HC Deb 18 July 1995 vol 263 cc1473-85 4.43 pm
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Roger Freeman)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement to the House on the Government's response to the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which is being presented to the House today as Cm 2931.

My right hon. Friend and distinguished predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt), told the House on 18 May that the Government accepted the broad thrust of these recommendations. The response covers all the recommendations addressed to Government: 45 of 55 recommendations in all.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that he is determined to uphold the highest standards in public life. The response details the Government's plans for implementation and action in respect of all the 45 recommendations addressed to Government. It also sets out further proposals for a new civil service code, and for a new introduction to "Questions of Procedure for Ministers".

We accept the Nolan committee's recommendation that Ministers should be brought within the scope of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. The response emphasises the great importance of continuing interchange between business and commercial life and ministerial office. We should do nothing to deter talented people with private sector experience from entering public life, and nothing that prevents those who have completed their ministerial career from applying that experience to the benefit of British industry and commerce.

The Nolan committee strongly supported that principle, and to translate it into action, we shall draw up rules setting out specific criteria, to be administered by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, to establish the circumstances in which Ministers should be advised to delay a particular appointment, or make its acceptance subject to conditions.

We intend to publish a text for consultation before introducing the rules from the start of the next Session of Parliament. We intend to have a debate on that and the White Paper as a whole in the spillover session.

We shall also consult to the same timetable on an extension of business appointments rules to Ministers' special advisers.

On the registration of hospitality accepted by Ministers, our response builds on the arrangements for registration of Members' interests in the House and on the guidance already contained in "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", that Ministers should not accept hospitality that would or might appear to place them under an obligation. In the words of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, it is neither possible nor desirable to make a clear distinction between a Minister's conduct as a Minister and his conduct as a Member of Parliament. We shall act quickly and positively on the Nolan committee's recommendations concerning appointments and propriety in public bodies and the national health service, building on many of the continuing initiatives that the committee endorsed. In particular, we shall appoint a new Commissioner for Public Appointments, to offer guidance, monitor and audit departmental appointment procedures. That post will be advertised in a matter of days.

We shall extend the use of advisory panels, including an independent element, to advise on appointments to executive public bodies and the national health service. That has been successfully piloted in several sectors. All Departments will introduce their own arrangements as soon as practical to allow the new commissioner to influence the procedures introduced. We believe that, at the outside, that will require no more than 12 months.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service announced last month a review of the legal framework governing propriety and accountability in public bodies, and their arrangements for external audit. We intend to reach preliminary conclusions by the end of the year, well ahead of the timetable envisaged in the committee's report.

We have accepted the recommendations of Lord Nolan's committee that there should be opportunities under the civil service code for a civil servant to express worries about actions in which he or she is not personally involved, and for nominated officials to investigate anxieties expressed confidentially.

Our consultation period on the civil service code will now be extended to mid-September, to allow further opportunities for comment. We accept the Nolan committee's recommendation that implementation need not then await a legislative opportunity, and we intend to have the code in action before the end of the calendar year.

I am confident that the action that we have set out will show the House and the whole country our determination to take practical steps that will uphold and sustain the highest standards of propriety while ensuring that men and women of talent and experience continue to contribute to public life.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

May I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement and welcome him to his new role as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? His statement was brief, as statements should be, but of considerable importance to the conduct of government by Ministers and by civil servants. We welcome many of the details in the White Paper that discuss the 45 recommendations for Government action in the Nolan report. We have detailed concerns about some of the proposals, and we shall pursue them in the promised debate in the autumn.

The Minister should be aware that, while we welcome many of the details, we of course recall that the review has come about only because the Prime Minister was forced to ask Lord Nolan to report because of all the Government abuses of recent years. Will the Minister acknowledge that the Nolan committee accepted many of the specific points put forward by Labour, such as the quarantine on post-ministerial appointments? We made those points despite the outright opposition of the Government, so we welcome this minor U-turn by Ministers today. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster stand by the evidence given by his predecessor to the Nolan committee, that there was no problem and no real case to answer?

On the Nolan committee's recommendations on quangos and the actions proposed by the Government, will the Minister confirm that the Nolan report quotes the National Audit Office figure of £52 billion as the amount of public money spent by unaccountable quangos, with little or no democratic accountability to the public? Will the Minister acknowledge that the Nolan committee's remit on the subject of quango appointments was extremely narrow and did not allow for a full examination of all aspects of quangos? Will he confirm that, while modification of the appointments system is necessary, it will not stop the growth in the quango state, which is one of the fundamental problems undermining the principle of democratic accountability?

Is the Minister aware that we welcome the recommendations on the civil service code? We believe that civil servants who want to raise serious issues should be able to do so with confidence that that will not prejudice their position. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, while we welcome the time scale that he has laid down for the introduction of a code, we still believe that legislation on the subject is necessary? If the Government were to press ahead with it, they would have our full co-operation.

With regard to the conduct of and procedures for Ministers, is what the Minister has announced today yet another illusion of openness? Does he realise that publishing the code does not guarantee good behaviour by Ministers and that no Government should have a free hand to mount cover-ups at will? Several of the phrases in the new code will cause concern. I am thinking of phrases such as, Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament". We all know that sometimes Ministers choose not to know. Another such phrase is: withholding information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest". It is Ministers who will determine whether that is in the public interest.

Does the Minister accept that the spirit of the Nolan report demands not just new codes of conduct, useful though they may be, but a new attitude on the part of Ministers to replace the arrogance that has become the hallmark of the Government after too long in office? The elected dictatorship must give way to an Executive with a sense of service to the people it seeks to serve.

If confidence is to be restored in our parliamentary democracy, and if the Government and the Conservatives are serious about the need for transparency, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster consider removing the Government's veto of an early inquiry by the Nolan committee into the funding of political parties?

Mr. Freeman

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind comments on my new office, which were much appreciated.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

The Minister has a new suit for the job too.

Mr. Freeman

Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I normally wear a proper suit.

The Nolan report said that the great majority of men and women in public life are honest, hard-working and observe high ethical standards. The slur that some—I do not necessarily charge the hon. Lady with this—make about the standards of public life, implying that those in public life, whether Ministers' special advisers or civil servants, are dishonest, do not work hard and do not observe high ethical standards, is utterly wrong. We have probably the best civil service in the world. I was brought up to believe what Professor Crick, then of the London School of Economics, strongly believed—that politics is an honourable profession. I am sure that all those on the Conservative Front Bench would believe that it is right to allay fears that have come about as public perceptions have changed in recent years. That is why the Government have come forward promptly, before the recess, and accepted the Nolan recommendations.

As for the civil service code, we do not want civil servants to have their positions prejudiced. I accept what the hon. Lady said. I am happy to consult the Opposition Front-Bench team on the way forward in terms of placing in statute a new civil service code, which we intend to implement before the end of the year. I cannot promise to give the timetable of any legislation, but if the hon. Lady will join me on further discussions on that subject, it would be appreciated.

On the subject of Ministers' conduct as contained in the guidance given by the Prime Minister to all Ministers, I shall deal with the proposed amendment, which is contained in the White Paper. As to the phrase, "knowingly" to mislead, I am sure that it is apparent to the House that sometimes Ministers who are not fully aware of the facts at the time give answers to the House. That has occurred on a number of occasions—according to my researches, it has occurred over the past 40 or 50 years with Ministers of both parties when in government. The requirement is that Ministers should not knowingly mislead the House.

On the subject of what is not in the public interest, the hon. Lady will know that we have had out for consultation for more than six months, published in "Open Government", Cmnd. 2290, the specific reasons why it is sometimes necessary not to disclose certain facts because to do so would be against the public interest. I believe that the hon. Lady was reminded of what the proposals were by my predecessor in a letter in March—she has yet to respond. I am not aware of any problems that the hon. Lady or the House should have about those categories, which include defence, security, international relations, communications with the royal household, law enforcement and legal proceedings, and operations of the public service, such as setting bank rates. Those are well-established categories and are entirely defensible.

On the subject of what the hon. Lady described as the veto on what Lord Nolan may be doing, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I am sure that he will read the record.

Mr. David Hunt (Wirral, West)

I warmly congratulate my right hon. Friend on his promotion to the Cabinet and his appointment as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I praise him on his speedy and effective response on behalf of the Government to the Nolan committee's report. I thank him for his earlier words and strongly support his determination to implement the important recommendations and bring to an end a sorry chapter in British public life, which has been characterised by allegations, slurs and innuendoes, mainly from the Opposition. Those allegations have subsequently been found to be completely without foundation.

The evidence given on behalf of the Government and contained in chapter 1 of the Nolan committee's report shows that much of the public's anxiety about standards in public life is based on perceptions and beliefs that are not supported by the facts. My right hon. Friend has done much today to restore public confidence in our high standards in public life.

Mr. Freeman

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for those remarks and for his personal references. He is correct in what he says about the public's perceptions of the conduct of Ministers, civil servants and hon. Members in the House—and we are to debate that issue tomorrow. The Government do not deny that fact. That is why we have moved positively, quickly and sensibly without jeopardising the essential principle of retaining an interchange of men and women of talent, interest and commitment between the private and public sectors.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster recognise that his predecessor must be entirely wrong in his assertion that the series of proposals can draw a line through the scandals that led to the investigations of Lord Justice Scott, which will keep alive in the public's mind the systematic attempts by his colleagues to withhold information? Against that background, we must consider the adequacy of the proposal to codify in the rules of ministerial behaviour a provision that allows Ministers to withhold information if they deem it to be in the public interest to do so. Does the Chancellor accept that other countries that pursue openness through freedom of information legislation have always had some independent mechanism for judging whether the public interest is served by Ministers withholding the facts?

Mr. Freeman

The hon. Gentleman will have noted the Government's commitment to hold a debate in the spillover period, and doubtless he will be able to raise those issues then. The Government took the initiative by publishing the White Paper "Open Government" earlier this year. It set out the issues very clearly and it gave specific and sensible examples of where it would be in the public interest to withhold information. I believe that we pursue open and sensible government in this country.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Does my right hon. Friend accept my praise for bringing forward such a forthright statement so quickly? I think that he will accept that much of the background work was done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) before he left office. We should pay tribute to both my right hon. Friends for the work that they have done in preparing the statement that was presented to the House today. Very few people would have expected such a speedy response from the Government, and I am sure that the public welcome it.

I shall make a personal observation on the matter of "knowingly" misleading the House. As a Minister, I misled an hon. Gentleman quite unwittingly from the Dispatch Box when I was not aware of all the facts. When those facts were pointed out to me later that day, I returned to the Chamber and apologised to the hon. Gentleman and to the House for what I had said. That sort of incident can occur quite openly. The idea that a Minister always knows everything that goes on in his or her Department is absolute nonsense, and we must understand that from the word go.

Mr. Freeman

My right hon. Friend, like me and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, lives in the real world and I accept his remarks entirely. When he has a chance to read the White Paper, he will see that it deals with the conduct and procedure for Ministers. It states on page 32: Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament … They must be as open as possible with Parliament and the public". It continues: Ministers … should correct any inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity". It has long been the tradition in the House to report errors promptly when they are discovered, by statements in the Chamber or by way of written answers.

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

Does not the inclusion of the word "knowingly" invite civil servants deliberately to mislead Ministers on occasion, because they recognise that the whole principle of contempt breaks down in the House of Commons? Ministers simply have not grasped that fact.

Has the Minister seen the hundreds of questions that I have tabled over the past six months, many of which—particularly those about lobbying—have received a reply referring to disproportionate costs? It is clearly not a question of cost: Ministers simply did not want to answer the questions. I have received answers of that nature from the former President of the Board of Trade, who is present in the Chamber. He clearly did not want to reveal information about lobbyist activities in his Department.

Lord Nolan is representing the public interest when he says that Ministers must not mislead Parliament, and that that principle should be incorporated in a code. He understands that Ministers do mislead Parliament under the present arrangements.

Mr. Freeman

I do not think that the House accepts the hon. Gentleman's perhaps inadvertent slur on the civil service. The civil service has a draft code of conduct open for consultation and I repeat the Government's commitment to implement that code, following proper consultation, by the end of the year. If the hon. Gentleman has the chance to read the code, he will see that civil servants are under the same obligation as Ministers to ensure that Parliament is not misled.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the matter of disproportionate cost. I have answered many written questions by referring to disproportionate cost. The solution lies in the hands of hon. Members, who must ensure that their questions are as specific as possible. It is unreasonable to expect Ministers to answer—at great public expense—open questions, which would sometimes take many weeks or months to respond to properly. If the question is specific, it can be answered.

Mr. Michael Stephen (Shoreham)

Will my right hon. Friend remind the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), that a public interest immunity certificate is not a gagging device that enables the Executive to withhold information from the courts? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that when a Minister signs a public interest immunity certificate, it simply places the matter before the judge, and it is the judge—not the Minister—who decides whether the evidence can be admitted in the proceedings?

Mr. Freeman

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Public interest immunity certificates, which were signed on the advice of the Attorney-General by both Labour and Conservative Ministers at the appropriate times, simply identify to the court documents that the judge may sensibly consider withholding from public scrutiny. The court, not Ministers, must decide what information is made public. In recent cases, the judge has exercised his right to agree or to disagree with Ministers; but the judge must make that decision.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

The Minister cannot get away with misleading the House this afternoon. We receive the same answers time after time. I have in my hand a clutch of answers that I received from Ministers this morning, and many of them refer to disproportionate cost. The Minister said that if the question is open, the answer will be "disproportionate cost". However, I asked a very specific question about the Government's aid to Indonesia for a particular project and I received the answer: "disproportionate cost".

I have asked about 150 similar questions during the past six months, and time and again I have received the answer, "disproportionate cost". I once asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the cost of one embassy in one country and I was informed that it had taken 106 hours to find the answer to my question. That is absolutely ridiculous. Members of the public are led to believe that Opposition Members can ask questions and that Ministers are obliged to answer them. The public are being conned by the Minister this afternoon.

Mr. Freeman

I shall try to answer the hon. Lady's question in a constructive manner. I appreciate that there are sometimes problems. I suggest that, in some cases, it might profit the hon. Lady to write or to speak to the Ministers concerned instead of sending in written questions that must often receive a very brief reply. If the hon. Lady has problems obtaining information that can be provided sensibly and at proportionate cost, instead of sending the Ministry a battery of questions, why does she not adopt my pragmatic advice and speak to the Ministry or the Minister direct?

Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West)

What is a public figure; and how do we define "influence"? It is argued that those who are paid out of public funds—Members of Parliament, for instance—and who, because of their position, are seen to have influence and are therefore retained by the private sector, should sign a register.

May I put it to my right hon. Friend that there is a hole in Nolan? There is another group of public figures who have influence, who are paid for out of public funds, and who are sometimes hired by the private sector because of their influential positions—but they never have to declare anything. Entirely at random I think of, say, the presenters of the "Today" programme in the morning. They are paid for out of public funds; they have huge influence; they pride themselves on their quasi-constitutional position: questioning the Executive and taking up the agenda. Should they not also declare their earnings from outside, which allegedly exceed their earnings from the BBC? My right hon. Friend may think that a cynical point; perhaps on investigation the comparison may prove to be more exact than we think.

Mr. Freeman

It is an unfair and unequal life for Ministers as compared with the media, certainly with respect to registration of hospitality. We suggest that Ministers enter in the House of Commons Register hospitality amounting to more than £160—the rule that applies to Members of this House—when that amount might reasonably be thought by others to influence a Minister, if the Minister actually accepts the hospitality.

My hon. Friend will be well aware that prudent Ministers, taking advice if necessary from their permanent secretaries, do not accept hospitality when it might be thought by others outside the House that their judgment and decision making might be influenced.

Mr. Skinner

Is the Minister aware that the only real way of dealing with this problem of Ministers and Members of Parliament is to ensure that all hon. Members have one job and one job only? That job is to represent constituents, so there should be no conflict of interest. If the right hon. Gentleman intends to introduce some sort of quarantine period for Ministers, does he realise what the problem will be? In come a Labour Government, and 110 Tory Ministers will be looking for plum jobs. We are going to democratise quangos, so all the people who hold those jobs at the moment will be competing with Tory Ministers for the remaining jobs.

I have a suggestion: the quarantine will snap. So it would be better for Tory Ministers to do now what the right hon. Member for Wirral, West (Mr. Hunt) has already done—he got out early to pick up the plum jobs.

Mr. Freeman

I look forward to serving as a Minister for a long time to come—certainly beyond the hon. Gentleman's retirement.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Chancellor recall quoting the Select Committee a few moments ago, to the effect that it could not make a major distinction between Ministers of the Crown and Members of this House? No one expects a Minister of the Crown to divulge information or give of his time for an outside consideration. If that is so, and as we are all in another sense public servants, should not the same principle apply in the same way to all Members of Parliament? They should make no contracts, and come to no arrangements relating to information or time, with outside bodies by virtue of the office that they hold. If the Government are saying that, they are right—unless they are applying it only to hospitality.

Mr. Freeman

The responsibilities of Ministers are very different from those of Members of Parliament. The requirements are extremely onerous: no Minister can retain any outside employment except under very limited and specific circumstances. It seems to me right, therefore, that the Government, who have this afternoon accepted in the White Paper the spirit of the Select Committee's remarks on the registration of hospitality, should say that Ministers should register it, but as Members of this House. The tests are different, but the requirement and the responsibility remain the same.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Like many who go into military service, many who enter the civil service and political service do so not because they offer the best earning jobs but because those people think it important to do the job, and to do it well. I welcome what my right hon. Friend said about the advice for people in the civil service. When I was a junior Minister, I told my civil servants that if I did something they thought wrong or misleading, they should tell me the first time, tell the permanent secretary the second time, and tell The Guardian the third time. Most of them managed to avoid telling The Guardian.

Finally, may I suggest that people in Parliament, whether Ministers or not, should apply the local newspaper test and ask themselves whether they are doing something that they would not like to see appear in their local newspaper? If the answer is yes, they should either not do it or tell the paper.

Mr. Freeman

In the proposed code of conduct for civil servants, we propose a wider definition of concerns—a wider number of issues—than Nolan recommended. We say that if a civil servant is concerned about the conduct of his or her Minister, initially the matter should be raised with the Department. That is likely to mean the permanent secretary. If the civil servant is still concerned, the matter can be raised with the civil service commissioners, and if they are not satisfied with the response from the Department or the Minister, the commissioners will report to Parliament. That seems a sensible and practical way forward. It protects the confidentiality that must exist between the Ministers and civil servants, while still permitting civil servants worried about certain actions or policies to raise their legitimate concerns.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

If the Government really believe in openness and no cover-ups, what are they doing to ensure that full details are published of the trips to Washington and Gleneagles by the Leader of the Opposition; and of how the Industrial Research Trust finances his office? What are the Government doing about that?

Mr. Freeman

Opposition Front Benchers are not Ministers and are therefore not covered by this response—and long may that remain so.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

The Minister failed to respond to the last point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor)—that if the Government want to be taken seriously in their desire to improve public confidence in public life, they will have to persuade the Prime Minister to remove the veto on Lord Nolan's studying the funding of political parties. Will he please respond to that point now?

Mr. Freeman

I think I did respond to it—it is a matter for the Prime Minister, not for me.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Minister aware that it was wholly unacceptable that former Cabinet Ministers, out of office for only a very short time—weeks in some cases—joined the boards of industries that they had been responsible for privatising? Moreover, other Cabinet Ministers, having left office, joined the boards of organisations that had had dealings with the Departments in which those Ministers had served. What is now being recommended is likely also to be unacceptable, because this Government will probably choose the three-month period, not the two-year period. What happened in the past was inexcusable and was, no doubt, one reason why it was considered necessary to let Nolan investigate.

Mr. Freeman

When the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity, he will, I am sure, consult pages 4 and 5 of the White Paper, which set out the criteria that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments should use when determining whether there should be a waiting period of up to two years before a former Minister takes an appointment. He will note that there are three specific criteria. The first is: has the individual been in a position which could lay him or her open to the suggestion that the appointment was in some way a reward for past favours? The second is: Has he or she been in a position where he or she has in fact had access to trade secrets of competitors or knowledge of immediately impending Government policy which would give his or her company an unfair advantage? The third is: is there another specific reason why acceptance of the appointment would give rise to justifiable public concern? We have left in the criteria the role of the advisory committee to consider justifiable public concern, but we want it to look as specifically as possible at what the objection may be. The intention is not to have a generic ban on returning to certain professions, or to former employment or family businesses; it is to look at the specifics of a case so that there should be no presumption that for former Ministers there should automatically be a two-year ban.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I refer the Chancellor to recommendation 21 on page 8, relating to official gifts to Ministers. Why have I been unsuccessful in obtaining from Ministers and the Prime Minister a list of official gifts? What is the big secret about those gifts? How come that in the United States, the President has to publish a full list of gifts, which are put on public display, yet gifts that are given to Ministers in their official capacities by grateful Governments or people overseas remain a state secret? Are Ministers walking around with arms full of golden Rolexes given to them by sundry oil sheiks? What is the secret?

Mr. Freeman

As a former Minister of State for Defence Procurement, I was sometimes offered, but sometimes declined, such gifts. The rules are clear and I repeat them briefly for the hon. Gentleman's benefit. If a gift that is given personally to a Minister, which is inscribed or given specifically to an individual, has a value in excess of £125, the Minister may not retain it. If it exceeds that value, he or she can pay for it and there is a prompt valuation by outside experts. The gift will be either retained or handled in a discreet fashion in order not to cause offence to a foreign Government. [Interruption.] Discreet in the sense that offence should not be caused to the donor, not discreet in the sense of trying to cover something up. Those rules are clear. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can pursue his general question. I shall be happy to respond when I have researched the facts. If the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me, I shall respond. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman laughs. I have sought to respond to such written questions, including from the hon. Gentleman, on literally hundreds of occasions, as fully and fairly as possible.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

One of the public's perceptions is that Members of Parliament should be full time without paid outside interests. That is the majority submission that was put to the Nolan committee by the public, although it did not accept that. Surely the public are correct. They should expect their elected representatives to work on their behalf using the procedures of the House to further the public's interests, not to seek to serve other interests outside. If they want to serve other interests outside, there are many unpaid voluntary jobs in which they could be involved. It is surprising that the outside interests that are considered are always the well-paid ones.

Mr. Freeman

I respect the hon. Gentleman's opinion, although I do not agree with it and neither do many of his colleagues. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman speaks for himself, not for the Labour party. My accountability to the House relates to Ministers and the civil service. I shall be here tomorrow to listen to the hon. Gentleman's contribution, if he catches your eye, Madam Speaker. It is a matter for Parliament to decide, not Government. The Government make decisions on the conduct of Ministers, special advisers and civil servants, but the House makes its own rules for hon. Members.

Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is extremely accurate? He seems to be completely puzzled about what happens to presents given to Ministers. My right hon. Friend is right to say that they are smartly removed by private secretaries if their value is above a certain level. Since two of the gifts that I received as Secretary of State for Defence were a Heckler and Koch machine pistol and a kalashnikov, it may be of reassurance to the House to know that they were swiftly removed from me.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the question asked by the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) is the real justification for my right hon. Friend's answer about the need for procedures for Ministers and for their eligibility to come under the advisory committee? The hon. Gentleman has repeated precisely the falsehood about the conduct of Ministers retiring from the House and going to work for nationalised industries. The evidence given to the Nolan committee was that not a single Member of the House who retired as a Minister was in breach of the two-year rule suggested by the advisory committee.

Mr. Freeman

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who is a distinguished member of the Nolan committee. I am grateful to him for his comments and contribution to the exchanges. With regard to the past record, I agree with him. Too often there is innuendo and smear, not a substantiated charge. Some Opposition Members are in the business of trying to stir up public perception erroneously. Ministers are perfectly happy to defend themselves against specific charges, not the general smear, which has too often been the case in the past.

Mr. John Carlisle (Luton, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Point of order, Mr. Carlisle.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)


Madam Speaker

I am sorry. I have one more very important right hon. Member to call. Mr. Peter Shore.

Mr. Shore

Thank you, Madam Speaker. In that mood, I begin by saying that I am broadly very happy with the forthcoming statement made by the Minister. But in one particular he should think further and, in particular, in time for the next debate that we shall have during the overspill period. I refer him again to the section on the conduct and procedure for Ministers and the new form of words that says: Ministers must not knowingly mislead Parliament … withholding information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest". We know the difficulties of interpreting the public interest, but a stronger form of words is needed, such as, "only in those very exceptional circumstances when disclosure is not in the public interest," or "when disclosure is clearly and certainly not in the public interest". But to leave that in its present form allows for far more latitude than is healthy for Ministers of either side of the House.

Mr. Freeman

That is a helpful suggestion. I referred to the document on open government, although I got the year of publication wrong—I think that it was 1993. I shall certainly go back and have a look at the cross-references that I was trying to draw out to those cases where public disclosure might not be in anyone's interest. I shall come back to the House during the debate with perhaps more thoughtful proposals on how more generally we can either cross-refer or define those circumstances.

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