not. I gather from what the hon. Lady is saying that she thinks it was thoroughly wrong to do it. It was against the principles and rules of the House, and that is the end of the matter.

Mrs. Taylor

I think that any hon. Member who finds that there has been a flagrant breach of privilege has a responsibility to report it to the House. I think it entirely right for the Committee of Privileges to examine this matter as well as the other details that have been mentioned.

Statements have been made in today's press that Cabinet members—including the Prime Minister as well as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—knew all about the misuse of House of Commons paper several months ago. It is not for the House to consider that in detail this afternoon, but I believe that it is relevant to the inquiry, and I hope that the Committee will take that aspect on board.

The fact that Mr. Preston was wrong should not be used as a reason for ignoring the issues that he was raising and, indeed, the evidence that has come to light. Mr. Preston might claim that he used a foolish device to verify essential evidence and to protect his source of information. It is interesting that no one has challenged the factual information that he presented, nor are those facts challenged by this debate.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

The hon. Lady, surely, is trying to change the facts completely. Surely what happened was a conspiracy by Mr. Preston to try to hide the fact that he was working with a blackmailer in an attempt to bring down the Government.

Mrs. Taylor

I am sure that the Privileges Committee will hear everything that is said. [Interruption.] As some of my hon. Friends are saying, it would be wise not to make allegations of that kind outside the House.

Mr. Corbett

I do not disagree with a word that my hon. Friend has said. Does she acknowledge, however, that although paragraph 7 of the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct, which was generally approved by the Government, states that subterfuge should not be used, it also states that it is possible if it is in the public interest?

Mrs. Taylor

It is interesting to note that, when Opposition Members have attempted to increase the accountability of the press, they have generally been blocked by Conservative Members. We are considering one aspect of the means used to obtain information. The ends do not justify the means, but neither do the means invalidate the attempts to raise issues of genuine and important public concern. The methods adopted raise some big questions and we should not lose sight of the fact that journalists and others are trying to prise out information because we do not have a sufficiently transparent system of accountability in this country. If we had a better system of registering the interests of Members of Parliament and Ministers, this might not have happened.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You told the House, rightly, that this is to be a narrow debate. The hon. Lady is attempting to make some party political points.

Madam Speaker

I am listening to the debate carefully; the hon. Gentleman can leave it in my hands. The hon. Lady is doing perfectly well at the moment. I believe that she is about to finish, if the hon. Gentleman will allow her to do so.

Mrs. Taylor

Thank you, Madam Speaker. I was about to conclude. I have tried not to be partisan because these issues are in the interests of us all.

The Nolan committee will consider some of the wider issues, and it is important that the House does so too. Mr. Preston's action must be referred to the Privileges Committee, and I hope that its members will investigate all the issues that are raised by this reference.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker, arising from what was said by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who moved the motion. He said that he had reported this matter simultaneously to the police. For many years, the House, which has a jurisdiction of its own, has kept a wide boundary between its jurisdiction and that of the courts. If this is to be pursued in the courts with, presumably, a prosecution for forgery, while the Committee is handling the matter, we could be in difficulties.[Interruption.] I hope that the House will listen because this is a point of substance.

If the case is taken to court, it will be heard in open court, whereas in the Committee of Privileges it will be heard in secret.[Interruption.] Yes, that is the decision of the Committee. If Mr. Preston is referred to the Committee of Privileges and he asks for the right to print in his newspaper what happened in the Committee, he will be guilty of another breach of privilege for revealing the Committee's proceedings. I am drawing to your attention, Madam Speaker, an important question. We have stumbled into this without thinking it out. There are two jurisdictions and two regimes: an open regime in the court and a private regime in the Committee. If Mr. Preston were to be hauled up, he would be put in an impossible position.

Madam Speaker

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but it is not a point of order for me. It is a speech that he might wish to make during the debate, when he may have something of substance to say. It is not a point of order at this time.

Mr. Benn


Madam Speaker

Order. I have given my ruling.

Mr. Benn


Madam Speaker

Order. Sit down for a moment. I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. It is not a point of order at this stage. It is a point that right hon. and hon. Members may wish to employ during the debate. It is not a point of order on which I can rule.

Mr. Benn

With great respect, I have no intention of speaking today because I spoke on Monday. By accepting a motion after we have been told that the issue is going to another jurisdiction, the jurisdiction of the House is infringed. That is a matter for you, Madam Speaker; it is not a matter of judgment for the House. It is for you to protect the jurisdiction of the House and to order the hon. Member for Spelthorne, if we do proceed, not to take the matter to the courts, otherwise the rights of the House of Commons will be taken over by the courts.

Madam Speaker

I gave the matter careful consideration before it came before the House today. There is no sub judice involved—we are perfectly in order, as was the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) in moving the motion. I spent a great deal of time taking legal advice on the subject, and the way in which we are proceeding is perfectly in order.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that one reason why Committees sit in secret is that they collect evidence? Police and other investigations are carried out in secret, and only when all the information has been looked into and collected—

Madam Speaker

Order. Hon. Members are attempting to conduct the debate through me. They must wait for me to call them. I hope that there will be no more points of order—we must proceed with the debate.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I call Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours, who has not had a point of order yet.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I was rising to speak in the debate.

Madam Speaker

What a wise man. I shall call him after I have dealt with the points of order.

Mr. Madden

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) asked a number of questions that other hon. Members had asked earlier. It was clear that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) was either unable or unwilling to answer those questions, which related directly to the motion. The House requires clear information that the Leader of the House was unable to give—

Madam Speaker

Order. That is not a point of order, but a matter for debate. Hon. Members are raising matters for argument, not points of order. There has been no breach of our Standing Orders or procedures. Hon. Members are raising matters for debate across the Floor of the House.

Mr. Dalyell

I have a point of order that is directly for you, Madam Speaker; it falls within your jurisdiction. The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) asked my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) what possible relevance there was in the timing of all this. Is there not an obligation on the Government at least to give an explanation? They may have a perfectly good explanation, but the debate cannot continue without their explaining why something that was known in May was not tackled until November. That is a fundamental point and the Leader of the House of Commons has an obligation to explain.

Madam Speaker

That is not a point of order for me; it is a debating matter. The hon. Gentleman is attempting to extract information, which is perfectly reasonable, but he cannot extract information from me; he must do it through other hon. Members.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I shall take no more points of order.

4.17 pm
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I wish to raise five matters that are relevant to the decision that we will be required to take later today. I shall confine those issues strictly within the bounds of the motion. I am well aware that some of what I have to say will not be palatable.

Before raising those issues, I want to ask the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) a question. She indicated that she intends to support the motion. In the light of her partisan statements and the partisan comments from Labour Back Benchers, I want to know whether the Opposition intend to support the referral of a breach of privilege to the Committee. Will the hon. Lady's Back-Bench colleagues support that referral?

Mrs. Ann Taylor

That is a matter for the House, and I hope that all hon. Members will exercise their judgment. I clearly said that I support the referral to the Select Committee on Privileges. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should ask me about that.

Mr. Gale

It seems that Opposition Members are trying to have their cake and eat it by half-heartedly condemning the clear breach of privilege while trying to curry favour with the press.

The press have sought to give the impression to the public that we are discussing the misuse of House of Commons writing paper and, in so doing, have sought to trivialise the matter. They have given the impression that we are talking merely about a letter that was written on paper, which we now know was not stolen paper but just the clipped heading of a piece of House of Commons paper. They have given the impression that the matter involved a trivial misuse, and simply represented a mistake.

That is not all that we are dealing with this afternoon. We are dealing first with the forgery of a letter purporting to come from a Minister of the Crown, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Secondly, we are dealing with a very clear intent to deceive. Thirdly, we are dealing with the impersonation not only of a member of the Chief Secretary's staff but of someone who was at the time a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, whose signature was copied.

That is the first series of issues. They are not trivial matters but serious and possibly criminal offences. The use of writing paper was certainly a discourtesy to the House, but the matter goes much wider than that and we need to focus on it, however much others may seek to mislead the public.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

In the world of modern communications, whether one is dealing with a fax or another communication to a newspaper, are not the chances of a letter getting into general circulation—even with none of the explanations attached to it that the editor of The Guardian has sought to attach to it—such that they make such an action even more culpable and fraudulent?

Mr. Gale

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I hope and believe that those responsible for bringing criminal charges in this case will consider his point very seriously. I would expect a criminal action to follow, but that is not what we are here to consider today.

This matter does not relate only to The Guardian, although we are debating the referral of the actions of its editor to the Privileges Committee. The Guardian set itself up as the gamekeeper of political morality and all the other Fleet street newspapers clung to the gamekeeper's coat tails. The gamekeeper's coat pockets have now been found to be full of stolen pheasants. The other newspapers that ran stories about my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, that ran pictures of his wife and children and that sought to drag him and his down, are left with sizeable egg on their faces. If I may mix my metaphors, the rats are now quickly leaving a ship that is holed and sinking.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

The hon. Gentleman, like me, is a journalist by profession. Is he even mildly curious about what the former Minister of State for Defence Procurement was doing in a hotel in Paris at the same time as three Saudi arms dealers?

Madam Speaker

I am sure that the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) will not pursue that, as to do so would stray wide of the motion.

Mr. Gale

I am entirely content to accept the explanations that have been offered to the House, as they should have been, by my right hon. Friend. If I may digress slightly in response to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)—

Madam Speaker

Order. I have cautioned the hon. Gentleman and the House. The hon. Gentleman knows full well how narrow the motion is. We are debating whether, if the House so wishes, to refer the matter to the Committee. We are not arguing the merits or demerits of any individual.

Mr. Gale

My right hon. Friend is answerable not to The Guardian or any other medium but to two sets of people: his constituents and hon. Members. His constituents have faith in his integrity and he has answered to the House.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the tone of the debate, especially from the Opposition, is frightening? We have seen a casual disregard for the rule of law, which is a frightening portent of what would happen if the Labour party were to get into power.

Mr. Gale

Much has been made of the fact that knowledge of the forgery was in the hands of certain people—in particular, the Cabinet Secretary—some time ago. It is important that we consider that because the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has referred to it, as have other Opposition Members. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), my understanding is that referral of the forgery to the Press Complaints Commission was considered carefully by the Cabinet Secretary, who concluded that, as the editor of The Guardian was at that time a member of the commission, there was little point in asking the turkey to vote for Christmas.

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Madden


Mr. Gale

No, with respect to the hon. Gentlemen, I shall not give way. Many hon. Members wish to intervene in the debate. It is better if I conclude my remarks and let other Members make their own speeches.

Last night the editor ofThe Guardian resigned from the Press Complaints Commission, not as a matter of personal honour but as a result of pressure from inside the House.

We must consider another salient point. Throughout the affair, the Press Complaints Commission has maintained a stunning silence: not one word of condemnation has been heard. [Interruption.] It is another issue, but I suggest that the time has come for the House to create an independent press tribunal with statutory powers—

Madam Speaker

Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. We are not discussing any press tribunal. I have cautioned the hon. Gentleman; many people want to speak in the debate, and I now ask hon. Members to stay with the point and get on with debating the motion.

Mr. Gale

We have been discussing whether the editor of The Guardian, a former member of the Press Complaints Commission, should be referred to the Privileges Committee. I seek to give the House instances showing why I believe that that referral should and must take place. I believe that because of the forgery, the deceit and the impersonation that he has practised, using House of Commons notepaper, Mr. Preston's conduct as a member of the Press Complaints Commission is part and parcel of the matter that we are considering.

The press, especially the editor of The Guardian, have set themselves up as the guardians of the public interest, but that guardian angel has turned out to be the whore from hell. I believe that some good may yet come from the matter. If it is referred to the Privileges Committee and the Committee considers it correctly, as I believe it will, and the report is published and debated by the House in full, as it will be, the public may at last realise the depths to which that editor and others are prepared to sink to stand up a story at whatever cost to the truth.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) asked whether any hearing would be held in camera or in public. That is an interesting question, and I am sure that the press will take a keen interest in it. If the matter is referred to the Privileges Committee, as I believe it must be, I should prefer Mr. Preston to have the opportunity to give his evidence in private.

I believe that the Committee may also wish to call Mr. Al Fayed—[HON. MEMBERS: "Fayed."]—and to hear Mr. Fayed's evidence in private. That should not be turned into yet another media circus and yet another feeding frenzy. For that reason, if for no other, I hope that the Committee, if the matter is referred to it, will decide to hold the hearings in private, and then to publish in full.

Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gale

No. I apologise to my hon. Friend, but as I refused to give way to Opposition Members I must refuse to give way to him too.

I have written to the chairman of Guardian Newspapers to ask whether the company believes that its editor has acted properly and whether he still has the confidence of the board. If former Ministers should be required to resign their offices to clear their names, the editor of The Guardian should be required to do the same.

Several hon. Members


Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In deciding whether to support the motion, several of us will find ourselves in a dilemma because of the following question: did the editor of The Guardian and his newspaper, using House of Commons notepaper—using it wrongly; I do not try to justify its use—intend to serve a genuine public interest in trying to secure information that he believed could not be obtained in any other way? I ask you, Madam Speaker, whether in those circumstances we could have a little more information. As matters now stand, many of us will have some difficulty in approving the motion.

Madam Speaker

I feel that hon. Members are trying to debate the motion through the Speaker. I cannot answer questions such as that. Hon. Members have to attempt to extract that information from others. It is certainly not a point of order. Perhaps, if the debate were to proceed, we may get the information. If hon. Members were to speak briskly, I could call as many as possible and the information may come.

Mr. Madden

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

This is about the fourth point of order that I have had from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Madden

It is relevant, Madam Speaker. As everyone so far has been unable or unwilling to answer the questions which a number of hon. Members have put, I assume that those questions were put by the Serjeant at Arms in the inquiries that you asked him to undertake. Therefore, assuming that his report has been completed, may I ask that it is made available to hon. Members before the vote takes place in the hope that the Serjeant at Arms' report reveals the information which a great many hon. Members require?

Madam Speaker

There is only one matter before the House today—the motion printed on the Order Paper. It is for the House to determine whether the subject is of such seriousness that we want it examined by our Privileges Committee. That is all. If we want to leave the matter as it is, the motion is defeated. If we want to go further into it, it is for the Privileges Committee to go into all those details, not the House at the present time. There is a simple motion before us.

4.30 pm
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

I suspect that some hon. Members would expect me to declare an interest in the present debate in the sense that I was the subject of what I considered a scurrilous piece of journalism by a sister paper of The Guardian fairly recently. Some may think that I rise, in some sense, to even the score, but I assure colleagues in the House that I shall be either abstaining or voting against the motion. I want to explain to the House and put into context the reason why I have come to that decision. As someone who co-authored a biography of Harold Laski, it is with some sense of irony that I speak today when we are looking at a problem involving the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). Much of my time, when I was writing that biography, was involved with an illustrious or notorious predecessor of his in the famous Laski 1946 libel trial, which is interesting for the historical record.

It seems to me that there are two institutions in crisis at present in Britain. The first is our Parliament, where we seem to be in so many senses out of touch with what ordinary people think or believe or care about. This debate is very much about whether by its actions tonight, we will show that we are in touch with ordinary opinion or totally out of touch with it. The second institution that I believe is in crisis is the British media—the newspapers and the other media. One can analyse easily why our media are in crisis. It is a question of the new media of communication, increasing competition, new technology—

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Low standards?

Mr. Sheerman

The hon. Gentleman says it is also a question of low standards. Perhaps some of those low standards are a consequence of the failure of the Government to act on a crisis, which has been coming for a very long time and has been unanswered by the present Government. That is the crisis of increasing monopoly ownership of the media, cross-ownership of the media between the Fleet street media as they used to be called—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been in attendance throughout the debate. He will have heard Madam Speaker's firm ruling on what the debate is about. It is certainly not about the ownership of the press.

Mr. Sheerman

Sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I only—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being sorry, but Madam Speaker has ruled and I am confirming her ruling. I should be most grateful if he carried on with whatever other points he has to make.

Mr. Sheerman

I was merely putting into context the reason why I shall be abstaining or voting against the motion tonight. As I was saying, the institutions that are out of touch with ordinary opinion are Parliament and the media. I was explaining why I believe that the media are in crisis. Increasingly, there is a war in Fleet street which is not just about price and whether The Times is 20p or The Independent is 30p. The war is also about who can produce the most scurrilous story.

That competition in Fleet street, not just in the tabloids which seem to concentrate more on the royal family and sex scandals, but in the broadsheets, seems to have undermined our strong and excellent tradition of investigative journalism. Investigative journalism now seems to be any story—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman seems to be having some difficulty relating his contribution to the motion. The motion is very clear about referring the matter to the Privileges Committee. Unless the hon. Gentleman can relate his remarks firmly to the motion, I must ask him to resume his seat or develop his argument properly.

Mr. Sheerman

I was about to develop that argument. I believe that Fleet street has moved towards picking up stories that are poorly researched and presented in a tradition of investigative journalism in respect of which we once led the world. I believe that that has led us to our present problems in respect of which the House is considering whether to approve the motion.

I believe that we should not pass the motion because the House is becoming out of touch with what ordinary people want and perceive. Day after day, ordinary citizens, including my constituents, face a serious and dangerous life with the press. These people are the subject of scurrilous stories. The person involved may be a plumber in Huddersfield. It may not involve a leading politician from an aristocratic background. However, the facts are the same.

When we are deciding whether to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee, we must bear in mind the impact on the rest of the country. If we are perceived to be members of a cosy little club which is going to rush off and have a special tribunal in order to try the editor of The Guardian just because someone has used a piece of House of Commons notepaper in a fax—

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

If the hon. Gentleman believes that the behaviour of The Guardian should not be referred to the Privileges Committee, given that some of us would agree with his attitude towards scurrilous and ill-researched stories, what should be done with The Guardian?

Mr. Sheerman

Most sensible people outside the House would have said, "Ignore it." There has been an on-going investigation into the behaviour of certain hon. Members and members of the Government in particular. My answer to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) is that the Government should act in terms of setting an example in public standards and introduce legislation which protects the ordinary citizen in this country in the way that the Government seek to protect a member of their own Government.

When an ordinary person in this country is attacked by the press and when an injustice occurs, there should be mechanisms for that ordinary citizen to obtain justice. Time after time, ordinary people are given no opportunity—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have already drawn the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that this debate is purely about whether the matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee. The hon. Gentleman said three times that he was coming to that point, but on each occasion he has not come to it. This is the last time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now purely refer to whether the matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee and not refer to his constituents or to any problems they may have.

Mr. Sheerman

I was coming precisely to the point of advancing the argument that if we take part in a cosy conspiracy that leads to decisions being taken in secret in the House, ordinary people who are denied justice day after day throughout the country will feel angry and frustrated with this institution. I speak as one who understands very well what it is like to be the subject of a scurrilous story in the press. But what is the choice for the ordinary citizen? He has the option of an expensive libel suit or of going to the Press Complaints Commission, which has no real power or standing any longer. In short, there is no justice for the ordinary citizen.

If the House decides this evening to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee in this cosy little world of Parliament, that will prove more than ever before that the House is out of touch with the citizens of this country, and that it is about time it was reformed.

4.40 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

To say that the press or the elected members of this House are out of touch with ordinary people is perverse.

Newspapers have to find their constituency every day or every week among members of the public; and Members of Parliament, besides what they do between elections, have to take part in electoral contests when people have a choice. So to argue that any of us—journalists, editors, politicians, Ministers or shadow spokesmen—is out of touch is absurd.

Before dealing with the motion I should like to say where I stand. It is not easy to make a speech that is not popular or which does not seek party advantage. One of the tasks of this Parliament is to ensure that we frustrate all attempts to control the media.

Part of the freedom of the press is the freedom to be wrong. It is no true freedom if we say that the press has the freedom only to be right or to say things which it can prove in a court of law.

The Guardian is to be both congratulated and criticised—there were two examples of this yesterday. It is to be congratulated for its persistence over the years in the Carl Bridgewater case, over which the paper has challenged the courts. It is to be condemned—although not to the same degree—for its absurd front-page story about the Minister and the part-time dentistry.

What exactly are we trying to refer to the Committee of Privileges? The point at stake is a narrow one. I must declare an interest, as having earned £200 from The Guardian and accepted a meal from its editor. The issue solely concerns the use of the House of Commons letter heading. It does not concern whether a piece of paper was stolen—we do not know whether it was. At stake is the representation as from the House of Commons. We are not discussing the signature of the private secretary either.

The issue for the House concerns whether the editor is prepared to tell the Privileges Committee, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake."

There are of course plenty of other issues to debate, criticise or defend, but they are not especially important for the Committee.

Some issues should be discussed inside the newspaper itself and in the media generally: how far was The Guardian being used by other people? How far was it conscious of being thus used? Did the paper—regardless of my views—pursue what it thought was a legitimate line of inquiry?

The editor of The Guardian is not in the same position as other people. In times past the paper may have sought special privileges for itself, as it did in 1974–75 over the capital transfer tax and the wealth tax. It may have had the advantage of £70 million falling off the back of a lorry into its trust in 1990.

Its editor's position is in effect a protected freehold. There are also arguments within the trust about the independence and character of The Guardian. All these are matters for the paper to decide.

The House has two tasks, of which the first, for the Committee of Privileges, is to find an answer to the question: does the editor accept he was wrong to use the House of Commons letterhead, as he did?

Secondly, and away from the Committee, will we go on frustrating the efforts made by Members on both sides of the House to shackle the media? By all means let us get involved in arguments with the press and criticise it, but we must not use the Privileges Committee to try to control what journalists do in their legitimate role of vacuum cleaners, picking up the dirt and sifting it, sometimes making mistakes but often getting it right when they decide what to publish for the public.

4.44 pm
Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

We have just heard a sensible and refreshing speech by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley)—probably the only one of its kind that we shall hear from a Conservative Member today.

That Mr. Preston was wrong, and that The Guardian was unjustified and fell below acceptable standards in falsifying a fax transmission so that it appeared to come from a Member of this House has been frankly admitted.

I do not know what kind of admission Conservative Members expect from Mr. Preston. Do they expect him to walk naked through the snow, crying, "I'm guilty!"? We have already heard a great deal of exaggeration from Tory Members today.

Mr. Preston's act was certainly reprehensible, although in many ways the use of the House of Commons logo was less reprehensible than the use of the signature of an entirely innocent civil servant who has nothing to do with these issues.

All this is much to the discredit of The Guardian and Mr. Preston and it must colour how we decide to vote tonight. But what worries me about this debate, about the motion and about the whole issue is the fact that it has been characterised by an extraordinary outburst of self-righteousness and by subjective and political indignation of the kind that does this House no good. It brings politicians into further disrepute and it shows that at least some Members of the House are out of touch with the real indignation felt by members of the public about Members of Parliament. The public feel that some Members of this House do not seem to know the difference between the legitimate exercise of judgment, occasionally appetised by a free lunch, and burying their snouts so deep in corporate troughs that they have been able to enjoy a diet almost entirely comprising lobbyist-fed truffles.

Before we decide whether to refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges, let us look for a moment at the real effect of Mr. Preston's subterfuge. Amid the accusations of blackmail and forgery it has emerged—putting it at its lowest—that at least some of Mr. Al Fayed's statements are true. Still, it is not surprising that there should at an early stage have been a degree of mutual distrust between The Guardian and Mr. Al Fayed.

What is described in the motion as a letter was not used to deceive anyone in any responsible position, inexcusable though it was. Two conclusions should be drawn from this episode. The first is that Mr. Preston did go beyond the limits of legitimate journalism; that will certainly be a factor colouring how we vote later. The second conclusion is that the evidence confirmed as a result of the subterfuge raises matters in the public interest which are important and which require further explanation from the Chief Secretary—along with other allegations made in this morning's Daily Mirror which are also of great seriousness. Uncomfortable though Conservative Members may find it, it is a fact that, despite the subterfuge, The Guardian has done the country a service.

Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North)


Mr. Carlile

I am sorry; a great many Members want to speak.

In my view, the House, in deciding how to vote on the motion, should accept that The Guardian should be congratulated on bringing into the public domain issues concerning the behaviour of Members of the House which are legitimate matters for public interest. Those are the issues that we must address in gauging the point on the scale of indignation where our judgment should rest at the end of the debate.

It should not be forgotten by those of us who go into the Lobby that the Government have known about the action on the part of Mr. Preston since 18 May. It should not be forgotten that the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) knew about the fax on 11 May. I have a copy of his response to it and it is extremely relaxed and far from as indignant as the expressions on his behalf by right hon. and hon. Conservative Members.

When we decide how to act tonight it should not be forgotten that the way in which the issue has emerged has involved a degree of politicisation of the Cabinet Secretary, a man of integrity, which has sent shudders through First Division civil servants. Nor should it be forgotten that the Government's incandescent reaction to Mr. Preston's conduct does not lie comfortably if a test of consistency is applied. The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) is not in his place now, but I heard him fulminating about how disgraceful it was for a piece of House of Commons notepaper to be used in a forged fax. Of course, he is right. He is also certainly right that an issue of that sort should go to the Committee of Privileges. But there should be a degree of consistency, so I ask Conservative Members why a very different view was taken in 1992 when someone employed by the Serious Fraud Office forged a fax from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir. D. Steel) on House of Commons paper.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We are not considering that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh yes, we are."] Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is experienced and learned and he knows that we are not considering on this motion evidence of activities that took place in 1992.

Mr. Carlile

In deciding how we vote tonight we are surely entitled to debate, among other things, the issue of how consistent the Government have been in their actions.

On the occasion to which I referred, the Attorney-General—I am glad to see the right hon. and learned Gentleman in the Chamber because I gave notice that I intended to raise this issue as part of my argument—and the Government were satisfied enough for the Attorney-General to state on 7 July 1993 that that forgery was just an unfortunate practical joke committed on April Fool's day.

It would appear that a different set of values were applied to an attack on my right hon. Friend in a fax which was sent to those attending a court of law, in comparison with a fax that relates to a member of the Government.

Mr. Madden

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?

Mr. Carlile

I shall not give way because many hon. Members wish to speak.

A Government who fail to take disciplinary measures against an officer of the law, who sent a forged fax to persons attending a court building, and in the name of a Privy Councillor, with the clear intention to deceive, are hardly in a position to do any more than set new standards of unjustifiable sanctimoniousness in respect of the fax under dispute, which deceived nobody.

The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is mistaken about his facts. The issue is remote from the debate. I would be grateful if he clarified those facts for himself before he proceeds further with that issue.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Tell us the facts then.

The Attorney-General

The error in his understanding is that the letter in question was produced by a police officer. The matter was looked at extremely carefully and the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) and the hon. and learned Gentleman were carefully written to. He is misleading himself about the accuracy of the background.

Mr. Carlile


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. While it is perfectly fair and appropriate to refer to a number of incidents that took place when charging hon. Members to make up their minds, the hon. and learned Gentleman then developed his argument with the result that the Attorney-General quite rightly raised a point of order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is responsible for his own words, but it is my responsibility to ensure that he debates the motion. I trust that he will now return to it.

Mr. Carlile

I would like to answer the Attorney-General and would do so, but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall obey your injunction.

I hope that no newspaper will ever again make use of the House of Commons logo or of a Member's name in the manner under debate. I also hope, however, that the Nolan committee, a rigorous inquiry by the Committee of Privileges and a thorough investigation by the Select Committee on Members' Interests will result in any future debates of this kind not being caused by highly questionable dealings with murky arms dealers, freebies at the Ritz and fistfuls of Harrods vouchers.

Before we decide how to vote tonight many questions remain to be answered. The person who has already had the courage to ask many relevant questions has been the fallible Mr. Peter Preston. We should bear that in mind in deciding how we vote. I hope that after the reproof which the debate clearly implies, Mr. Preston will not only regret the sending of the fax, but will pursue issues such as: how can the Home Secretary really expect the House to believe that he was trying to ensure that Mr. Ali Al Fayed's nationality application was fairly—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman may be an experienced lawyer but those remarks are entirely out of order and beyond the scope of the debate. If he has nothing else to say, I should be grateful if he concluded because a number of hon. Members wish to speak. Does he have anything further to say?

Mr. Carlile

It is my submission to the House that if there is to be a reference to the Committee of Privileges, the sort of question to which I started to allude should not be cast away in a cursory inquiry. It is not enough for the Committee of Privileges simply to demand Mr. Preston's attendance so that he can say sorry.

On balance, I shall vote for the motion because I trust the Committee of Privileges to carry out a full inquiry. I also trust it to include the actions not only of Mr. Preston, but of all those right hon. and hon. Members who have been tainted by evidence that their pockets may have dictated their judgment. I also trust the Committee to include evidence not only from those right hon. and hon. Members, but from Mr. Al Fayed and Mr. Rowland. I trust it to carry out a rigorous inquiry, free from party interest and founded, for a change, upon a genuine search for the truth.

4.57 pm
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I hesitate to say anything that may get Mr. Peter Preston off the hook, partly because he was the newspaper editor who shopped Sarah Tisdall and ensured that she went to prison and partly because, some years ago, I had occasion to look into the background of Mr. Al Fayed and I am bound to say that I came to the conclusion that he was pathologically corrupt. I will say something on behalf of Mr. Peter Preston, however, and argue why we should not refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges.

In terms of consistency, equity and fairness the public will be a bit uneasy about what the House is doing tonight. Some years ago, a question arose about the use of Downing street notepaper by Mr. Denis Thatcher. On that occasion, I do not remember some demented hyena from Thanet, North fulminating at the mouth—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am not sure if I heard the hon. Gentleman right, but if he used the term "demented hyena", I would be most grateful if he would withdraw it.

Mr. Sedgemore

I shall certainly withdraw the remark, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not hear the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) fulminating at the mouth and asking that Mr. Denis Thatcher be reported to the Privileges Committee, brought to the Bar of the House, or humiliated in some other way. We must treat the editor of The Guardian in the same way as the husbands of Prime Ministers.

On the subject of notepaper, we can all fulminate somewhat pompously about the use of that paper. Like everyone else, I have to deprecate its use by anyone other than a Member of Parliament, although on at least one occasion I used a sheet of House of Commons notepaper for private and personal business. I suppose that that constitutes theft, but I am not sure. Even this morning, I received a note from the researcher of another Member of Parliament on a little sheet of House of Commons notepaper, which asked me out to lunch. I am not sure where that comes in the great pantheon of such things, but we can whip ourselves up into an unjustified frenzy.

I understand that additional factors are involved and I will come to them, but I am concerned that the public will think that the British establishment and Parliament are once again saying that the accuser should become the accused. It would not be the first time that that has happened here or in some other countries.

In the mid-1980s, I investigated a bank and Lloyd's. We were not talking about a sheet of notepaper, but of millions of pounds and of hundreds of millions. A small analogy is that at the end of the investigation, a detective chief inspector and a detective sergeant came to question me in a room in this House and suggested that I might be a conspirator in the case and that the whole investigation might have been a result of my conspiring with someone who ran abroad to destabilise the British Government. That is absurd. The accuser became the accused.

In Italy recently, Mr. Berlusconi found himself in difficulties. He was accused and what did he do? He turned on the judges and said that they were breaking the law and the constitution. There is always a tendency for people who are engaged in wrongdoing to protect themselves by attacking others.

The public may think that that is what is happening in this case. Mr. Peter Preston has launched some allegations, some of which may be true and some false, but we are being asked to turn him into the defendant and the criminal to deflect those allegations.

I am sure that Madam Speaker has been given the highest legal advice and I would not challenge anything that she said. I speak as a very modest and humble lawyer. Whatever the legal advice she has been given, once the matter is referred to the Privileges Committee, it will find itself in conflict with the law. Today, we have heard several allegations about criminal offences—mostly judicially illiterate stuff, but never mind that—committed by Mr. Peter Preston. When the Committee launches its inquiry, even within the terms of the motion on the Order Paper, it will have to discuss whether he has committed those offences.

Neither the House nor the Privileges Committee has any right to act as a court of law in a criminal case. For the Privileges Committee or the House as a whole to set themselves up as a court of law in a criminal case is both improper and unconstitutional. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) raised a point of law. Perhaps he should have raised it as a point of debate. That seems the most powerful reason for us to decide that there is another way out.

In that splendid voice, which is renowned throughout the world, Madam Speaker gave Mr. Peter Preston a wigging. She made it clear exactly what she thought of him. She does not like what he did and nor do most of the rest of us. Surely that is enough. We do not want to become involved in a conflict between this House and the judiciary and we do not want to make ourselves look absurd or pompous.

5.4 pm

Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) as he used many of my arguments, so my remarks can be shorter.

Notwithstanding my long interest in the freedom and the responsibilities of the press, the very fact that we are dealing with the press today shows that the issue of privilege is involved. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) carefully argued that there is a delicate balance between press freedom and the freedom of the press to investigate politicians.

My argument follows directly on from that of my colleague the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. If we bring a newspaper editor before the Privileges Committee and possibly to the Bar of the House to be disciplined in some way for raising questions about the Government's conduct, the House will be misunderstood. People outside will not understand—although they have reason to criticise the press and be critical of the way in which it deals with individuals and groups—primarily because they also understand that one of the roles of the press is to call to account the Executive and to some extent the legislature. For that reason, the House needs to be very careful before it disciplines the press.

Part of the function of the press is to challenge us. That does not make Peter Preston right over the fax. Clearly, he was wrong and has said so openly.

I remind Conservative Members who are minded to vote for the motion to remember that the Opposition have infinitely more experience of our party being attacked by the press. It happens all the time [Laughter.] Yes, it happens all the time. That situation has changed in recent years, not because the press has been critical of the Tory party, but because of criticism of the present Prime Minister. I accept that that is happening in a major way, but that does not alter the fact that usually the Labour party is attacked. That should not trouble us in this debate but it warns both parties and all Members of Parliament that we would be setting a dangerous precedent by arraigning an editor.

If I wanted to be Machiavellian I might suggest that Conservative Members should think carefully about what is involved. If I became aware of a breach of privilege of the House I would have two options—bring the matter to the notice of the House or say nothing about it. I might have good reason for doing the latter, but what would happen if another Member of Parliament brought up the matter, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) did today? It would then be debated in the Privileges Committee and afterwards in the Chamber arid hon. Members might want to know why the breach was not reported in the first instance—in this case, back in May. In all honesty, if the Conservative party wants to debate that in such a way, from a purely party political point of view I should be happy to do so. However, I do not think that it makes much sense for it to do so.

In this case, it would be a serious mistake for the House to overreact and to arraign the editor of The Guardian before a Committee of the House. It would be totally misunderstood outside, as some of my colleagues said. If anyone has doubts, he should refer to the debate in the House on 24 January 1957, when it arraigned Sir John Junor, then the editor of the Sunday Express, to appear before it. I have little time for him as I think that he was an appalling editor, but that is neither here nor there. The House called him before it because he claimed that if petrol rationing came in, Members of Parliament would vote themselves large allowances to get round it. When we look back on that case, we think that it was crazy and that we were going over the top.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

If the hon. Gentleman has an account of the words that John Junor used, perhaps he would share them with the House.

Mr. Soley

The words are not recorded in Hansard. However, if the hon. Gentleman buys today's copy of The Guardian he will find them accurately reported there. Mr. Junor was alleging that hon. Members would abuse their position by ensuring that they had additional rations.

Mr. Bottomley

Mr. Junor did say he was sorry.

Mr. Soley

That is right.

I say in all seriousness that the House should not get into this ball game and arraign editors of the press. As I showed clearly through my Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill, many people outside the House have good reason to be angry about press irresponsibility. What happens to them is often far more serious than what happens to Members of Parliament and Ministers, who are better able to defend themselves. If we took a hard line with editors when they attacked Members of Parliament, but not when they attacked vulnerable groups or individuals outside the House, that would be utterly misunderstood, and rightly so.

It would be much better to back off now, which is why I shall vote against the motion. Although Mr. Preston was wrong to send the fax, it would be stupid and wrong of the House to arraign a member of the press. If we did, when we looked back on it in 20 years' time, as we look back now to the 1957 example, we would say, "What on earth were we doing? What on earth were we thinking about?"

I would be tempted to vote for the motion only if, included in the Committee's deliberations was the question of why hon. Members and members of the Government, who were aware of the breach of privilege in May, did not choose to report it to the House.

5.11 pm
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)

I declare an interest as a journalist who has very occasionally worked for The Guardian.

I oppose the motion without in any way minimising the serious error of judgment of which Peter Preston is guilty. I have been the victim of not one, but two forged letters on my headed notepaper. Both of them were given to the police and thoroughly investigated, although the culprits have not yet been found. The hurt and anger caused when someone's headed notepaper has been used to impersonate and misrepresent, and the plausibility of a letter purported to come from a Member of Parliament, are serious matters. However, it is critical that the House keeps the matter in perspective and avoids over-reaction.

The earlier part of the debate, although not the later, was not an edifying sight. Tory Members worked themselves into a lather—this time it was against the left-wing newspaper The Guardian, but only a few months ago it was against the right-wing newspaper The Sunday Times. They have shot the messenger and disregarded the message. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) cried "smear". If any hon. Member knows about smears, it is him. It has not been a pretty sight.

I began to question the judgment of Mr. Peter Preston long ago, even though I occasionally took work from him. As has been said, he caused a young, vulnerable woman, Sarah Tisdall, to go to prison because of his failure to protect her as his source in the Ponting case. Perhaps Mr. Fayed, a richer and much more powerful individual, required more protection than that young, vulnerable woman, but that does not strike me as being very plausible.

I believe that Mr. Preston will regret the extent to which he climbed into bed—I hope that you will forgive that phrase, Mr. Deputy Speaker—with Mr. Fayed. His name is not Al Fayed; that is one of the many misrepresentations of which he has been guilty while in this country. He is a liar and a crook. The Government's investigation of him during the takeover of Harrods made that quite clear. He was thrown out of Haiti by Papa Doc, who could not bear his stench of corruption. He blackmailed—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying beyond the motion. Will he return to it, please?

Mr. Galloway

I accept your stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the fact that Mr. Preston's judgment is flawed for all to see is germane to whether we should leave the matter there as has been suggested, or compound it by referring it to the Privileges Committee. Nevertheless, I accept your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will say no more about Mr. Fayed—other than that the editor and Members of Parliament who were in bed with him will have cause to regret it. He is a man who keeps the receipts; he is a man who keeps the tape recordings; he is a man who, as we may soon discover, even keeps the video recordings from the bedrooms of the Ritz.

It is not plausible for hon. Members to work themselves into a lather about the mere misuse of a House of Commons logo. After all, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) emblazoned one on the elegant ankle of a stockinged lady on the cover of her sexy novel, which is selling like cold cakes in the remainder shops.

I do not know whether the former Prime Minister's son, when travelling in her gravy train, ever used House of Commons notepaper, but his father certainly did.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. This is an abuse of the debate. I should be grateful if, for the second time of asking, the hon. Gentleman would return to the motion.

Mr. Galloway

You are the boss, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it seems to me that precedent and consistency are issues—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That may be so, but conjecture is not.

Mr. Galloway

In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall avoid conjecture.

Many people misuse our notepaper. Indeed, one hon. Member used it to send out an offer of South African wine at knocked-down prices under apartheid. It was the Member for Pretoria, South or Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle); I forget which. The fact is that many people have done similar things. It is always wrong, but it is important to keep a sense of perspective—

Mr. David Shaw

That was not forgery.

Mr. Galloway

Forgery is a criminal offence. I am not a lawyer, but I know that for something to be a crime there must be criminal intent. I do not believe that any hon. Member thinks that Peter Preston, as fallible and mistaken as he was, did what he did with criminal intent.

Mr. Shaw

It was forgery.

Mr. Galloway

It was forgery only if it was done with criminal intent.

Mr. Shaw

Peter Preston has already admitted forgery; the question is whether that is a criminal offence. As I understand it, forgery in itself is not necessarily a criminal offence—although it is a very serious matter—and that an important factor is whether there was financial gain. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that financial gain may have been the intent both of Mr. Fayed and of Mr. Preston, in terms of increasing his newspaper's circulation.

Mr. Galloway

Forgery, by definition, is a crime. If Mr. Preston is guilty of forgery, he is guilty of a crime. However, he can be guilty of forgery only if his action was based on criminal intent. Many people sign documents when they apply for jobs as our researchers and they are not always open and above board, but we do not drag them before the Privileges Committee. Perhaps we should. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dover brought a prostitute into the House under bogus—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Hon. Members will know that I am not a lawyer either and we are not here to debate the legal definition of certain acts. We are here to debate whether, under the motion, the editor of The Guardian should appear before the Privileges Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now succinctly put his reasons why that should or should not happen.

Mr. Galloway

I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having been dragged into the gutter most often frequented by the hon. Member for Dover. The electorate will deliver its verdict on the hon. Gentleman very shortly.

Peter Preston has been a fool; he may even have been a knave, but the public outside are more concerned about the activities and actions of Members of the House of Commons than they are about the actions of newspaper editors. If we fool ourselves about that we do ourselves and this place no credit at all. We shall merely deepen the deep cynicism and hostility that is growing in the country towards Parliament if we are seen to pursue the mediaeval route of dragging a newspaper editor to the Bar of the House, uncovered, as the regulations say, and arraigning him for an offence of bad judgment when so many Members of the House of Commons daily demonstrate bad judgment themselves.

5.21 pm
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

I have three interests to declare. First, some 20 years ago I had the honour to be president of the National Union of Journalists. I am now a Member of Parliament but I still consider myself in part a journalist—an honourable, decent and necessary profession.

Secondly, I have taken The Guardian shilling, so I must declare some fees from that paper. However, even after several years of attempting to get my articles accepted, my fees do not yet amount to the £1,000 offered and accepted by two Conservative Members for asking questions.

Thirdly, on the issue of subterfuge, which is part of the debate, I was dismissed by the BBC some 20 years ago when, on the instruction of a producer, I faked a phone call to a phone-in programme on the BBC. I paid a heavy professional price and thus I was interested when I heard the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), the chairman of the Conservative party, at the recent Bournemouth conference, invite Gideons, as he called them, to make fake phone calls to put in propaganda on behalf of the party.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

What has that got to do with the motion?

Mr. MacShane

What it has to do with it is that 20 years ago that was the standard set for subterfuge. Two or three weeks ago, that standard disappeared when a Cabinet member invited the British public to practise subterfuge on our airwaves.

The logo is germane to the debate. I am concerned about that because this weekend my children got hold of some House of Commons notepaper and were busy scribbling on it. I am not sure whether they will have to be brought before the Committee of Privileges. If they are, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will not be taking notes of what they have to say, but instead will read them one of the fairy tales with which he so often beguiles the nation.

It is difficult for Opposition Members ever to book a Dining Room in the corridor downstairs. Time and again they are all being used for Tory fund-raising dinners organised on House of Commons notepaper. Reference has been made to the wonderful book of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). We authors appreciate each other's writings. I enjoyed the hon. Lady's book and I understand why she put the House of Commons logo on its cover.

We come then to the question of forgery. I read in The Times this morning that in the 18th century someone was executed for forging a letter. We have heard much talk of crime. I understand that the mover of the motion, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), is also referring the matter to the police. We have heard a great deal of talk that what took place was a criminal action. I cannot understand then why in May, when the Chief Secretary, the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister knew of this so-called criminal action, it was not reported to anyone. Either it was a crime then or it was not. If it was, they were grossly derelict in their duty.

The NUJ and the Press Complaints Commission have a code of conduct which covers matters such as this. The NUJ code states: A journalist shall obtain information, photographs and illustrations only by straightforward means. The use of other means can be justified only by over-riding considerations of the public interest. The journalist is entitled to exercise a personal conscientious objection to the use of such means. The code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission is along much the same lines. It would be helpful if the two could be combined and we could, to use a phrase from the Government, have a charter of journalism that could be taught in schools. It would not be a statutory code, but it would be part of a journalist's way of life.

There we have the words: The use of other means can be justified only by over-riding considerations of the public interest. The person who decided that dodgy stays in the Ritz were a matter of public interest was not Mr. Preston but the Prime Minister when he dismissed the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) for taking that money and staying in the Ritz. He dismissed another Minister for having a financial relationship with Mr. Fayed. It was the Prime Minister who decided that there was overriding public interest.

So we come to the question of Mr. Preston. Yes, he was wrong, and every single journalist to whom I have spoken since the affair broke agrees that he was wrong. The Sarah Tisdall affair was referred to earlier. There was no question then, when Mr. Preston did the Government a favour by shopping her, of bringing him to the Bar of the House, but Mr. Preston suffered—

Mr. Dalyell

Will my hon. Friend reconsider the use of the word "shopping" in that context?

Mr. MacShane

I am sorry. Perhaps that is a question that Ms Tisdall and Mr. Preston can answer better than I can.

The obloquy that Mr. Preston suffered then came from his journalist peers, just as the unhappiness that he feels today is because many British journalists think that he has done wrong. The tone of remarks made so far in the debate is probably winning, minute by minute, the journalists and the people of Britain to Mr. Preston's side. I would regret that.

The House can make a gesture tonight, but the real problem is that the House is parlous in so many things. We live in a form of democratic, one-party state. We have a centralised Government who have replaced local and other democracies with their placemen and their wives. The press, for all its faults, is our only bulwark against the kind of centralisation of power that we are daily witnessing.

I am a new Member. As a son of two immigrants who, in years gone by, would have loved to have had parliamentary democracy, I value what the House stands for. On a question such as this, if it is the House versus the press, the British people, able to vote every five years for a new House, will prefer to support those who have brought the attention of the public to matters of grave concern.

I enjoyed the speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). However, his conclusion in no way followed from his argument. I shall be going into the No Lobby tonight.

5.29 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I have no criticism of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who is an honourable man, but I am surprised that he learnt only recently of the alleged fraud in question.

Mr. Wilshire

I lead a sheltered life.

Mr. Banks

The hon. Gentleman must lead a cloistered existence—one that does not involve reading newspapers, which is unusual for a Member of Parliament.

An atmosphere of hysteria is settling over the House, and that is destructive. Mud tends to stick to all of us, even the most innocent—of which, I hasten to add, I am not one. Therefore, it is important that these matters are speedily and publicly resolved.

I am not interested in the actions of the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) or in who paid for his weekend in Paris. I recognise that there could be implications for the rules governing the conduct of Ministers, but that is for others to decide. Much as I would like to, I cannot condone the methods by which information on the hotel bill of the right hon. Member for Thanet, South was secured, although I suppose that a public interest defence could be entered. Only time will tell whether the methods used were justifiable.

It is not simply a matter of using House of Commons notepaper. That has been done by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. They had their wrists slapped, but they were not reported to the Committee of Privileges. There is an added dimension, in the form of a signature that purported to come from the office of the right hon. Gentleman. That is different from just using a piece of House notepaper.

We are told that time is of the essence in everything that we do, and this matter is out of time. That is why I shall not support the motion in the Lobby tonight. One keeps returning to relevant questions. When did the right hon. Member for Thanet, South first become aware of the use of House of Commons notepaper in a letter purporting to come from him? It appears that he knew around 10 May. In a letter to the editor of The Guardian, the right hon. Gentleman said that he clearly knew of that and would report it to the Government.

When the Ritz found out that it had received an illegal or fraudulent fax purporting to come from the right hon. Gentleman, it alerted him immediately. He faxed back this germane reply: The Guardian article has caused surprisingly little serious interest here, probably because it was one of the most boring journalistic examples of an Editor's personalised obsession ever to find its way into print in a newspaper. Moreover there is really little or nothing for even an ill-wisher to follow up since nobody has done anything wrong, even in the light of The Guardian's somewhat flawed and inaccurate story. Because of the above-mentioned reaction my present plan is, as my teenage children would say, to 'stay cool'. However, I am taking further legal advice and so is the Government in the light of the new dimension to the story which your fax has revealed. That fax was dated 11 May. If the right hon. Gentleman was prepared to stay cool on 11 May, why are Conservative Members getting hot about the issue on 2 November?

Mr. Dalyell

Was there not at least a moral obligation on the part of the Leader of the House to give his parliamentary colleagues in all parts of the House some explanation for that delay? Apart from anything else, that would have been good parliamentary manners. Normally, the parliamentary manners of the Leader of the House are impeccable. On this occasion, he owed it to us, as a matter of debt, to provide an explanation. There may be one, but we have not heard it.

Mr. Banks

I entirely agree. Appropriate answers might colour our judgment on how to vote later. The hon. Member for Spelthorne, by his own admission, did not know anything about it before, so he cannot answer questions arising out of his own motion. That is an absurd way to conduct tonight's business.

As to the time factor, in a letter to the editor of The Guardian dated 18 May, the Cabinet Secretary clearly said that he also knew about the use of House notepaper and the fraudulent use of name purporting to represent the right hon. Member for Thanet, South. It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister himself did not possess knowledge of the alleged forgery in May.

Why was no fuss made in May about serious matters that we are asked to consider on 2 November? Why were the House authorities not alerted to those serious matters in May? Why were you, Madam Speaker, not told about them in May, when you might have decided to refer them to the Privileges Committee? You, Madam Speaker, were kept in the dark from May until November, which shows great disrespect to you and to your office.

Mr. Madden

Does my hon. Friend agree that we are also entitled to know whether the Attorney-General gave any advice? Was the matter referred at any time to the Director of Public Prosecutions or to the House authorities? It is wrong that the Leader of the House or somebody else representing the Government did not give the House the information that it has been seeking for the past three hours.

Mr. Banks

I agree entirely. As you tell us, Madam Speaker, time is of the essence when contacting your office in respect of a private notice question. We must demonstrate that we were unable to come to you with knowledge at the time that we first knew about it. We are often ruled out because of time. The motion should have been ruled out for the same reason. Conservative Members, and particularly the principals concerned, had ample time to raise the matter with you. Of course one accepts your ruling, Madam Speaker, but it seems to me that the motion should not have been accepted in the first place.

If the right hon. Member for Thanet, South felt aggrieved and if the matter was so serious, why was no action taken at the earliest possible date? We must return to the question again and again. If we cannot defeat the motion, the Privileges Committee must consider the issue. I suggest that when it does, it throws the complaint out.

The alleged fraud surfaced publicly only last weekend, in The Sunday Telegraph. That is a fine choice of newspaper. One knows why the information was put in that loyal Tory newspaper. If Mr. Preston did something wrong, he did it more than six months ago. All the principal characters in this saga knew about it. It was not a matter, as the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) said, of considering whether the matter should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission. All the principal characters had a duty to bring the matter before the House and to complain here—not to shove it on to the PCC. If such action were appropriate then, now that Mr. Preston has resigned from the PCC perhaps the motion should be withdrawn and the matter referred to the commission now. Conservative Members cannot have it both ways.

Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Press Complaints Commission will sit in secret and that we shall never have a full account of its proceedings?

Mr. Banks

I am sure that among all those trustworthy journalists, one would be prepared to leak what happens on the commission.

We are witnessing an organised exercise in synthetic anger, devised to divert attention. What value can we place on today's outrage when it has spent six months in preparation? It is synthetic outrage.

The last question that I want to address is to someone who is not present in the Chamber—the principal character, the right hon. Member for Thanet, South. Did he want the matter to be referred to the Committee of Privileges? He had ample opportunity to do so. He is not present to answer that question. Did the right hon. Gentleman ask the hon. Member for Spelthorne to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee? If the aggrieved party decided not to refer the matter to the Committee himself, the hon. Member for Spelthorne should not have done so.

Mr. Wilshire

The hon. Gentleman asked me a simple question—

Madam Speaker

Order. Was the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) giving way?

Mr. Banks

Yes, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Wilshire

The hon. Gentleman asked me a simple question, to which the answer is no.

Mr. Banks

Well, I must say in conclusion, then, that it is very noble of the hon. Member for Spelthorne to work up so much anger on behalf of the right hon. Member for Thanet, South when his right hon. Friend knew about it on 11 May and said that his position was to "stay cool". I suggest that that is good advice and the House should follow it tonight.

5.39 pm
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

I declare an interest because, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, I do a bit of freelance writing, although I feel bound to observe that, as The Guardian pays so badly, my work very seldom appears in that newspaper. I also, perhaps, have slightly more experience of the matter than many hon. Members, because earlier this year I was referred to the Committee of Privileges, as Madam Speaker will remember, on the same question of the use of the House of Commons logo.

It seems to me that there are a number of problems, some of which have been sensibly highlighted by the speeches that we have heard, about the whole idea of referring to the Committee of Privileges. Hon. Members suggested that that will be seen as if the House of Commons is acting trivially. Of course, that is a difficulty. One of the reasons for my distinctive behaviour earlier this year was that I took the view then—indeed, I take it now—that the reputation of the House is determined not by a squiggle on a piece of paper, but by the behaviour of all its Members and Officers.

Nevertheless, it is well to put on record, as I have been criticised for it twice so far in speeches by Opposition Members, that following the representations that were made to me, including your own, Madam Speaker, I asked my publisher to take the logo off and to modify it, and Opposition Members who trouble to buy a copy of the paperback edition, which is now available at £8.99—[Laughter.]—will find that the logo has been altered.

Another difficulty with the Committee of Privileges, and a much more serious one, is that hon. Members may be seen to be protecting themselves, and reference to the Committee is seen in that way. In many ways, that does not invalidate the motion. A difficulty will be created, however, if hon. Members will not serve on that Committee. It would make far more sense if hon. Members who said that they are concerned that Members are seen by the public to be protecting themselves were clamouring instead to serve on the Committee of Privileges and, indeed, were voting for the motion. That is rather more the attitude of Front-Bench Opposition Members, who, I understand, plan to vote for the motion. It is a long-standing practice in the House that there is no party difference on references to the Committee of Privileges. It is a shame if some hon. Members prejudge its activities by refusing to serve on it.

A different problem, which, correctly, has been raised, is whether the Committee of Privileges is a serious enough body to bring home to The Guardian and other press representatives their duty to behave responsibly. That is why I put a question earlier to a Labour Member, who was so agitated about the press and had such strong reasons for feeling concern at the way in which it sometimes operates against many of us and many other people in public and private life. He said that he was going to abstain or vote against the motion. I asked him what he would do if the press behaved so badly and if there are so many criticisms correctly to be made, if he did not vote for the Committee of Privileges in this case. His answer was, "Ignore it." That is not good enough. We cannot ignore it, so we should vote for the motion.

Much inconsistency has also been flying around tonight. One of the reasons why I came to listen to the whole debate and eventually sought permission to speak was that we have heard speech after speech from Opposition Members deploring subterfuge and bad behaviour, and praising high standards. I must tell them that that applies to the press as well, and that the behaviour of hon. Members and members of the press is not mutually exclusive. We are all expected by our constituents and our readers outside to behave according to the highest possible standards. If it applies to the press as well, it should be appropriate to vote for the motion and take one small step, possibly, to try to re-establish the reputation of what in the past has been a great newspaper. The real privilege in the House is the right to speak freely. In fact, it is the only privilege that is really worth having. It has been somewhat abused today by much of what has been said, and some of the views that have been flying around have rightly been pulled up by yourself, Madam Speaker, and your deputy. But that privilege has existed in the House for centuries. That is the source of the prohibition on general publication that we had in the House until 1972. Hansard publishes only with the permission of the House.

It is necessary for us to be able to speak in this place without fear. That is a privilege that I have used sparingly from time to time, and I am glad that I have had that opportunity. Scrutiny by the press is one thing, but subterfuge is another, and that is the issue at the heart of The Guardian's bad behaviour. That is why it is right that it should be considered by a Committee of the House. That is why I shall vote for the motion.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I am not seeking to frustrate hon. Members who have been here throughout the debate and who still seem to want to speak, but I ask them for a little voluntary restraint, as we have been debating the motion for two hours.

5.45 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As the House would like to draw to a conclusion and proceed to a Division, I shall make only three succinct points.

I am the only hon. Member in the House—my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) did not have to do it—who has actually had to stand where that white line is on the Floor of the Chamber and face a full House of Commons, as a result of the Privileges Committee. Whatever anybody says, I do not believe other than that people would find it an awesome and rather terrifying experience. I can assure hon. Members that, having had to be in that position, I know that it is not something that is lightly undertaken.

That is not only my view as a Member of the House of Commons. It was also the view of John Junor. I know because I talked to him about it. As an outsider, he, too, found it an awesome experience. Therefore, what we are proposing for Peter Preston is an extremely serious matter, and we cannot pretend otherwise. Some people may laugh it off, but it is no laughing matter to be brought before the legislature of one's country.

That leads me to the first question. Are we sure that we have got it in proportion? Many other people have done other—shall we say "controversial"—things, who, perhaps, might have greater deserts than being brought to the Bar of the House. So on proportionality I have doubts.

Secondly, I have further doubts, because there are conflicting matters. All right, there is the issue of misbehaviour over House of Commons notepaper, and forgery. There is one point on which I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor)—I do not think that the matter is straightforward. Nothing to do with the Privileges Committee, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) knows, is straightforward.

The matter of protection of sources is a very important issue. It was most succinctly put in an excellent book, well written, called "Officially Secret". This is what the author said: In my reply to General Alexander, dated 20 January, my first priority was to assure a helpful contact that I would obey one of the fundamental rules of journalistic ethics and would not reveal him as my source. I therefore wrote in my reply: 'As for your having shown me a copy I will maintain a grave-like silence about this. Indeed in the very unlikely event of anyone asking me I will know nothing whatever of the existence of your copy.' My second priority", says the author, was to protect my own subsequent contacts over the Scott Report delivery to the Telegraph. In order to keep all knowledge of Curtis Brown Limited, Hugh Fraser and Yorkshire Television out of reach of the possible investigations, I ended my letter to the General on an ingenuous note, giving the impression that I had no idea how Hugh Fraser got his copy of the document, and finished with the words: If I hear any Fleet Street or Biafra lobby gossip on the Scott leak I will let you know. I am most grateful to you for writing as you did about all this, and can assure you that my lips are very firmly sealed—Yours ever, Jonathan. "Jonathan" was Jonathan Aitken, and it was an extremely good book. He put the point about sources as eloquently as I have ever seen a point about the protection of sources put.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby)

Surely the point is that the protector of sources is meant to have been Mr. Fayed himself, who was deceiving his own employees. That is what is now being put around. I, for one, do not understand how the editor of The Guardian can have been required to deceive Mr. Fayed's employees with Mr. Fayed's collusion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain that.

Mr. Dalyell

I admit that my answer to that question wil be tangential. This is a grey area.

For 11 days I sat in the Old Bailey during the trial of Clive Ponting. Reference—ill conceived, in my view—has been made to Sarah Tisdall by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). The position was more complicated than he suggested. There but for the grace of God went I, in relation to Ponting: fortunately, I kept it as a proceeding in Parliament. But what should people do in such circumstances? Some might argue that the Ponting trial, and what Massiter and Tisdall did, were in the public interest; that too is controversial. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made a legitimate, fair and pertinent intervention, but, as I have said, this is a grey area.

You asked me to be brief, Madam Speaker, but may I have one last go at the Leader of the House while the House is quiet? I feel that this question is very important. I genuinely do not understand the position.

It is said that the Government knew about the matter in the middle of May, when it was the subject of considerable discussion among members of the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred to the letters, but he and I know—as will anyone else who reads them—that it was not just a case of Ministers dropping off odd letters; there was intense discussion in the Government.

At the beginning of the debate, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) interrupted my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury to ask, "What on earth is the relevance of time?" Let me say to the Leader of the House—gently, I hope—that that is exactly what bothers us. The reason why we went on about time at the very beginning is our unworthy suspicion—we may be told that it is misplaced, but we feel it nevertheless—that the Government thought, "Ah: in extremis, we now have knowledge of the forged letter." That knowledge, thought the Government, would keep The Guardian quiet, and would stop it asking all sorts of questions about other matters. The Government would have something on The Guardian, and could exert pressure on it.

"Blackmail" is an unparliamentary word, and I will not use it.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

The hon. Gentleman just has.

Mr. Dalyell

No, I will not use it. The tone of my speech is serious, not yah-boo.

Let me, as courteously as I can, invite the Leader of the House to give his parliamentary colleagues of all parties some explanation of why we are presented with such urgency in November, when the facts were known in May. I think that he owes it to us.

5.54 pm
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I promise to be exceedingly brief. Let me say in passing that I hope never to suffer the experience undergone by my old and hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in 1968, when he appeared at the Bar of the House.

As what I might modestly call a lesser light in this place, I am anxious to make a point. I entered the Chamber today with an open mind. In my view, Mr. Preston has behaved in a dishonourable and foolish way; I remember being deeply dismayed by his actions all those years ago when he failed to protect a young girl whom he should have protected, although he might have suffered in prison for any length of time. He behaved dishonourably then; recently, he behaved in an equally dishonourable way.

Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) has not convinced me. I came here with the thought that I might abstain, but I intend to vote against the motion, because I feel that Conservative Members have left unanswered questions relating to what can be described only as a most unseemly affair. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow was right to ask the Leader of the House the reason for the unaccountable delay between mid-May and early November. There can be no excuse for such a delay, and—although I have no sympathy for Mr. Preston—I believe that some kind of cover-up is going on.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Godman

I will, but my hon. Friend must be brief, because I have promised to speak briefly.

Mr. Bermingham

Does my hon. Friend agree that a further cause for concern is the conduct of the debate during the past 45 minutes, when I have been listening to it? We have seen the conviction of a person before that person has even been tried; and he is to be tried by a Committee that is politically motivated. That cannot be open and fair judgment, in any event.

Dr. Godman

My hon. Friend has put it in a nutshell: this man is having to endure a political trial, and I think that the House has behaved badly—or it will behave badly if it approves the motion.

Mr. Preston has suffered a tongue-lashing from you, Madam Speaker, and you are a formidable lady in every respect. He deserved it—

Madam Speaker

The hon. Member flatters me.

Dr. Godman

I assure you that I am no flatterer, Madam Speaker. I, too, have felt the sharp edge of your tongue, for far less serious acts. [HON. MEMBERS: "Get on with it."] I am getting on with it. I am saying—as one of the lesser lights of this place—that it will do itself a disservice if it votes for the motion. I believe that this man has been found guilty without a chance to defend himself. Perhaps a written letter of apology to you, Madam Speaker, would suffice.

Mr. David Shaw

He has admitted it.

Dr. Godman

He has admitted it, in another place. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) pointed out, this is a political trial, and I urge my hon. Friends to vote against the motion.

5.58 pm
Mr. Wilshire

Hon. Members have pressed me to clarify two brief points. First, I was asked when I knew about the matter: the answer is last Sunday. Secondly, I was asked whether I was in touch with my constituents' feelings. I have heard from six today: four were in favour and two against, which suggests to me that I have got it about right.

I learnt something today from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), and I am rather glad that I have never stayed at the Ritz hotel in Paris. Other than that, it simply remains for me to say that, when stripped of all the rhetoric, the facts are clear and simple. There was an abuse of the House; it is documented, and has been admitted. When stripped of all the point-scoring, there is a large measure of agreement across the Floor of the House, and I therefore invite my hon. Friends to agree with me and Opposition Members to agree with the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor).

Question put:

The House divided: Ayes 313, Noes 38.

Division No. 339] [6.00 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey) Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Alexander, Richard Baldry, Tony
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby) Banks, Matthew (Southport)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay) Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Alton, David Barron, Kevin
Ancram, Michael Bates, Michael
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E) Bellingham, Henry
Arbuthnot, James Bendall, Vivian
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Biffen, Rt Hon John
Ashby, David Blair, Tony
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy Blunkett, David
Atkins, Robert Body, Sir Richard
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Booth, Hartley Garnier, Edward
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham) Gill, Christoper
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia Gillan, Cheryl
Bowden, Sir Andrew Goodlad, Rt Hon Alastair
Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Brandreth, Gyles Gorman, Mrs Teresa
Brazier, Julian Gorst, Sir John
Bright, Sir Graham Grant, Sir A. (Cambs SW)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E) Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Browning, Mrs. Angela Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth; N)
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Grylls, Sir Michael
Burns, Simon Gunnell, John
Burt, Alistair Hague, William
Butler, Peter Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Hampson, Dr Keith
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry) Hanley, Rt Hon Jeremy
Carlisle, John (Luton North) Hannam, Sir John
Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln) Hanson, David
Carrington, Matthew Hargreaves, Andrew
Cash, William Harvey, Nick
Channon, Rt Hon Paul Haselhurst, Alan
Chapman, Sydney Hawkins, Nick
Chidgey, David Hawksley, Warren
Churchill, Mr Hayes, Jerry
Clappison, James Heald, Oliver
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif) Heath, Rt Hon Sir Edward
Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey Heathcoat-Amory, David
Colvin, Michael Hendry, Charles
Congdon, David Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Conway, Derek Hicks, Robert
Cook, Frank (Stockton N) Higgins, Rt Hon Sir Terence
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st) Hill, James (Southampton Test)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas (G'tham)
Cope, Rt Hon Sir John Horam, John
Cormack, Patrick Hordern, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Couchman, James Howard, Rt Hon Michael
Cox, Tom Howarth, Alan (Strat'rd-on-A)
Cran, James Howell, Sir Ralph (N Norfolk)
Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire) Hoyle, Doug
Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon) Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Davies, Quentin (Stamford) Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Day, Stephen Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Deva, Nirj Joseph Hunt, Rt Hon David (Wirral W)
Dicks, Terry Hunt, Sir John (Ravensbourne)
Dixon, Don Hunter, Andrew
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Hutton, John
Dover, Den Jack, Michael
Duncan, Alan Jackson, Robert (Wantage)
Dunn, Bob Jenkin, Bernard
Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffery
Durant, Sir Anthony Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)
Dykes, Hugh Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Eggar, Tim Jones, Robert B. (W Hertfdshr)
Elletson, Harold Jowell, Tessa
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine
Evans, Jonathan (Brecon) Key, Robert
Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley) Kilfedder, Sir James
Evans, Roger (Monmouth) King, Rt Hon Tom
Evennett, David Knapman, Roger
Fabricant, Michael Knight, Dame Jill (Bir'm E'st'n)
Fishburn, Dudley Knight, Greg (Derby N)
Forman, Nigel Knight, Mrs Angela (Erewash)
Forth, Eric Knox, Sir David
Foster, Don (Bath) Kynoch, George (Kincardine)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring) Lang, Rt Hon Ian
Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley) Lawrence, Sir Ivan
French, Douglas Legg, Barry
Fry, Sir Peter Leigh, Edward
Gale, Roger Lennox-Boyd, Sir Mark
Gallie, Phil Lidington, David
Gardiner, Sir George Lightbown, David
Luff, Peter Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Shephard, Rt Hon Gillian
Lynne, Ms Liz Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
MacGregor, Rt Hon John Shersby, Michael
MacKay, Andrew Shore, Rt Hon Peter
Maclean, David Sims, Roger
Maddock, Diana Skeet, Sir Trevor
Madel, Sir David Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Maitland, Lady Olga Soames, Nicolas
Malone, Gerald Spearing, Nigel
Mans, Keith Speed, Sir Keith
Marland, Paul Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Marlow, Tony Spink Dr Robert
Marshall, John (Hendon S) Spring, Richard
Marshall, Sir Michael (Arundel) Sproat, Iain
Martin, David (Portsmouth S) Stephen, Michael
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Dr Brian Stern, Michael
McLoughlin, Patrick Stewart, Allan
Merchant, Piers Streeter, Gary
Miller, Andrew Sweeney, Walter
Mills, Iain Sykes, John
Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling) Tapsell, Sir peter
Mitchell, Sir David (Hants NW) Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Moate, Sir Roger Taylor, John M. (Solihull)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Montgomery, Sir Fergus Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Needham, Rt Hon Richard Taylor, Sir Teddy (Southend, E)
Nelson, Anthony Temple-Morris, Peter
Neubert, Sir Michael Thomason, Roy
Newton, Rt Hon Tony Thompson, Sir Donald
Nicholls, Patrick Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Thornton, Sir Malcolm
Nicholson, Emma (Devon West) Thurnham, Peter
Norris, Steve Townend, John (Bridlington)
Olner, William Townsend, Cyril D.(Bexl'yh'th)
Oppenheim, Phillip Tredinnick, David
Ottaway, Richard Trend, Michael
Page, Richard Trimble, David
Paice, James Trotter, Neville
Patnick, Sir Irvine Twinn, Dr Ian
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Tyler, Paul
Pawsey, James Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Vaz, Keith
Pickles, Eric Viggers, Peter
Pike, Peter L. Walker, Bill (N Tayside)
Porter, Barry (Wirral S) Waller, Gary
Porter, David (Waveney) Ward, John
Powell, William (Corby) Wardell, Gareth (Gower)
Prescott, John Waterson, Nigel
Radice, Giles Watts, John
Rathbone, Tim Wheeler, Rt Hon Sir John
Rendel, David Whitney, Ray
Renton, Rt Hon Tim Whittingdale, John
Richards, Rod Widdecombe, Ann
Robathan, Andrew Wiggin, Sir Jerry
Roberts, Rt Hon Sir Wyn Wilkinson, John
Robertson, George (Hamilton) Willetts, David
Robertson, Raymond (Ab'd'n S) Williams, Rt Hon Alan
Robinson, Mark (Somerton) Wilshire, David
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne) Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Rooker, Jeff Winterton, Nicholas (Macc'f'ld)
Rowe, Andrew (Mid Kent) Wolfson, mark
Rumbold, Rt Hon Dame Angela Wood, Timothy
Ryder, Rt Hon Richard Yeo, Tim
Sackville, Tom young, Rt Hon Sir George
Sainsbury, Rt Hon Tim Tellers for the Ayes:
Scott, Rt Hon Nicholas Mr. Timothy Kirkhope and
Shaw, David (Dover) Mr. Bowen Wells
Adams, Mrs Irene Bermingham, Gerald
Ainger, Nick Callaghan, Jim
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Cann, Jamie
Barnes, Harry Chisholm, Malcolm
Benn, Rt Hon Tony Corbyn, Jeremy
Dalyell, Tam Marshall, Jim (Leicester, S)
Enright, Derek Mitchell, Austin (Gt Grimsby)
Etherington, Bill O'Brien, Michael(N W'kshire)
Flynn, Paul Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Galloway, George Purchase, Ken
Godman, Dr Norman A. Randall, Stuart
Gordon, Mildred Sedgemore, Brian
Grant, Bernie (Tottenham) Soley, Clive
Hardy, Peter Wicks, Malcolm
Hood, Jimmy Winnick, David
Livingstone, Ken Wise, Audrey
Loyden, Eddie Wray, Jimmy
Mackinlay, Andrew
MacShane, Denis Tellers for the Noes:
Madden, Max Mr. Dennis Skinner and
Mahon, Alice Mr. Ronnie Campbell

Question accordingly agreed to.


That the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges.