§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dr. Liam Fox.]
§ Madam Speaker
Before I call the Minister, I have to inform the House that because of the number of Members who wish to speak in the debate, I have had to limit speeches between the hours of 7 pm and 9 pm to 10 minutes.
§ 4.3 pm
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. David Hunt)
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will, I am sure, welcome this early opportunity to debate the first report of the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was published by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister last Thursday. I commend the committee for the openness of its approach, the unanimity of its conclusions and recommendations and the speed with which it produced its report.
The central reason for setting up the Nolan committee was, of course, the growing public concern about standards in public life. Right hon. and hon. Members will therefore be reassured by the key conclusion of the committee, which states thatmuch of the public anxiety about standards of conduct in public life is based on perceptions and beliefs which are not supported by the facts. Taking the evidence as a whole, we believe that the great majority of men and women in British public life are honest and hard-working and observe high ethical standards".I very much welcome that finding and so, I believe, will the vast majority of people, especially those who serve the public and who know that they are working to the highest standards of efficiency, effectiveness and, above all, integrity, whether they are elected, appointed or employed in the public sector.
The report's recommendations aim to reinforce public confidence in the holders of public office. Wherever existing guidelines may have seemed open to varying interpretation, they seek to restore clarity of direction. Above all, we must ensure that that objective is secured. The Government fully support those aims and welcome the broad thrust of the recommendations in so far as they affect the Government and are ready to take early action on them.
The House will, however, recognise that the report raises many complex matters of detail and many difficult issues. We must ensure, therefore, that the recommendations would achieve their aims. We shall have to examine these issues carefully and resolve any difficulties before we move to implement those recommendations.
§ Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)
Like my right hon. Friend, I warmly welcome the Nolan report. I am interested in the point that he is making about clarity. Does he agree that, if the House were governed by statute and we were to seek to introduce a Bill to implement the report's recommendations, the drafting of that Bill would be a lengthy and rather complex procedure?
There is one particular aspect of the report about which I have some doubt. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we ought to refer these matters to a senior Committee of the House to "build on the foundation" provided by Lord Nolan? In order to restore public confidence and assist 482 hon. Members, we must have rules that are clear and that the public and hon. Members understand. It is absolutely crucial that that is done with clarity and care.
§ Mr. Hunt
In responding to my right hon. Friend, let me reiterate the fact that the committee examined a number of matters, and three in particular: first, hon. Members; secondly, Ministers and civil servants; and thirdly, non-departmental public bodies. In opening this debate, I am primarily concerned to give the Government's response to the recommendations affecting Ministers and civil servants and non-departmental public bodies.
As my right hon. Friend pointed out, the first set of recommendations affects right hon. and hon. Members and the procedures of the House and the report does indeed make a number of proposals. Some are straightforward and do not require clarification, such as the restating of the 1947 resolution on hon. Members and outside contractual agreements. But others need to be looked at carefully to ensure that the improvements in the rules and procedures are carried forward in the most effective way with the least room for grey areas. That important point, which was made by my right hon. Friend, deserves reiteration time and again.
We must examine these issues very carefully and, as I said, resolve any difficulties before implementation. The public expect us to get this right: it is too important to get wrong.
§ Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West)
My right hon. Friend did not answer the question about a statute. If the terms upon which hon. Members serve are to be materially changed, is not it right for them to be decided by statute with all the slowness, deliberation and public discussion that that brings rather than in panic in response to particular circumstances? After all, the worst legislation that the House has passed was the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 and the Single European Act. They were passed in a hurry—
§ Mr. Budgen
In my opinion that was not done slowly enough but that is a different point.
If the terms upon which we serve here are to be changed it would be wise, would it not, for that to be done by statute which would perhaps bite at the beginning of the next Parliament?
§ Mr. Hunt
I shall give way in a moment, but I should like to answer my hon. Friend. What he said has been heard by my colleagues on the Treasury Bench and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be responding to the debate. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will allow us to hear whether there are any other views, particularly those to the contrary, on the rather fundamental constitutional change that he has suggested.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)
Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm that it was the 483 Prime Minister, because of the urgency and the great weight of expressed public concern, who asked Lord Nolan to make his first report within six months? If it was important for Lord Nolan to report in that time, surely it is important for the House to take action as quickly as possible. The right hon. Gentleman talked slightly complacently about the problems not being too great. Does he acknowledge that Lord Nolan said:unless the strictest standards are maintained and where necessary restored, corruption and malpractice can become part of the way of life. The threat at the moment is not great. Action needs to be taken before it becomes so."?Surely that action needs to be taken on the time scale that was recommended by Lord Nolan.
§ Mr. Hunt
There was a general welcome for the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was setting up this committee. The Prime Minister made it clear that the central reason for setting it up was the increase in public concern about conduct in public life. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Lady will think again about what she has said in the light of the central conclusion of the Nolan committee thatmuch of the public anxiety"—to which of course my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister referred at the time—about standards of conduct in public life is based upon perceptions and beliefs which are not supported by the facts.Of course, the hon. Lady is right, and I shall come to the action to be taken by the Government on the proposals as they affect the Government.
§ Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with the deliberate time scale that Lord Nolan has put into his report? Lord Nolan uses the categories of A, B and C. If we are considering the recommendations that apply particularly to hon. Members—down that list some quite fundamental changes in the rules with which we are to govern ourselves are suggested—most of them fall into the A category, on which Lord Nolan wants to see immediate action and most of the rest of them fall into the B category, which means that action should be taken and new committees should be in place by November. Does the right hon. Gentleman not realise how quickly we would have to act to fulfil that timetable and thus restore public confidence?
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith
No one wants anyone to procrastinate, but is my right hon. Friend aware that it is vital to get the detail right and that the job of clarifying rules and regulations should not be done overnight?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. Let me deal with this matter. It must be a genuine point of order and not a matter for debate. The hon. Member made a long intervention. So many Members want to participate in this debate, and this House and the country want to hear their views. Let us make some progress. Is it a genuine point of order and not a matter of argument?
§ Madam Speaker
Order. That is not a point of order. There has been no breach of our Standing Orders or our procedures. The hon. Member is arguing with the Minister, who has the Floor.
§ Mr. Hunt
As the hon. Lady is seeking to continue to dispute the fact, which is rather a waste of time, I ask her to look at page 7. From that she would think that she was correct. But instead of confining herself to page 7, if she turned to page 8, she would see that the majority of the proposals there were Bs. If she recalls, she said at the outset that the majority of the proposals were classified A. On pages 8 and 9, not one proposal is classified A. They are B and in one case C. Therefore—
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
At the outset, so that we may get the matter absolutely straight, will my right hon. Friend confirm for the Opposition Front-Bench team and all hon. Members that the matters concerning Members of Parliament are for Members of Parliament to decide and that what will be implemented has nothing to do with the opinion of the Front-Bench teams of either party? Will he confirm that what will be implemented will be up to this House and this House alone and the opinions of either Front-Bench team have absolutely no bearing on the matter?
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is a genuine point of order. Will you tell us how the Standing Order relates to declarations of interest in the course of the debate? Should hon. Members announce their interest when they speak—and, more particularly, when they intervene?
§ Madam Speaker
It has never been required that hon. Members declare their interests when intervening, but I shall think it very wise if all hon. Members taking part in the debate carry out our usual procedures and say at the very start of their speeches what their interests are.
§ Mr. Hunt
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith) that it is arrogant of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen to seek to dictate to the House what the response of right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber should be to these very detailed recommendations.
To return to what I was saying a few moments ago, these are serious issues for the House. I believe that Lord Nolan's committee has given us an excellent opportunity to re-establish public confidence in the system now. We should seize that opportunity and not seek to divert the debate down a particular party political channel. We should rise above that debate in order to deliberate on the real issues that face us.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
Will the Minister give serious consideration to the answer that he gave about the use of statute? Far from the use of statute being a radical proposal, the House has always dealt with membership and its rules by using the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975. There are 400 disqualifying offices, and although there may be differences on some issues, many people believe that such matters should be dealt with by statute rather than through a commissioner who would deal with Members. We could say, "If you are within the law you are all right, and if you are outside the law you will be taken to court." So I hope that the Minister will not rule out statute as the proper way of dealing with the matter. He might find that it had a far wider range of support than he believes.
§ Mr. Hunt
When my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) raised a similar point, I said that that was an interesting issue but that it raised fundamental constitutional questions. Of 486 course the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) is right to refer to the House of Commons Disqualification Act. And of course that is a statute. But the way in which we conduct matters within the House has never been primarily a matter for statute. If it were to become so, that would be a significant move that would require the fullest possible debate in the Chamber.
§ Mr. Garrett
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Am I right in believing that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did not declare his interests in opening his speech, and could have done so once you had given that ruling?
§ Madam Speaker
I am sure that if the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has an interest to declare, he will take the opportunity to do so before he takes the intervention.
§ Mr. Hunt
My interest is declared in the Register of Members' Interests—[HON. MEMBERS: "Tell us."]—as a partner in a firm of solicitors and as an underwriting member of Lloyd's. That is widely known, but it has no direct relevance to what we are debating. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Nevertheless I make it absolutely clear, for the avoidance of doubt.
§ Mr. Budgen
The Nolan suggestions—and they are only suggestions—do not impinge upon the procedures of the House or on how we behave here. They are suggestions about what are really the terms of our employment. Surely if our terms of employment are to be restricted in some way, that should be set out in statute. Is that not quite different from the old custom of our unwritten constitution, that the procedures of the House and the way in which we behave here are ordered within the House, with no statutory backing?
§ Mr. Hunt
My hon. Friend raises some interesting points, which I hope will find a context in the debate. There are arguments either way, as I have been seeking to demonstrate.
To reiterate, the issues need clarification and we must examine all the difficulties that arise before the House moves to implementation. We are having the debate today so that hon. Members on both sides of the House can deal with the issues, and to allow hon. Members to express their personal opinions in the Chamber.
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock and Burntwood)
Has the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster reflected on the fact that the assurances that he gave to the Nolan committee in evidence were comprehensively dismissed by that committee? Is not it the case that the Prime Minister, in setting up the Nolan committee, said that this was a matter of extreme urgency and that the public's trust in those in public life was at stake? Is not the origin of the problem the failure of the House to reform itself? If the House now prevaricates, will not that compound the problem that the Nolan committee was set up to resolve?
§ Mr. Hunt
I am not aware that anything suggested by the hon. Gentleman has ever been said by any of my right 487 hon. and hon. Friends. It is important that we get this right. With regard to my evidence, I am coming to the rules affecting Ministers when they leave office. If I may make a little progress, I shall deal with that matter.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that sensational cases make bad law? Does he recall Edmund Burke's statement that one owes to one's electorate a duty to one's judgment and not to one's industry? If the judgment of Members of Parliament is so suspect that—for the first time—this place must be judged by somebody else, democracy will be irredeemably damaged.
§ Mr. Leigh
I tried to intervene earlier, as I wanted to agree with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). Does my right hon. Friend also agree with the right hon. Gentleman? The right hon. Gentleman made a serious point that, for 700 years, this House has taken the view that in order to safeguard the liberty of the people, the Executive could have no control over the House. If the House is to be regulated in this tight way—which may or may not be the right thing to do—it should be by statute. Hon. Members should know exactly where they stand, and should not be bound by a commissioner effectively appointed by the Executive to oversee independent Members of Parliament.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
The point made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) is interesting. But if we were to go down the route to statute, would not that delay the matter much more than if the House dealt with it itself? Would not such a process involve the introduction of a Bill? If we were to have a statute, would not we be handing over the scrutiny of this House to the judges and to legal interpretation? That may or may not be a good thing, but it is certainly something that the House should consider.
§ Mr. Hunt
This will be an interesting debate. We are entering an area that the Nolan committee does not address in its report in detail, and no doubt hon. Members who have views on that aspect will put them forward. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will seek to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, at the conclusion of the debate. Like all of us, he will want to consider carefully the contributions made by right hon. and hon. Members.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Will the Minister answer the question that people outside have constantly put in the past few weeks? When Back Benchers become Ministers, 80 or so of whom form a Government, they must then get rid of their consultancies, directorships and all the rest. If that applies to Ministers, why cannot it apply to Back Benchers? One reason why the Government must wrestle with that problem is that, when Thatcher 488 came to power, she allowed those Back Benchers to make as much money as they liked provided that they turned up here at 10 o'clock to get the legislation through. It was the age of materialism and now the Government are having to pay for it.
§ Mr. Budgen
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a serious misconception here? There is a great distinction between the role of the Back Bencher and that of the Back Bencher who becomes a Minister. No Back Bencher is forced to become a Minister; if he does so, it is on the terms on which that employment is offered to him. If every Back Bencher is to be bound by new onerous and radical terms of employment, that becomes a matter for the whole nation as it is the basis on which we serve in this Parliament. That must be a matter for legislation.
§ Mr. Hunt
I have already acknowledged that that view is a serious contribution to a wide-ranging debate. The question of statute law as opposed to rules of procedure of the House is fundamental and I look forward to contributions on that subject.
May I deal with the recommendations addressed to the Government, that is, those on Ministers and civil servants? During its review, the committee looked at "Questions of Procedure for Ministers"—guidance that the Prime Minister and the Government have made public for the first time ever. It had not previously been in the public domain. The committee made a number of suggestions to improve the guidance. It says that we should draw out the ethical principles and seek to formulate a code of conduct either within the guidance or as a free-standing document. The committee also recommends new arrangements to extend records of gifts to include hospitality accepted by Ministers in their official capacity.
It is self-evident that the integrity of Ministers must not be open to doubt, whether during their service to the nation or in what they do afterwards. So I make it absolutely clear to the House that the Government intend to implement Lord Nolan's recommendation that proposals by former Ministers to take up appointments after they leave public office should be brought within the scope of Lord Carlisle's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
As Lord Nolan recognised, some important points of detail must be put in place before clear ground rules can be established. For example, should the three-month waiting period proposed in the report apply to Ministers who return to an earlier occupation or profession, which may be largely unconnected with their work in government, such as running a business, returning to office as a paid trade union official, returning to lecture at a university, or returning to work as a schoolteacher? How do we strike the right balance between openness and privacy? I would welcome any views that the House wishes to express before we make final proposals for the detailed scheme.
489 The hon. Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright) asked me about the evidence that I gave to the Nolan committee, so let me explain what I said. I told Lord Nolan that I thought that the existing rules for Ministers were sufficient to uphold the standards of public life, but that the Government would consider very carefully what he recommended.
Lord Nolan's report finds that those standards remain high and that the problem lies mainly in public perception rather than in the facts. I accept that. I also accept the need to rebuild public confidence. We are therefore glad to accept Lord Nolan's recommendation, which will reinforce confidence that British public life maintains the highest possible standards.
On the civil service, the Nolan committee has been able to build on the welcome common ground that exists between all the political parties in the House. The Nolan committee supports the action that we are taking, for instance, to introduce a new code for civil servants, as set out in our response to Nolan and in our White Paper, "The Civil Service: Taking Forward Continuity and Change". That code, which will be a document of great value, arises directly as a result of a recommendation made by the all-party Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service. It sets out concisely what is expected of civil servants and introduces a new right of external appeal.
The Government will look constructively at the further points that the Nolan committee has raised and will take them all into account in the consultation exercise that we are currently conducting with the civil service staff and unions. The Opposition spokesmen and the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service have also been invited to offer their views.
§ Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)
Will that consultation exercise specifically consider the position of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen and women of whichever party and in whichever Government? The Chairmen of the Select Committees are given specific help, unlike the Opposition spokesmen and women who shadow Ministers, who, in turn, have all the resources of the civil service available to them. When considering how to resource Members of Parliament properly, we should take into account not just their constituency business, but their role in scrutinising parliamentary legislation.
§ Mr. Hunt
The hon. Lady is arguing for more resources through the Short mechanism, which currently provides funds for the party in opposition. That does not relate directly to the point that I was making about the civil service, but should the hon. Lady catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am sure that she will raise that issue again in the debate.
When we complete the consultation process with the staff and unions of the civil service, the Opposition and the Select Committee, we shall introduce the code, because I am convinced by the Nolan committee's recommendation that we should not wait for legislation to do that. As hon. Members will know, I have already said that our mind is open on whether such legislation should be introduced, but we agree with Lord Nolan that we need not wait. We shall therefore introduce that code when we have completed the consultation process.
The Nolan committee report also considers the appointment procedures and propriety in the workings of executive non-departmental public bodies and national health service bodies. Non-departmental public bodies are 490 an integral part of public service. The need for integrity on their part is as great as it is for Ministers, the civil service and elsewhere. It is therefore reassuring to note that, on this issue, too, the committee explicitly rules out the idea that there has been any decline in standards.
The report highlights the continuing tradition of voluntary service by those many thousands of public-spirited individuals in positions that are often unpaid or paid at rates far below those that their skills could attract elsewhere. I should like to add my tribute to the many people who serve in those positions. I hope that they will all accept and that the House will accept that the Nolan committee's report offers a conclusive rebuttal of the allegations hurled, without any evidence or justification, at people who give their time and energy to serve the nation in a public capacity.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
Some of the most serious shortcomings to which the Public Accounts Committee drew attention in its eighth report were in non-departmental public bodies. There were some very serious shortcomings indeed, which led to a unique report, of a type that had never been produced by the Public Accounts Committee.
The Nolan report is proposing that auditors from the commercial sector should continue to carry out the audit of some of those non-departmental public bodies. At present, two thirds of non-departmental public bodies are audited by the National Audit Office. I believe, and the Committee believes, that it is important that all those non-departmental public bodies should be audited by the National Audit Office.
Commercial auditors today—we have witnessed some examples of it recently—have an advantage in obtaining so much of their money from consultancy work, and they make very low bids to obtain that. The only organisation that has no interest in those matters is the National Audit Office, which can be answerable to the Public Accounts Committee and can retain those standards. It is important that the standards that exist in the Government service as a whole be applied throughout those non-departmental public bodies.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. Before the Minister continues, may I remind both sides of the House that interventions, by their nature, should be short?
§ Mr. Hunt
I have a great deal of sympathy with several of the arguments made by the right hon. Gentleman. Indeed, one of the Nolan committee's recommendations is that audit arrangements should be reviewed, to ensure that the best practice applies to all public bodies.
I shall discuss appointments and then auditing arrangements and propriety. The Nolan committee does indeed endorse the key principles underlying the existing appointments system—that ultimate responsibility for public appointments must remain with Ministers, all appointments should be subject to the overriding principle of appointment on merit and public bodies should have a balance of skills and backgrounds in their membership.
The Government are already taking steps to improve the transparency and independence of the appointments process. We have reviewed the central guidance and there is increasing, use, in the national health service and other 491 public services, of advisory panels or committees with one or more independent members. Many of the committee's recommendations build on those initiatives.
§ Mr. Hunt
Of course I will give way, but I shall first reply to the argument of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon).
The Government welcome the proposal for a new independent commissioner for public appointments, who would monitor, regulate and approve departmental appointment procedures. We also accept the case for an extension of the role of independent advisory committees. We are developing formal plans now to implement those proposals.
We need to consider very carefully what the exact functions of the commissioner should be. It appears sensible not to finalise the details until we have appointed someone of the highest integrity and listened to his or her opinions.
The committee also examined the standards of conduct, as the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne says. The report says:in general, the board members of executive non-departmental public bodies and national health service bodies are committed to the principles and values of public service and perform their duties to high standards of integrity".To provide additional reassurance, we are ready to tighten procedures, as recommended in the report. In that way, we aim to show beyond doubt that the rules are being followed. Specifically, we accept that we should review the legal framework governing propriety and accountability in a wide range of public bodies. I am happy to tell the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne that work on that review by members of the Cabinet Office and the Treasury is already under way.
The committee also suggested that the Treasury "Code of Best Practice for Board Members," issued, I think, in June 1994, should act as a model for mandatory codes of conduct for each executive non-departmental public body. Although the Treasury model is indeed at the moment principally intended to cover non-departmental public bodies, it is not mandatory. I have an open mind about that. Perhaps it should be; or perhaps we need to tackle it in some other way, more responsive to the needs of each individual body. That issue merits very careful consideration.
National health service bodies, for example, have their own codes of conduct and accountability, which are already mandatory on all boards; and compliance is a condition of appointment.
§ Mr. Hunt
I shall mention the committee's final recommendations, and then I shall give way.
The committee's final recommendations propose the adoption of the 1994 "Code of Practice on Access to Government Information", together with the committee's own guidelines, throughout executive non-departmental public bodies.
492 We wholeheartedly endorse those proposals, because greater openness in public life is an important objective of the Government. I believe that our code of practice has already been a notable milestone in meeting that objective. We are also introducing an openness code for the national health service, under which the health service ombudsman will be asked to investigate individual complaints.
§ Mr. Sheerman
The openness that my constituents want is an openness about who is appointed to public bodies. So many good people in this country of ours want to give public service, but, time and again, listen to people such as Baroness Denton, who says that she has never knowingly appointed anyone who is not a member or a supporter of the Conservative party. That is the great unrest among constituents of mine, who want to serve.
§ Mr. Hunt
Baroness Denton has already said that she was misquoted and did not say that.
I would hope that, had the hon. Gentleman listened to what I said, he would have been reassured that the Government have said that, in certain instances, we accept the recommendations set out in the report, and in others the recommendations need careful consideration.
§ Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)
In his evidence to the Nolan committee, did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster discuss the role of the Government Chief Whip, and say that that was to be different from now on?
§ Mr. Hunt
I did give written evidence to the Nolan committee, in setting out the new procedure on appointments, that there would be a lessening role for the Government Chief Whip. I made that clear to the committee, and nothing came down from above to strike me down when I uttered those words.
I have outlined the Government's preliminary response to the Nolan committee's first report. Its subject is of the utmost importance to the Government. We believe that people engaged in public service must work with integrity and to the highest standards, and be seen to do so.
§ Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Earlier he was subject to several interventions—from both sides of the House, surprisingly—that might have implied delay in carrying out the recommendations of the report.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, subject to clarification of certain important matters in the report and subject to a free vote of Back-Bench Members of the House, indeed all Members of the House, there would be high risk to the reputation of Parliament and to the legitimate representation of interests in our processes—which is very important—if there were undue delay in implementing most of the proposals?
§ Mr. Hunt
On my hon. Friend's first point, I have always believed that, in matters governing issues that affect the House, one should give way on every possible and conceivable occasion. If there were any misconceptions, I hope that they have been dispersed by the way in which, on behalf of the Government, I have so clearly welcomed the broad thrust of the recommendations in so far as they affect the Government.
As far as Parliament is concerned, it must be for Parliament to determine the way to proceed. I very much hope that all those who feel that they have an opinion to 493 express will find time, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make their contribution. That is why I should like to bring my remarks to a close by saying that—
§ Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)
In the spirit of openness which the Government are most concerned to exploit to the full, will my right hon. Friend ensure that there is a cost-compliance assessment of the additional costs of the rules and regulations that will flow from the report and of all the additional staff who will have to be employed at a cost to the taxpayer? That information should be made available to the House and to the nation.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
I am extremely grateful to the Minister for giving way. While I certainly wish to acquit him of charges of evasiveness about those parts of the report that deal with the Houses of Parliament and while I recognise the Government's desire to hear the views of the House and perhaps of another place in due course, will the Minister at least confirm that the Government accept the underlying thrust of the Nolan committee's report concerning the urgency of the timing of those matters that touch upon the business of the House and the need to act within the time scale that the committee sets out?
§ Mr. Hunt
I hope that I have already established beyond doubt the Government's determination to respond to the recommendations that affect the Government. I believe that the recommendations that the committee has singled out for early implementation should be treated in the same way as we treat the recommendations of a Select Committee: we must provide a detailed response within the usual two-month period. I have already indicated that we are taking action in a number of areas, but that a detailed response will be provided before the summer recess. As to the hon. Gentleman's point about Parliament, that must be a matter for Parliament to decide.
Above all, I hope that we will remember one thing: while formal procedures are vital, in the end the individual's personal position must be beyond reproach. I made that point to the committee when I gave oral evidence to it. I said then that no individual should act in a way that calls into question his or her integrity. Adherence to that principle and to the others set out in the Nolan report—selflessness, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership, together with integrity—must remain the foundation of our public life.
I believe that integrity must remain our watchword. We all share responsibility—in this House and elsewhere—for reinforcing the public's confidence in the public service. The Government will do everything necessary to ensure that the quality of the British public service remains, and is clearly seen to be, the best in the world.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)
I start by declaring my interests as they appear in the Register of Members' Interests. I am a sponsored member of the General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union and I 494 receive research assistance from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers and from Unison. I had intended to begin my remarks by welcoming the fact that we are debating this matter as soon as possible after the publication of the Nolan committee report. I had thought that that showed that the Government were treating the matter seriously and urgently. However, in view of the remarks during Prime Minister's Question Time and the speech by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster this afternoon, I am beginning to wonder whether I drew the correct inference from this early debate.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have just started my speech; I shall make some progress first. I certainly do not wish to do anything that would delay the implementation of the Nolan committee's recommendations, and I shall turn to some practical suggestions a little later. It is important to remind the House why it was necessary to set up the Nolan committee in the first place. Having listened to the remarks of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I think that some hon. Members might be wondering why he thought that the Prime Minister established the Nolan committee. At the time of its establishment, the Prime Minister said:In the present atmosphere, there is public disquiet about standards of public life".—[Official Report, 25 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 758.]Upon reflection on the events that led to the committee being set up, I do not think that history will accuse the Prime Minister of overstatement. In the weeks leading to the establishment of the Nolan inquiry, the House and the public witnessed the cash for questions episode, more than one ministerial resignation and a host of other allegations. I do not intend to go into the details of those matters this afternoon, not least because they are still the subject of some Committee inquiries.
§ Mr. Arnold
In declaring her interests earlier, can the hon. Lady tell us why she did not refer to her remunerated employment? Perhaps she can inform the House of the nature of that remunerated employment.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The entry in the Register of Members' Interests is entirely accurate. My interests appear there: sponsorship by the GMB and research assistance from ATL and Unison. That is a complete entry.
§ Mrs. Taylor
There is nothing to declare in any other section and thus there is no other entry. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to take up that point in any other way, he may do so.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. It is entirely a matter for the hon. Member making the declaration to decide 495 what it is appropriate to declare. I know of nothing that requires an hon. Member to declare an interest that he or she no longer has.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have mentioned ATL. I hope that the Whips' briefing to Conservative Members is more accurate on other matters.
§ Mr. Steen
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is the Register of Members' Interests as at 30 January 1995. As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had to give full details of his interests to the House a moment ago because of Opposition Members' complaints, we ask the hon. Member for Dewsbury to do the same thing when she makes a speech.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I have already explained that it is up to the hon. Members concerned to declare such interests as they consider are appropriate to the matter in hand.
§ Mr. Garrett
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I raised a similar point of order with the Speaker when she was in the Chair and she said that at the start of every speech—but not an intervention—the hon. Member concerned should state his or her interests as they appear in the Register of Members' Interests. In opening the debate, the Minister failed to do that and I was forced to provoke him into admitting what his interests were.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I understand that hon. Members should declare interests that are relevant to the matter under consideration.
§ Mr. Garrett
It is an absolutely genuine point of order. How can there be any difference between a statement of interests that are relevant to this debate and what appears in the Register of Members' Interests, because this is a debate about Members' interests, among other things?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
I have already said absolutely that it is for the hon. Member concerned to declare any interests that he or she considers appropriate.
§ Mrs. Taylor
Not only have I declared every interest that I consider proper, but I have declared every interest that I have.
The point that I was making—it seems to cause significant embarrassment to Conservative Members—was that many people hoped that the establishment of the Nolan committee would mean a reduction in the number of allegations being made. We were hopeful that there would be a clean start and that significant progress could be made. Perhaps I should remind the House of Nolan's terms of reference. They were:To examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life".496 Those terms of reference imply that the House will take action on any suggestions that the Committee makes.
When the committee's establishment was announced, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition described it as a plainly sensible and fully necessary move, and promised our full co-operation. I can agree with one thing that the Chancellor of the Duchy said today—we should congratulate the Nolan committee on quickly setting about its task and defining its initial priorities.
I want to deal with the three areas that form the subject of the report published last week. They are: Members' interests; the vexed issue of the employment of former Ministers on the boards of companies, and especially privatised companies with which they had dealings as Ministers; and the issue of patronage which has been exercised in a partisan way when making appointments, particularly to quangos.
The committee took evidence from a wide range of people, in person and in writing. It also took evidence from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, from the Leader of the House, from me and from colleagues. We should place on record our thanks for, and admiration and recognition of, the Committee's work.
The report does not contain all the answers to the problems that face us, but then it does not claim to. It is an important first step. The report was unanimous. Lord Nolan sets great store by that fact, and so should we when we come to consider his recommendations.
This must have been a rather strange day for the Chancellor of the Duchy, because he has been forced to accept the thrust of the Nolan report, yet all its conclusions reject the approach that he took when he gave evidence on 7 February. His evidence that day was amazingly complacent. He dismissed, as he did at times this afternoon, many of the concerns as slurs, innuendo and often downright lies. He said that he believed that the Government should bedetermined to ensure that standards of conduct in public service are maintained".He seemed to be satisfied to leave it there. It is precisely that satisfaction with existing standards that most worries us. No one could, no one should, and I hope no one would issue a blanket condemnation of all Members of Parliament. It is simply not true to say that they all behave as badly as the few who have brought the House into disrepute. But to imply, as the right hon. Gentleman has, that there was no real problem is to do our reputation no good at all.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
Surely the real problem is that too many Members of the House regard a seat here as a negotiable asset for private gain, instead of a basis for a vocation. At the same time, they vote and urge others to vote to obstruct those with a vocation, such as doctors, nurses and teachers, and to press them into being short-term monetary contractors. Does that not go against the principles of Parliament and their Christian basis? If it is pursued too far, it could destroy both.
§ Mrs. Taylor
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. In a way, he reinforces the real dangers, outlined by Lord Nolan, that could arise if we did not take action now.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
Does the hon. Lady agree with the remark in chapter 1 of the report to the effect that much of the anxiety about standards in public life is not supported by the facts?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have already said that, but I should add that too much of the anxiety has been caused by real problems—such as cash for questions and cash for amendments. It is no use pretending that there is not a real problem.
Giving evidence to the Nolan committee, the Leader of the House acknowledged that there was a real problem to which we had to attend. I want to deal this afternoon with the committee's specific recommendations and outline what our response should be. Then, if time allows, I should like to say a few words about the future work of the committee.
The Chancellor mentioned procedure for Ministers and the fact that the report is now a public document. But, when he gave evidence on 7 February this year, the right hon. Gentleman's attention was drawn by Lord Nolan to an interview that the former had given in which he was asked whether he wanted a change in the rules governing the taking up of outside employment by former Ministers. The Chancellor said:I have to say that I believe, and the Government believes, that it is still right to leave decisions about these matters to the judgement of individuals.Pressed by Nolan to discover whether that meant that the Government wanted no change, the Chancellor reiterated his belief that the current rules were adequate, suggesting that all was well. I am glad that today he has backed down and said that the Government will accept the Nolan recommendations on the employment of former Ministers. I am not convinced that those recommendations can be the last word on the subject, however. We shall want to monitor developments and return to the matter when necessary, to see whether further changes have to be made.
Quangos were included in the inquiry because of the significant concern about them, to which hon. Members have already alluded. Of course there have always been quangos, but they have mushroomed in recent years, spending vast amounts of public money. In the past, there have been unwritten rules determining their balance, and they have never been the subject of such public concern before. That is not surprising, given the facts. Hon. Members have already referred to what Baroness Denton said about not knowingly appointing Labour nominees. Such issues give rise to great concern—not least because they tally with the experience of many of our constituents.
The Nolan recommendations on changing the appointments procedure for members of quangos will make a difference. Quite how significant that difference will be I am not sure, but it is important to realise that it is not, in itself, the answer to the growing problem of the quango state. The Chancellor and other Ministers must acknowledge that public anxiety is not just about who serves on quangos; it is also about their power and spending ability.
The Chancellor of the Duchy, in his evidence to the Nolan inquiry, said that quangos were a good form of accountability. I presume that he has never tried tabling a question about something for which a quango has responsibility. There is amazing complacency about the accountability of quangos. That complacency appeared, 498 surprisingly, to be shared by the Leader of the House during his statement on drugs last week, in which he said that the chief executives of the health authorities would take the lead in some respect because that form of quango gave the best form of accountability. Quangos may be accountable to the Government but they are not accountable to Parliament, and they are certainly not accountable to the public.
§ Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)
I am sure that the hon. Lady will be aware that the Public Accounts Committee takes a close interest in the work of all quangos and has all the necessary powers to summon their representatives to appear to give evidence. Indeed, the PAC has done so, and its reports are published and debated in the House.
§ Mrs. Taylor
Yes, but there are still problems with auditing, which were referred to earlier. Indeed, the Nolan report touches on those problems. If anybody is to be complacent and claim that changes to the appointment system will remove all the problems that exist within a quango state, he will be deluding himself. He will not, however, delude the public.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
Will my hon. Friend bear in mind the fact that if the PAC devoted all its hearings over the next 10 years to quangos, it would at the end of that period have discussed only a fraction of them?
§ Mrs. Taylor
That is probably the case. Even if the assiduous members of the Committee were to sit every day of the week, there would still be a monitoring problem.
§ Mr. Shersby
This is an extremely important matter. The hon. Lady has said that there are problems in auditing quangos' accounts. Having served on the PAC for 13 years, I can only say that the auditing of quangos' accounts by the National Audit Office is probably carried out to the highest standards that apply anywhere else in the world.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am not criticising the NAO, but it can audit only a third of quangos' accounts. There is a real problem in auditing public money. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who is obviously interested in these matters, will read the Nolan report again, and especially the concerns that Lord Nolan himself expresses about them. The public have a right to know what happens to their money. We must examine how they can be reassured that there will be better auditing procedures in future.
I move on to Members' interests. I shall make some specific suggestions in terms of a timetable that I hope the House will take on board in its consideration of where we should go from here. I accept the recommendations set out in the Nolan report. It is important that the House should move quickly. I am pleased that Lord Nolan has accepted many of the suggestions that I made when I gave evidence to his committee. I said—I believe that this is Lord Nolan's recommendation—that the Register of Members' Interests must be improved.
Contracts of external interest should be registered and available for public scrutiny. The amounts that Members are paid should be disclosed in broad terms. It is extremely important that these recommendations are implemented with all possible speed. Indeed, I believe 499 that the process must be started within the next few weeks. I want to see the framework for the new arrangements in place by the autumn. That means that the House must make positive decisions before the summer recess—indeed, as early as possible.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
I agree broadly with what the hon. Lady is saying. Do I take it that she, like me, does not agree with the interesting suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) and by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that the House should proceed by way of statute rather than through its own mechanisms, not least because adopting a statutory approach would cause greater delay?
§ Mrs. Taylor
The right hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. By resolution of the House, we can make many of the changes that Lord Nolan suggests. The House will need to consider these matters quickly after the Whitsun recess. We should aim at making the necessary changes as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Budgen
The House may not have objected to the original arrangements for registration, but the Nolan suggestions go a great deal further. They are designed not to deal with the way in which we serve in the House but to set down the terms and conditions of that service and to influence the way in which we behave outside the House. The House might have decided not to be difficult about registration, but if we are to take a major and radical step forward, which is said to be necessary, surely we should do so on the basis of something that is set out in statute so that for the future people will know the terms on which they will serve in this place.
§ Mrs. Taylor
If we make the changes that I shall suggest, anyone who wants to put himself forward at the next general election will be clear about the terms and conditions of his employment as a Member. The hon. Gentleman is making a bogus point that should not delay us.
§ Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)
Will the hon. Lady explain—this is not explained in the Nolan report—the difference between income that is derived from advising a respectable organisation about its relationship with government and other forms of income? Why should income that is derived from advising such organisations be declared when the work of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) or that of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), who publish works that no one would read apart from the fact that it is thought that they carry some authority because they are produced by Members—the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who is a broadcaster, provides another example—need not be declared? There are, of course, parliamentary silks on both sides of the House. Why should uniquely the money from one source be published but not that from the other? Would it have anything to do—I offer this to the hon. Lady in the spirit of helpfulness—with the fact that there are more parliamentary advisers on the Conservative 500 Benches than on the Opposition Benches and at least as many parliamentary silks on the Opposition Benches as on the Conservative Benches?
§ Mrs. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman may be pushing some of my hon. Friends into saying, "Publish the lot." I think that Lord Nolan was trying to make it clear that our first responsibility is to ensure that the public know of any income that we receive only because we are Members. That is one of the keys.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I may be helpful to the hon. Gentleman. I shall deal with the point in more detail. The hon. Gentleman is not known for his patience, but it would be helpful if in this instance he were patient. I want to make what I hope are some constructive and positive suggestions about the way in which we should proceed.
§ Mrs. Gorman
Does the hon. Lady agree that it is important for Members who receive research assistance that is paid for by outside bodies such as trade unions—for example, Unison, which I understand is sponsoring many research assistants for members of the Opposition Front Bench—to make a declaration?
§ Mrs. Taylor
It is clear that the hon. Lady has not read the register in much detail. Money of the sort to which she refers is declared. It should be in the register, and under the new system the amounts involved should be there. We on the Opposition Benches are happy with that proposal and willing to comply with it.
The most important question for us to consider is how we proceed from this point. The way in which we move to implement the Nolan recommendations is the most important issue facing us. The House must take an early decision on the principles of the changes to the register as recommended by Lord Nolan, including the full disclosure of contracts and payments.
The vote on the principle of that has to be separated from the definition of some of the details and, perhaps, the income bandings that would apply, because Lord Nolan has made suggestions and given guidance but not exact definitions. The fact that details have to be established is no excuse for delay. The Select Committee on Members' Interests may well be able to do that and, in normal circumstances, that is the approach that the House would consider.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
Given that, like her, I think that the whole House wants to be certain that the resolutions that are put to the House are clear not only to Members but to the public, would the hon. Lady think it helpful if the matter, rather than being referred to the Members' Interests Select Committee—which, she is right, is the obvious place—were considered by a committee of senior Members who have already announced their intention to leave the House in this Parliament? [Interruption.] I suggest that because such Members would not only command the respect of the House but may command 501 respect outside the House with the general public on the ground that they are unlikely to be thought to have any personal and continuing interest in the matter.
§ Mrs. Taylor
If we were starting from scratch and considering the matter for the first time, that might be a way forward, but we are not. We have Lord Nolan's suggestions and framework. I fear that the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion would be a mechanism for delay, and that is what we cannot have. I hope that the House agrees that we must have an early decision to accept Lord Nolan's recommendations in principle and then move to the mechanisms for working out the necessary detail.
I come now to the need for a code of conduct. I am firmly of the belief that the rules that guide our behaviour as Members of Parliament are in "Erskine May" and we, as Members of Parliament, should all be aware of them. Lord Nolan draws attention to the decisions of the Privileges Committee, going back as far as 1947, which are still the basis of those rules. It is clear to anyone who reads "Erskine May" on aspects relevant to Members' interests that Members of Parliament are not allowed to take cash for questions, amendments, speeches or anything of that kind.
If some hon. Members feel that that is not clear—I accept that not all hon. Members have always consulted "Erskine May"—it may be wise, as I suggested to Lord Nolan, to draw up a code of conduct. Again, we can move on that quickly. I suggest that we ask the Clerk of the House of Commons to draft a code of conduct based on the provisions in "Erskine May" which could then be discussed, amended if necessary, and adopted by the House. I hope that the Clerk of the House would consider that appropriate and I think that the House would appreciate such guidance from such a respected quarter. I hope that there can be cross-party agreement on that.
Another aspect of the Nolan proposals that needs to be acted upon quickly is the suggestion that there should be a parliamentary commissioner for standards. The Nolan report states:By analogy with the Comptroller and Auditor General, the House should appoint as Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, a person of independent standing who will take over responsibility for maintaining the Register of Members' Interests; for advice and guidance to MPs on matters of conduct; for advising on the Code of Conduct; and for investigating allegations of misconduct. The Commissioners' conclusions on such matters would be published.I accept that suggestion. Such an independent element is vital to restore public confidence in the workings of the House.
§ Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)
Does the hon. Lady think that the recommendations should be published before or after they have been considered by the Privileges Committee?
§ Mrs. Taylor
If a recommendation from the ethics officer, or whatever he is called—[Interruption.] I do not see why such a person should not be called an ethics officer or the parliamentary commissioner for standards. If hon. Members say that they are worried about the name, they are creating a smokescreen. Conservative Members may not welcome independent scrutiny, but it is the least that the public are entitled to. Any recommendation by an independent officer concerning a particular Member that 502 is not accepted by the Committee and any indiscretions that have taken place should be made public. That is important.
§ Mr. Nicholls
My recollection may be entirely false, but I seem to recall that the hon. Lady once worked as a consultant for a firm of parliamentary advisers. Can she confirm that that is so? Why was she presumably content to be a parliamentary adviser then, but apparently now feels embarrassed about it? If she did publish her earnings at the time—or perhaps if she did not—why is she now so keen that everybody else should?
§ Mrs. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman really should take the issue more seriously. The right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) asked a significant question on the detail of how the parliamentary commissioner for standards would work. We should concentrate on that. Do we want to make constructive progress as a result of the debate or do Conservative Members want to create a smokescreen so that they can bury the Nolan report and its recommendations?
§ Mr. Nicholls
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I made a specific allegation that the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) once worked for a parliamentary lobbyist. There is nothing wrong with that. I did as well. But we need an answer to the question.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
That is not a point of order for the Chair, as the hon. Gentleman should well know. I do not expect to hear anything further from him on that point.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I repeat, ad nauseam, that my interests are in the register. If we are to have a serious discussion about this, let us move on.
The right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) asked about the parliamentary commissioner for standards. I hope that hon. Members will accept in principle that such an independent officer is necessary to restore public confidence in our system. It is important, not least because of the many difficulties that have occurred when Members have tried to investigate complaints, either those lodged with the Members' Interests Select Committee or those serious complaints that have been brought before the Privileges Committee.
§ Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)
The hon. Lady said a moment ago that she believed that the findings of the parliamentary commissioner for standards should be made public even where they have been rejected by a Committee of the House. Does that mean that an outsider coming in might choose, as Lord Nolan did on arriving in the House, to announce at the beginning of his hearing one of his principal findings and that that should eventually be made public before any evidence has been heard?
§ Mrs. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman clearly has not read the Nolan report and recommendations. That is not what Lord Nolan is suggesting.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) doth protest too much. The fact that he has not read the report and its recommendations, and so does not know the context in which I am speaking, is his 503 failing. I would have thought that he should do his homework before coming to such an important debate. Lord Nolan makes clear the circumstances in which such hearings should be published. One of the things that pleases the Opposition and that we appreciate about Lord Nolan's report is that he accepts our case that, wherever possible, the Privileges Committee should sit in public. That is a significant step forward.
§ Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)
Will the hon. Lady take into account the fact that many complaints are lodged before the Comptroller and Auditor General about his work in the public sector and that most of those never see the light of day? I assume that she is proposing that, if complaints are lodged against hon. Members, the official, whoever it may be, would work in a similar way to the CAG, that he would sift out what was necessary to refer to the Privileges Committee, as the CAG does in relation to the Public Accounts Committee, that he would make his report, but that it would always be up to the Privileges Committee to decide whether there was substance in that report.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The right hon. Gentleman understands the position completely. He also understands the concept of an appointment, which other Members do not. The officer would sift every inquiry. The officer would be charged with recommending to the Privileges Committee or to the Sub-Committee which Lord Nolan suggests whether there was a prima facie case. Any inquiry would be made only in those circumstances, and several layers of suggestion are recommended in the Nolan report, but, at the end of the day, Lord Nolan says that evidence and decisions must be made in public.
§ Mrs. Taylor
No. I must make some progress and some other suggestions.
It seems that some Conservative Members do not want to have a serious debate on this matter, but we need to make some positive suggestions about what should happen. Some hon. Members are under a misapprehension about the proposal for a parliamentary commissioner for standards. I have heard it said that such a proposal would undermine the sovereignty of the House. That is not the case. It is being suggested not that Parliament's sovereignty should be diminished but that our work should be assisted by someone who is independent and in whom the public can have a high degree of confidence.
§ Ms Eagle
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a good idea to work on these proposals, as the Select Committee on Members' Interests sometimes has difficulty gathering evidence? The fact that it has limited resources to do so in relation to issues that are often of great importance to the Members concerned must be borne in mind.
§ Mrs. Taylor
My hon. Friend has significant experience of the difficulties of serving as a member of that Committee. Its members, who have had to deal with many complaints in the recent past, have found it difficult. I recognise the problem there. It would be helpful to them 504 or to their successors in the Sub-Committee of the Privileges Committee if they had the assistance of someone of that sort.
§ Mrs. Taylor
We should move on to consider what sort of person and what sort of position this is. My suggestion to the Nolan committee, and the suggestion that is in its report, is that we should consider the position with regard to the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is appointed by letters patent on the advice of the Prime Minister following consultation with the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. We could consider the way in which the parliamentary ombudsmen is appointed. It is extremely important that we should move very quickly. We should aim to have someone in place by the beginning of the new parliamentary Session in the autumn.
§ Mr. Steen
I deeply resent the implication in Nolan that all of us are crooks. Does the hon. Lady believe that appointing an ethics officer, as she is implying, will solve the whole problem for the nation, and that all the problems that she says exist will disappear as soon as that officer is appointed? Why does she think that that will happen?
§ Mrs. Taylor
The hon. Gentleman clearly has not read Lord Nolan's report or his recommendations. That is a slur on Lord Nolan and all the members of the committee. There is no suggestion in the report that all Members of the House are crooks. Hon. Members resent Members on any side making such allegations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider what he has said.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I must move on because I have a serious point to make. I sometimes think that Conservative Members are not interested in serious points.
The changes that have been recommended by Lord Nolan could come into place relatively quickly. There are other changes that will take a little longer and will need some discussion—for example, those to our Committee procedure, including changes in relation to the Privileges Committee and the possible establishment of a Sub-Committee. That is important. One of the factors that we must bear in mind is that those changes must not be allowed to cause any hiatus by which any of the outstanding matters subject to investigation by Committees fall by the wayside. Important investigations are still being undertaken by the Privileges Committee and by the Select Committee on Members' Interests. We must protect those investigations, despite the difficulties and, sometimes, inadequacies of our procedures. We must ensure that that happens. It is important to ensure that all those outstanding investigations are completed in a proper way.
As I said, there is a need for urgency on this matter—I cannot stress that enough. The public will not understand why, having received Lord Nolan's report, we do not accept it and move on from there. It was extraordinary to listen to the Prime Minister's responses at Question Time to the questions of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister set up an independent review body to investigate standards of conduct in public life, not least because of the concern caused by some of his own Back Benchers. The Nolan committee has 505 recommended that Members of Parliament should reveal their interests, including the amount that they are paid by outside bodies. That is one of the Nolan committee's most central points, and we accept that recommendation.
Today, however, the Prime Minister announced not only that he did not have a view as to whether those central recommendations should be accepted by the House but that he was now prepared to leave the decision to the very same Back Benchers whose financial interests brought the House into disrepute in the first place. That is a remarkable admission by the Prime Minister and it shows perhaps that his concern about our image and the workings of the House is skin-deep.
§ Mr. Garrett
Does my hon. Friend recognise that there will be great pressure on a future Labour Government to increase restraints on outside earnings by Members of Parliament, whatever the hardship that that causes among those on the Conservative Benches, and that we should think hard about what we are going to do, so that we can produce policies that enable Members on both sides of the House who fear such restraints to refrain from running in the next election?
§ Mrs. Taylor
My hon. Friend is right. Whatever we decide today—and, indeed, any action that we take as a consequence of Lord Nolan's recommendations—will not constitute the last word. Problems remain, and we shall have to return to them on other occasions.
I wanted to discuss the future work of the Nolan committee in connection with the need for a register in the House of Lords, the need for an inquiry into local government and the urgent need for an inquiry into party political funding. We shall have to deal with those issues at a later date. I have, however, made positive suggestions in regard to how the House could amend the Register of Members' Interests so that interests and payments are fully declared. I have also suggested a code of conduct for hon. Members, the work being led by the Clerk of the House, and the appointment of a parliamentary commissioner for standards.
Those are things that the House can do in the near future. If we are to begin to restore public confidence in our democracy, our parliamentary system and the House of Commons, we must get on with them as quickly as possible.
§ Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup)
Before Madam Speaker left the Chair, she asked two things of us: that we declare our interests, and that we speak briefly. I immediately declare my interests, which are set out on the record that was filled in, in the usual way, at the beginning of the year. It is absolutely accurate, and I regret to say that there has been no increase since it was written.
I shall endeavour to be brief. I do not intend to discuss many aspects of the report—particularly the civil service; it has always had its orders, instructions and regulations, and they must be reviewed from time to time. I must emphasise, however, that the number of cases involving lack of integrity in our civil service is minimal compared with that in other countries. Our civil service is the envy of most of the rest of the world.
I agree that we should look at quangos. I am not in favour of increasing the number of quangos; I am in favour of reducing it. They have taken over many of the 506 proper occupations of elected members of local government, and that can be dealt with. As for the audit, I always greatly respect what is said by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), and his views should be given serious consideration.
Let me again declare an interest: I am a member of the public review board of Arthur Andersen, the world's largest firm of accountants, and I am aware of the relationship between accountants and their clients. Our accountants are not allowed to have lunch with their clients, because they might then be accused of being influenced by those clients when reaching the conclusions in their reports. I do not propose to discuss that in detail, however; I propose to discuss matters which affect the House.
I have seldom found myself in greater disagreement with the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) than I have this evening. She constantly emphasised the question of public unease. I must confess that public unease about this matter will not have been lessened by the conduct of the House during the debate. Moreover, the part played by the House in public unease—of which I am fully aware, as it is constantly demonstrated in reports of public opinion—is minute in comparison with public unease about other aspects of our national life. I immediately recognise those other aspects of public unease, and they must be put right, but they do not involve the House.
The hon. Member for Dewsbury constantly emphasised the need for haste. What is necessary is proper consideration. When haste overtakes proper consideration, we often end up with the wrong answer. I have criticised our own Government for that: they rush in and make decisions without proper consideration. The House should not fall prey to such an approach.
When I entered the House 45 years ago, in 1950, we recognised every Member of Parliament—man or woman—as a person of integrity. That was the attitude, and it was fully accepted. We have now reached a stage at which every man and woman in the House is an object of suspicion. Why has that come about? I do not consider it healthy or satisfactory, and we must not fall prey to that approach either.
In those days, chairmen of major companies were Members of Parliament, as were trade union leaders. Both groups made important contributions and, I believe, benefited from being here, mixing with other right hon. and hon. Members and hearing debates at first hand. I was sorry when the trade union movement ruled that union leaders could no longer become Members of Parliament. I think that that was a grave mistake: the unions lost by it, and we in the House of Commons lost by it.
When a company chairman addressed the House, he would merely say, "I remind the House that I am chairman of such and such a company, which is engaged in such and such activities." All that was accepted; we knew about it anyway. It was not necessary to make such a declaration at Question Time, because it took up time unnecessarily. That is how the system operated, and it operated satisfactorily. We now have an entirely different situation, which I think is regrettable.
How often, during my time here, have we had a major problem? We had a problem in the mid-1970s, involving three Members of Parliament. The Committee of Privileges had its hearings; Reggie Maudling was 507 exonerated, another Member resigned and a verdict was delivered on the third. That was that: everyone recognised that we had done our duty, and done it properly.
Recently, two Members of Parliament were set up by a national newspaper and unfortunately fell wrong. The case was investigated immediately; a conclusion was reached, the House debated it and action was taken. The Members were suspended for two different terms, and lost their remuneration during that time.
There is no reason for anxiety about that. We were carrying out our duty, and doing it properly: there were no problems. So where are all the other cases? In 45 years, I can recall only those two instances, one involving three Members and the other two. We ought to pride ourselves on the fact that we dealt with those cases at once. It is now proposed that we set up a bureaucratic organisation—for it is bound to be bureaucratic. What will it be able to do to find out what is going on? We in the House know far more about what is going on with our fellow Members than any bureaucrat brought in from outside. We have our own machinery for dealing with such matters. We all have a Whips Office, and we can suggest the necessary action.
§ Sir Edward Heath
Not for a moment. I want to finish what I am saying.
What can that gentleman do? He cannot go into the Smoking Room and say, "By the way, have you heard such and such about so and so? Do you think that I should look into it?" This is a practical problem. What saddens me about Lord Nolan is that, although he is an admirable judge, he seems to lack a certain worldliness—an ability to realise what actually goes on in this world of ours. We must be careful not to fall into that trap.
The next question is how much we should include in the register. I fully accept that Opposition Members, and perhaps some Conservative Members, are in anguish about the fact that all this information is not public and published. Let me relieve them of their anguish: nothing whatever—legal, political, party or domestic—prevents any of them from publishing every detail of their public and private lives. They can publish all their earnings, their wives' earnings and their family earnings; they can publish the amount that they give in housekeeping money, where they go for their holidays and who pays for their meals. They can publish everything. I do not know why they hesitate. They would be in a very strong position: they could say, "This is the new Labour party—we publish it all." One might add, "Please don't write to the wife saying that she ought to get more housekeeping money." One could add such provisos the whole time. All those things can be printed. I guarantee that if every Opposition Member, in anguish, now gives full details of their public and private lives, I will get a publisher, and I will put that in the register as an interest—a very close interest.
We must be sensible about the matter. There is such a thing as the privacy of the individual. I have always understood that that was one of the important tenets of the philosophy of the Labour party. It believes in the privacy of the individual: very well, then—let it support that in this House. What shall we gain by setting out all that information? It will be a serious blow to democracy 508 in this country. [Interruption.] There is nothing to laugh at, because there are examples of what has happened elsewhere.
There is the example, in particular, of the United States after Watergate, when the behaviour of the press and others to the families involved was so appalling that many people whom I know in the United States said that they would never put themselves in a position where the privacy of their families could be destroyed as it was destroyed for those who were involved in Watergate. The result has been that such people have not gone into American public life. That is plain to see for anyone who has studied the subject. I do not want that to happen in Britain. People will say that they are not prepared to be subjected to the sort of inquiries that the new bureaucrat would carry out, the results of which would lead to the information being put in the register. It is bad enough as it is.
I shall give a personal example. Last year, there was a row over Lloyd's, which is still being misrepresented in this week's press. It is said that we deliberately confronted the Members' Interests Committee and refused to do what it wanted. We did not do that. We asked for a discussion and we got one. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), the Chairman of that Committee, is here. After nearly two hours of discussion, the Committee realised that the situation was not what it had thought when it had discussed the matter alone and it quite properly changed its view. That was the proper procedure to follow.
Yet that story still appears. The press and The Guardian have not yet apologised. They took my photograph outside today, so perhaps that will lead to something. There were other accusations about our losses and debts meaning that we would have to leave Parliament. I have no debts to Lloyd's. Why should I be tied up with losses of £22 million? That is the sort of thing that is happening. It will be much worse if we start trying to put all that into the register.
It has been suggested that the arrangements should be specified, or even put into statute. That is not humanly possible. There are so many cases to consider. If I have lunch with a friend in business and that friend is then made chairman of a firm, what am I to do about it? Do I have to stop lunching with him? What happens if an Evening Standard correspondent sees us lunching together in some restaurant and then writes that I will do what the chairman of that company wants? It is an impossible position. [HON. MEMBERS: "That is trivialising the debate."] It is Opposition Members who are trivialising it.
§ Sir Edward Heath
I am sorry, but I am doing rather well and I do not want to be interrupted.
I recently entertained a diplomat and others at lunch. We had a happy party. He sent me a nice letter of thanks and a bottle of port. What should I do? Should I immediately ask that it be published in the register that I received a bottle of port? Or should I tell the diplomat, "I am awfully sorry; you are very kind, but I am afraid that I have to return it to you. Otherwise, it will be alleged that I will help the company with its problems." Rightly or wrongly, I decided to do neither. All that I did was to write thanking him very much for a bottle of 1970 port, although I would have much preferred 1927.
509 The great danger is that the Nolan report will damage the House. It will also damage the Labour party, because the new members being sought for the new Labour party in the hope of forming a new Government will not be attracted by the kind of proposals to which the hon. Member for Dewsbury has given her full consent.
The leader of the Labour party said some astonishing things this afternoon. He said that the Nolan committee is the Prime Minister's committee. It is nothing of the sort: it is an independent committee. The right hon. Gentleman also said that because the committee had reported we must accept it and put its proposals into operation straight away. It is not for a moment the job of the House automatically to accept committee reports. The report has to be thoroughly examined and dealt with. If we do that, people outside who understand such things will say that we have acted rather sensibly. It will then lie in our hands to deal with the problems which really cause public unease.
§ Mr. Spearing
The right hon. Gentleman talks about public unease and the changes between the 1950s and the 1990s. Does he agree that the real reason for public unease is the devaluation of the ethic of public service, of public services and, by a few hon. Members, of the office of Member of Parliament? That is the trouble.
§ Sir Edward Heath
I have dealt with Members of Parliament. We dealt with those problems at once and satisfactorily in the House and people realise that.
One matter to which the hon. Member for Dewsbury referred in rather covert form, and which has caused public unease over the past two or three years, is the question of sexual behaviour, which Nolan does not mention. However, the chap in the pub does not talk about setting up an extra bureaucrat to deal with these things; he talks about hon. Members and their sexual behaviour. That has caused a great deal of public unease.
Lord Nolan can do nothing about that problem. He can set out requirements, one of which concerns ethics, but how will he define "ethical"? Hon. Members have many different ethical beliefs, and that is rightly so. To try to typify that and say what every Member of Parliament has to adhere to, believe in and accept as ethical bears no resemblance to human life or the world at large.
I hope that every hon. Member will give the matter serious thought and consideration. Let us abandon inter-party warfare and get down to the things that really affect the public.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). As Father of the House, he speaks with special authority on those matters that particularly concern the House and which have been dealt with in the Nolan report.
I must say to the right hon. Gentleman, with all proper respect, that I think that he has misjudged two things. First, there is the extent of public unease about the things that have been going on in the House. To describe that public unease as small is, frankly, not to recognise the unhappy truth of the matter. I wish, indeed, that it was so. I wish that the matter could be swept aside, because, like all hon. Members, I have a keen regard for the reputation of House and believe that its reputation is essential to the proper working of our democracy.
510 Secondly, I disagree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about the changes since 1950, when he first came into the House—not that there have not been huge changes, and the right hon. Gentleman described some of them fairly and well. He missed one of the most significant things that has occurred during the past 20 or 25 years: the growth of consultancies. I am talking not about the increase in the number of Members of Parliament having outside jobs and interests, much of which, I think, adds to the experience and authority of the House, but about the practice of Members of Parliament hiring themselves out to external interests in return for reward.
Those Members are trading not their accumulated knowledge and wisdom gained from whatever occupations they had previously and are continuing but the special privilege that they have precisely because they are Members of Parliament—access to Ministers and the undoubtedly greater opportunity that they have to further and favour particular causes. That, in my view, is what lies at the centre of the concern about Members of Parliament. I shall come back to that issue in a moment.
The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup said that the demand for openness is often carried much too far. He is certainly right to warn us about following the American route. The idea that we should all publish our income tax returns is nonsense. It does nothing to improve public confidence in Members of Parliament but does much to undermine their own self-respect and standing in the community.
There is no proposal in the Nolan report that Members of Parliament should, as it were, reveal any income derived from any source, other than that which they earn for being Members of Parliament and thus employed by consultancies. No one is saying that a farmer, insurance agent, stockbroker, artist or author will have to declare his income. We are concerned only with those incomes related to what happens in the House.
§ Mr. Shore
No. I now put that point to one side.
I deal now with the most serious point made by a number of hon. Members and which was touched on by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, especially in an interview that he gave this morning on Radio 4. A number of writers have also dealt with it, including Mr. Simon Heffer who wrote in The Daily Telegraph yesterday that Nolan's recommendations involve theover-arching constitutional danger of Parliament surrendering the right to regulate itself to a committee".Clearly, that refers to the proposal to appoint a parliamentary commissioner for standards. It is true that he would have the power to investigate complaints made to him and to initiate inquiries. However, serious complaints would be referred by him, as the report makes plain, to a Committee of the House. The most appropriate Committee would appear to be the Privileges Committee or a sub-Committee of it, as the report suggests.
That Committee would, as now, carry out investigations into allegations of misconduct and decide what, if any, penalties were appropriate. In other words, a Committee of the House—the Privileges Committee—would decide, not someone from outside. It would continue to make the decisions and recommendations and the House would 511 retain the right to say yea or nay to the Privileges Committee. There is a big difference between that and the impression that has been given that the commissioner for standards would do something on his own account to take over the workings of the House.
§ Mr. Shore
No, not yet.
The analogies that the committee had in mind when that proposal was made were with the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) has already referred. Indeed, the Comptroller and Auditor General today has considerable power of investigation, but he works to and assists the Public Accounts Committee, which has the on-going responsibility to invigilate Government expenditure. Similarly, it is Members of Parliament who hold the Executive and the Executive's servants to account for what they do, but they are assisted in this work by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, who also has independent powers of investigation. No one seriously suggests that the appointment of either the Comptroller and Auditor General or the Commissioner has involved the surrender of parliamentary rights and duties. That analogy must be considered seriously in judging this proposal. The job of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards would be to assist, not replace, responsibilities in the House of Commons already exercised by the relevant Select Committees and the House itself.
I hope that what I have said has allayed some anxieties.
§ Sir Edward Heath
I think that the right hon. Gentleman has missed the point, but we clearly disagree. What I object to is someone from outside cross-questioning us as Members of Parliament and then deciding whether there is something that he should refer to a committee. That is out of the question; Members of Parliament should deal with matters as they do at the moment.
§ Mr. Shore
It is more of a procedural matter. We can go into it in detail. I am very much in favour of further detailed consideration by the House, perhaps in the form of a motion moved by the Leader of the House or in the relevant Select Committees. What we are dealing with in this Second Reading debate, if it can be so described, is the broad proposition which is analogous with the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration.
§ Mr. Shersby
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the responsibility of the Comptroller and Auditor General is for matters of economy, efficiency and effectiveness in Government Departments and by the accounting officers for those Departments—or, in other words, the civil service? The Comptroller and Auditor General has no remit whatever to supervise the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of this sovereign Parliament, so I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman's analogy is not strictly correct.
§ Mr. Shore
I willingly concede that it is not too precise, but the Parliamentary Commissioner for 512 Administration investigates individual complaints and comes up with information that Members of Parliament have probably tried to find themselves. They have probably found it impossible to get and are therefore assisted by the Parliamentary Commissioner.
I wish to comment on one or two general points that have emerged from the debate so far. I was relatively pleased with the opening speech of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It is good to know that the Government have accepted a number of the proposals without demur. It is important that we should go ahead with the proposals for scrutinising the appointment of ex-Ministers who are applying for jobs immediately after they have left office. That is right. It works very well with senior civil servants and I see no reason why it should not work well with ex-Ministers.
I am also pleased that the code of conduct for civil servants is to go ahead and that new channels, as it were, of appeal will be made available. That is very important.
On the general question of quangos, I am sure that the new procedures will help. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury made the much larger point that the very role of quangos needs to be reconsidered, but that was not a matter for the Nolan committee. We were dealing above all with how members were appointed to quangos and whether the procedures could be made less vulnerable to criticism and less prone—I put it no more strongly—to the exercise of political patronage than quangos inevitably are today. I think that the suggested procedures will help.
§ Mr. McLoughlin
May I take the right hon. Gentleman back a little to what he said about the way in which the Nolan committee, of which he was a distinguished member, came to its conclusion on which payments to hon. Members should be published? How did the committee distinguish between remuneration from a newspaper article written by a Member of Parliament as a result of his membership of the House and remuneration of a Member of Parliament for his appointment as a non-executive director of a company, offered to him simply because he was a Member of the House and had some influence?
§ Mr. Shore
We can debate that in detail later, but common sense should tell the hon. Gentleman that there is a difference between a Member of Parliament writing an article and being paid for it and a Member of Parliament receiving an undeclared sum of money to use his influence on behalf of a commercial firm or enterprise. He ought to understand that difference, but, if he does not, we are in some trouble.
I shall devote the remainder of my speech to the issue of consultancies, which is very much at the heart of our concerns. There is a class of consultancies which the Nolan committee thinks is sufficiently clear and objectionable to recommend a straightforward ban. In paragraph 55 under the heading "General consultancies" the committee states,we can see no justification for consultancy agreements between Members and public relations or lobbying firms, which are themselves acting as advisers and advocates for a constantly changing range of miscellaneous and often undisclosed interests … We consider that this is precisely the situation which the Prime Minister has described as 'a hiring fair'.So much for the moment for that class of consultancies, but that does not settle the matter. According to figures derived from the 1995 Register of Members' Interests, 513 only 26 hon. Members have consultancy agreements with public relations or lobbying firms, while a further 142 have consultancies with other types of companies or with trade associations. In addition, 27 hon. Members have paid consultancies with trade unions, including the Police Federation. They are generally unions not affiliated to the Labour party but those that are affiliated support, through a different form of sponsorship, some 184 hon. Members by making payments to their constituency parties and to their general election funds. Those trade union arrangements may well have to be scrutinised, but I do not think that I am being partisan when I say that it is the 142 paid consultancies with companies and trade associations which are the focus of public concern.
What are the rules affecting these and other consultancies? The rules of Parliament are far from clear. Reference has been made to the 1947 resolution which stated that there should be,no contractual agreement with an outside body controlling or limiting the Member's complete independence or stipulating that he should act in any way as a representative of such an outside body.That seems clear enough in dealing with contractual agreements that have been entered into by an hon. Member with an outside financial interest. But then the question arises: what about paid consultancies which are not binding in the sense of the words that are used in the 1947 resolution but which nevertheless involved a Member using his influence voluntarily but not contractually for the same ends? What about consultancies that are wholly or mainly advisory in which a Member of Parliament undertakes not to initiate any action in the House but consents only to give general advice to an outside body on parliamentary affairs?
An attempt to stiffen the rules on consultancies was made in 1969 by the Strauss committee which was also a committee on Members' interests. Its recommendation is worth reading because it is very important. It stated:it is contrary to the usage and dignity of the House that a Member should bring forward by any speech or question, or advocate in this House or among his fellow Members any Bill, Motion, matter or cause for a fee, payment, retainer or reward, direct or indirect, which he has received, is receiving or expects to receive.That is a strong recommendation, and perhaps that explains why the Strauss committee resolution was never debated and the Front Benches of both parties agreed to put it on one side.
The Strauss approach draws a clear line between advocacy, using the facilities of the House, and advice given to people externally, and recommends that we should be very severe against advocacy. That approach is rather attractive, but it is by no means easy, as the House will recognise, to define with precision the difference between advocacy and advice. They tend to overlap.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
As the right hon. Gentleman says, the devil in this matter is in the detail. I shall give my own case. I work as an adviser for British Petroleum. Before signing a contract with the company, I had an exchange of letters in which it was made perfectly clear that on no account would I raise questions, lobby or be active for it in the House. My activities for the company are entirely confined to Latin America. It would be naive to think that a company such as BP does not have a public affairs department. There is an inevitable interface with Parliament and Government, and from time to time people 514 in the public affairs department telephone me and ask for my advice on a particular matter. Naturally, I give my advice.
I hope that the House will be careful and will speedily implement Nolan's recommendations and that, above all, it will be detailed. I am sure that I speak for many of my hon. Friends when I say that I want clear guidance. I want to know where I stand and if the guidance that the House gives is not acceptable to me I shall take the consequences, and so will the House.
§ Mr. Shore
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that intervention because it clearly illustrates the difference between consultancies. The one that he describes is clearly aimed at giving information and advice outside, and the right hon. Gentleman is not being used to achieve particular objectives for the company. The House must seriously explore consultancies to see whether a line can be firmly drawn or whether it must be drawn elsewhere.
There is another complication. Must a distinction be drawn between the commercial sponsorship of Members of Parliament and charitable, professional and trade union bodies which also appoint Members of Parliament as consultants on the general understanding that, while they are not bound by their sponsor's wishes, they will usually be willing to support their sponsor's interests? That is another category of agreement to which we must attend and try to reach a conclusion about.
Finally, in examining the history of how Parliament has attempted from 1947 to deal with these matters of concern, I shall look at the Register of Members' Interests. Consultancy agreements come third in the separate categories of registrable interests that are demanded. Under the heading of "clients" which is category 3, it states that Members must disclose the names of clients,for whom they provide services which depend essentially upon or arrive out of, membership of the House; for example, sponsoring functions in the parliamentary buildings, making representations to Government Departments or providing advice on parliamentary or public affairs.The demands by the register clearly contemplate that a Member may have received material benefits,which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament",and which, in the case of consultancy agreements, may involve Members being paid for making representations to Government Departments on issues which inevitably will normally be concerned with matters to be transacted in Parliament. The Nolan committee correctly comments:the contrast between the 1947 Resolution and the rules governing the register is in our view totally unsatisfactory. It is small wonder that it has given rise to confusion in the minds of Members of Parliament themselves".On that great range of consultancies, other than that defined group which I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, the Nolan committee has not come to any definite conclusion.
§ Mr. Shore
No. Indeed, it has been said—I have some sympathy with this—that the committee has passed the buck back to Parliament for its advice and consideration. The Nolan committee recommends, however, that much 515 more information should in future be supplied to the register than is now available. First, it says that the detail of consultancy agreements be recorded—of the nature to which the right hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) referred—and, secondly, that the moneys received in respect of consultancies should be declared.
Those recommendations will undoubtedly greatly increase public knowledge of what consultancies entail. No doubt, the House and its Committees will want to consider very seriously whether consultancies should be allowed to continue or whether, in part or in whole, some of them should be banned. The Nolan committee for its part has expressly stated that it will return to the issue after the House has debated the matter and in the light of the enhanced flow of information.
§ Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)
When an interest is declared and there for everybody to see in some detail, will the right hon. Gentleman explain what difference it would make if the remuneration were £1,000, £5,000 or £10,000? As long as it is clear that there is an interest and that that interest is properly declared, what additional benefit does the House or anyone else gain from knowing the precise amount?
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)
That raises many questions, but I think that, in judging the importance of consultancies and paid outside interests, it is relevant that the actual amount be declared. There is a real distinction between the receipt of £1,000 a year for some small service and the receipt of £10,000 or more for other services. Those payments which are related to what we do and are able to do because we are Members of Parliament should be made publicly available.
It is crucial to the success, stability and reputation of our democracy that Ministers and elected representatives are not only animated, but are seen to be animated by their desire to serve the public interest and not personal gain or advantage. The vast majority of Members of the House are indeed honourable Members. There are very few who—sadly—fall below the high standards that the House expects and the House must deal firmly with those who transgress. There is also a need, as I hope that I have demonstrated, for greater clarity in the House's own rules on personal conduct. It is my hope that the Nolan committee's first report will assist the House in the task of re-examining its own rules and in restoring public confidence in the integrity of our democracy.
§ Mr. Tom King (Bridgwater)
I likewise declare my interests, as declared in the Register of Members' Interests. Unlike my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) I think that the interests are reducing somewhat. I think that the House should be grateful to my right hon. Friend, the Father of the House, and, indeed, to the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) for raising the tone of the debate and enabling matters to be addressed with the seriousness that they deserve. This is a House of Commons matter. It is not something that should be lost in party-political squabble. I do not think that it was helpful—I say no more than this—that the Leader of Opposition chose to ask such a question at Prime Minister's Question Time, to which the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) referred. It 516 might have got the debate off on precisely the wrong foot. It is important that we consider these matters. The Father of the House has done a great service by setting before hon. Members some of the real issues that have to be addressed and the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney has made clear that they are very difficult.
The House owes itself the duty to read the report. It is well written. One letter that Lord Nolan received—I do not think that he will mind me disclosing it—said that it takes an Irishman to write English. Whether that is true or false, it is a serious report and it contains a number, not of diktats, not of instructions, but of recommendations which it asks the House to consider. Not all are for the House to consider because, of course, it invites the Government to consider some recommendations as well.
I pay tribute to Lord Nolan and the staff working with him: Alan Riddell, our secretary, and his team. I also pay tribute to my fellow members of the Nolan committee, who managed to rise above party politics in considering some very difficult issues to try to approach the matter seriously. I know that my colleagues on the committee would not object to one man being singled out. So to those who rise too fast to say that we are seeing the end of sovereignty and the traditions of the House, I say that I would like to pay tribute to Sir Clifford Boulton, who is not about to betray this House of Commons in the early moments of his retirement from it. His contribution to the committee was extremely valuable.
The House should approach these issues with seriousness. We are trustees and guardians of a very precious tradition. The mother of Parliaments is temporarily in our hands. We meet here in a week in which the Senate has decided to resume its investigations into the conduct of the President of the United States; the United States Attorney-General has just announced that she will begin investigations into the previous conduct of a fellow member of the Cabinet, the US Trade Secretary; a French Cabinet Minister, who had resigned from the Cabinet because of charges made against him, has been sentenced to gaol; and 20 per cent. of the Italian Parliament—that is a pretty significant number if one looks around—are awaiting trial on criminal charges. Such issues ought not to be taken lightly.
Indeed, when the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) appeared before the committee, he made a telling point. He said that of some 184 members of the United Nations at the present time, he felt that only a handful had managed to maintain the sort of standards of conduct in public life that we treasure. We know that once it is lost, how difficult it is to regain. Those hon. Members of all parties, who I know feel aggrieved about some aspects of the report, should recognise first that we heard a lot of evidence in the Nolan committee. We worked pretty hard in those six months. It bears comparison with another inquiry that is taking place at the present time, whose only contribution appears to be an announcement of a further postponement of its findings. From our hearings came the statement, which was quoted in the House, that while there are problems that need to be addressed, the standards of public life expected in the country are high and the overwhelming majority of Members of the House and people in public life seek to aspire to them and, indeed, to maintain them.
So, that is the challenge that we face. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance; so it is to maintain high standards in public life. Eternal vigilance is necessary. If 517 we say that we believe that we seek to maintain high public standards, we must recognise one thing. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup asked what has changed. One thing has undoubtedly changed. I shall not theorise on the reasons for it today. The public perception of this House has gone down and down and down.
The very first witness that the committee called to try to get some feeling for public perception of conduct of Members in public life said that 64 per cent. of the public believe that most Members of Parliament make a lot of money by using public office improperly. He confirmed that when a similar poll was taken nine years ago, exactly the same question was asked and the figure was 46 per cent. I and other members of the committee asked each person who came in, such as newspaper editors, and Professor Ivor Crewe, who gave that evidence, whether they believed that the statement was true. Professor Crewe said no, as did a succession of other witnesses. Yet the public perception is that it is true. It is the perception that is untrue, and it needs to be tackled, because if the House does not command the confidence of the British people there is a serious threat to our parliamentary democracy.
It is against that background that we have made our recommendations.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith
I want to comment on something that my right hon. Friend has just said.
§ Mr. King
I am sure that there will be lots more before I have finished. I shall certainly give way to my hon. Friend later, but first I want to say something else on the same subject.
I do not want to speak for long, because we have written our report and now it is for the House to speak. I want to listen to the views put forward on our recommendations. I shall deal first with the recommendations for the Government, and first of all with those concerning quangos.
The Committee was set up in the face of a barrage of allegations about the practice of making appointments to quangos. It was said that all appointees were Conservative placemen and that appointments were entirely a matter of political prejudice. We took a lot of evidence, and if hon. Members read the report they will see that we did not find that those allegations were conclusively proved. We found, indeed, that the evidence was inconclusive and that the Government had already made certain proposals to try to improve the arrangements for appointing people to public bodies.
The system does not work well enough. The range is too limited; the same names keep cropping up. This is not a party political point; there is simply not an efficient system for selecting people. There is some resentment in local government that the usual nominations on a bipartisan basis and the normal appointments of a number of people—"Buggins' turn" on the local authority round—are not coming up, because we have changed that system for appointing the members of quangos.
We want good competent people. We have proposed to the Government that, in order to regain public confidence, there should be a public appointments commissioner—not 518 to make the appointments but to regulate and monitor, to report on the progress of the system of making appointments, and to check that the Departments are acting fairly.
As Nolan emphasises, it is essential that Ministers take responsibility for the appointments that they make. In the final analysis they must answer for them. If a Minister sees somebody competent with the ability, energy and drive that he considers necessary for a particular appointment, there is nothing to prevent him from seeking to have that person appointed. But at the end of the day he must be prepared to take the responsibility for the appointment that he has made. Our proposals are an attempt to give greater public confidence in that area, and I hope that that will be achieved.
We already have a system relating to Ministers' conduct and the standards according to which they operate. Many hon. and right hon. Members will be familiar with "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", the contents of which have grown up over the years. It is not sufficiently clear and comprehensive, and we suggest that clearer and more comprehensive guidance, entitled "Conduct and Procedure for Ministers" should be given to every new Minister. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has already said that a code for civil servants will be introduced, and our suggestion would parallel that, with a proper guide being given to Ministers.
Another question that we addressed was the problem that arises when a Minister is thought to have behaved incorrectly in relation to the code of conduct and procedure, and how that should be investigated. It is no secret that there have been problems. There have been two examples in recent years, and the role of the Cabinet Secretary should be carefully considered. When it is his duty to advise the Prime Minister, should he be the person to conduct the investigations too? I shall not delay the House further, but hon. Members may like to read the conclusions that we drew on the subject. It is essential that there be an effective system.
I shall now mention another aspect that has caused concern—Ministers leaving office and taking up outside appointments. There is no question about the fact that individual Ministers who leave office are capable of making an effective contribution and can bring considerable ability to bear, to the advantage of our country. We must ensure that that channel is not obstructed by political correctness to an extent that becomes unfair to the people concerned and disadvantages our country.
None the less, there must be public confidence that Ministers, like civil servants, are not allowed to take special advantage of information that they have acquired during their period in Government and exploit it for their own personal advantage or for the advantage of an organisation that they may join. When I was Secretary of State for Defence I used to approve or give advice on the terms under which senior civil servants leaving office could or could not take up certain appointments, yet there were no rules for Ministers at all. At present there is nothing to stop a Minister walking straight out and taking any job, although a week beforehand he may have denied his permanent secretary or another senior official in his Department the opportunity to take up a particular employment.
§ Mr. King
May I finish this point first?
It is fair that Ministers should be expected to take the advice of the advisory committee now chaired by Lord Carlisle—a group of 10 experienced senior people who can ensure that appointments that former Ministers may take up do not invite allegations of impropriety.
I was glad to see that my right hon. Friends the Members for Sutton Coldfield (Mr. Fowler) and for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor) supported that proposal when they gave evidence before the Committee. It could be a defence and a protection for Ministers in such circumstances.
My colleagues and I were anxious to ensure that it was recognised that Ministers and civil servants are not in the same position. The situation is not the same for a senior civil servant retiring at 60 on a full pension, who has anticipated his retirement and knows when he is going, as it is for a Minister who may be about 40 with three or four children, who finds himself, perhaps to his surprise, no longer in such demand as he was. [Laughter.] That reaction is interesting. I do not think that, if the situation changed, Opposition Members would hold quite the same view as they hold now—because it does not happen to be fair. I believe that in the end they would recognise that.
I believe that the changes are sensible. We propose that for Cabinet Ministers, as for permanent secretaries, there should be an automatic three-month waiting period, but that for Ministers below Cabinet level and for Whips there should be no automatic waiting period.
I shall now give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), as I promised.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith
May I take my right hon. Friend back to the beginning of his speech, when he gave us some interesting figures about the public perception of Members of the House of Commons. He told us that when those who produced the evidence that we were held in low esteem were asked whether they agreed with that opinion, they said that they did not. How does my right hon. Friend account for the gap in perception between those who gave the evidence and the public?
§ Mr. King
I shall not detain the House with my opinion on that, because we all have our views on it. However, it is a fact; I am not sure whether my hon. Friend is challenging it. We all share the concern about the public view of Members of Parliament. The people who do not share it may be those who organised the polls and the commentators who commented on them. That is the public perception which, while it may be unfair and fed by the media, is something we must recognise as damaging to democracy.
I now turn to the issue of Members of Parliament. I shall be helped in my remarks by the clear exposition given by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney, who made clear that there are difficult decisions to be made about how consultancies are to be handled in future. Some members of the committee wondered whether not just lobbyists but all consultancies should be banned completely, and the report addresses that issue.
Exceptions and anomalies have come out in the speeches and interventions which colleagues have made, and the House must address such points. We must ensure 520 that the House does not depend on a mono-cultural stream of people coming through a politically correct net into the House. There must be the widest possible range of access to the House, so that Members have experience and interest in a wide range of fields. The House will be better for that.
The difficulty is how we make that happen in a way which also ensures that we protect ourselves from the other extreme of problem. Every Member knows that there are those who have used their membership of the House to provide services in a way that has invited considerable criticism and which has not brought credit on the House. It will be for the House to draw up the difficult resolutions on that subject.
Some people have asked me what is to happen after this debate. The House must take the report's recommendations forward, and decide how to address the issues. We must ensure that we maintain access to people outside the House, and we must respect the fact that lobbying is an essential part of the democratic process. We do not want debates to be uninformed or to have Members who do not know what they are talking about. We must ensure that we have the mechanisms of democracy without inviting the criticisms which have been attracted to it.
The House must have a way of ensuring that whatever it decides is maintained. I strongly endorse what the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney said about a parliamentary commissioner for standards. That person could be the registrar of Members' Interests under another name, as we propose the abolition of that post. We also propose merging the Committee of Privileges and the Committee on Members' Interests into a single committee. Those who think that that would be a gross intrusion into the wonderful system that we have at the moment might like to talk to the two Members who recently experienced the present system. They warmly welcome the introduction of a new system which could contain within it the elements of natural justice, efficiency and promptness which some might feel the two Members were denied under the present hallowed system.
A gentleman—or a lady, I hasten to say—of independence and stature could be appointed by the House, chosen by House, voted in to his post by the House and would be an Officer of the House. I do not see how the appointment of such a person could be a great undermining of the sovereignty of the House. Such a commissioner could report to a sub-committee, and would have some powers of investigation. I see in the proposals protection for men of repute from unfounded allegations.
Individual Members could go to an independent commissioner when allegations and smears are made against them. The commissioner would be able to investigate the allegations privately, and he could have the authority to determine whether they justify further investigation. Hon. Members have said that that would be a considerable strength, as they have nothing of that sort at present. We all have odd constituents who can make some wild allegations, but we have no protection against them at all. Someone who could command confidence in that field would be a reassurance and a benefit.
Another point in the proposals may seem outrageous to some. We propose that the commissioner should be responsible for the guidance of Members, and could operate some form of induction training for Members on conduct and procedures. When I came to the House, I 521 stood between Lord Whitelaw and somebody who I have now forgotten, marched up to the Chair, signed a piece of paper, got my writ and I was in. It was thought that I must know what I was supposed to do. I was elected at a by-election, but nobody told me where anything was.
People may say that we are considering some appalling new professionalism, but certain facilities and improvements in this field will be genuinely helpful. If we want to maintain standards, it would be helpful if the standards which the House expects of Members were clearly set out.
I recognise, as did the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney, that we have in a sense passed the buck to the House. We have done that in the knowledge that the Nolan committee believes that it is not only allowable but valuable for Members to have outside interests and involvements because that widens the experience that a Member brings to this House. We believe there are none the less challenges which the House has to face. Abuses and pressures in the field of consultancies and lobbying must be addressed.
One or two comments from hon. Members have given me the worry that some people have felt that they could walk away from this matter, and that they could leave it and everybody would forget about it. All of the evidence that I listened to during the proceedings of the Nolan committee, and all that I have been exposed to in my constituency and in my public life suggests that that would be profoundly unwise.
I hope that the House accepts the responsibility to address the issues and to recognise the difficult dividing lines. The House must come up with proposals which can build on the recommendations which we made in the report, and do so in a way which commands the widest public confidence. We must restore public confidence in this mother of Parliaments which we all cherish and hold dear.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)
Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, may I remind the House that Madam Speaker has declared that speeches from 7 o'clock shall be restricted to 10 minutes?
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
Following the precedent established during the debate, I shall begin by declaring the interests that I set out in the register in my name. I must express to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) my belief that he has made an extremely persuasive speech to which we must all listen and upon which we must reflect. He was right to emphasise at the beginning that, compared with standards of conduct observed in public life in other countries, Britain stands out as being gratifyingly clean. It is not pharisaical to note how rarely corruption cases break through the surface of the expansive activities of Government in this country. It is not pious complacency to take pride in the altruism and selflessness of the numberless people who spend their lives working in the public service. Our purpose in Parliament should be to seek to underpin the high standards which the public are entitled to expect and on which, for the most part, they can rely.
In some ways, it is regrettable that today's debate is necessary; but necessary it is. In reflecting that Lord Nolan was not as worldly as he might be to understand 522 the workings of the House and how things are done, the Father of the House was reflecting the judgments of an earlier age and was not sufficiently in tune with the public's perception of the work that is done in the House, nor with the urgent need to seek to affect those public perceptions. I have not served in the House for as long as the Father of the House, but I am in my 30th year of service. Even in my time, I am aware of the changes that have taken place, not least in the accumulation of consultancies, to which the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) referred.
One should ask why that has happened. I believe that it has happened at least partly because the remuneration of Members of Parliament during that period has not kept pace with the rise in earnings of others in society. The Nolan committee refers to that fact.
§ Mr. Duncan Smith
Is not it strange, therefore, that the Nolan committee reached no conclusion about the link between the increase in consultancies and the decrease in the purchasing power of hon. Members' pay? Does he not find that a matter of concern?
§ Mr. Maclennan
No. The committee was properly aware of the limitations of its remit. It was not invited to consider the remuneration of Members of Parliament generally and, although it was correct to allude to the issue, it would have been wrong to take a final view about it. However, we can properly consider the link in this debate and form our own judgments on it.
A number of recent episodes have sadly besmirched the reputation of the institutions to which the individuals involved belong. They have raised in the public's mind questions about whether there is a sickness in our political system. I do not wish to linger on the background to setting up the committee, but it will be recalled that a succession of episodes in different areas gave rise to anxiety. Those include the Asil Nadir affair; the circumstances of the arms sales to Iraq, which are currently under investigation by the Scott committee; the resignation of at least one junior Minister who failed to declare a financial interest before his becoming a Minister; the activities of certain political lobbying firms; the accommodation of ex-Cabinet Ministers in the boardrooms of companies that they had a hand in privatising; and, as charted by the Public Accounts Committee in a number of reports, the disreputable conduct of certain individuals who operate within quangos.
Too often, the proper conduct of public business is secured only by ill-defined conventions and self-restraints. Today's abuses are testimony to the frailty of those protections of the public interest. Written constitutions alone manifestly do not eliminate improprieties from public life. None the less, constitutional provisions that defined the public rights and duties of the citizen—and the citizen in public service—and rendered those rights and duties enforceable in the courts would modernise our democracy. They would provide necessary checks and balances, secure greater transparency in public transactions and offer legal remedies where breaches occurred. Under such a constitutional system, Members of Parliament would not have the last word for they would be subject to the constitution. The Liberal Democrats believe that, ultimately, this country should move along that road.
523 The need for the Nolan committee's appointment was, however, urgent and although the effect of its recommendations is far-reaching, it is a very British response to the defacing episodes that I mentioned earlier. The report is a masterly compendium of proposals. If adopted in their entirety, they should help to diminish public anxiety. Wisely, as the need for immediate action is clear, the committee proposes a process—not yet a statutory framework—to be implemented and scrutinised for its effectiveness over a period of time. Members of Parliament are particularly indebted to the committee for the speed and thoroughness with which it accumulated its evidence and formulated cogent proposals.
The underlying principles that the committee advances seem to be compelling. First, those in public life should be guided by certain standards which, when considered together, put the public good before private personal advantage. Secondly, those who choose the course of public service must take responsibility for their own actions and should be guided in those actions by clear codes of conduct to which they and their peers have given assent. Thirdly, as it is not reassuring to people at large that those public servants should be prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner in their own causes, it is right to appoint independent outside officers to oversee and advise on the effectiveness of the self-regulatory system. Fourthly, it is recognised that corruption does not live in the sunlight. The blinds must be lifted.
The recommendations of the Nolan committee founded on those principles seem to be sensible and the immediate necessary step to remove justifiable public concern. Regrettably, however, there are two omissions. The first was alluded to by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), and I shall not linger on it. Non-departmental public bodies should all be subject to scrutiny, by either the National Audit Office or the Audit Commission. I welcome the recognition in the Nolan committee report thatThe absence of automatic public scrutiny does seem to us to represent an anomaly.I hope that that will be dealt with in the committee's future work.
The second major omission was imposed on the committee by the Prime Minister: consideration of the funding of political parties. All political parties should, in the public interest, be required to disclose substantial funding by individual trusts, private companies and others not required by law to seek the consent of shareholders or members to political donations. The existing arrangements are a potential source of corruption. It has been argued that such bodies and individuals have a right to privacy and to withhold their identification from the public. I cannot see why people should be embarrassed about giving financial support to a political party. The democratic process needs to be funded. The public right to know should override an individual's sensitivity about the revelation of his identity. I take it that few individuals would be reluctant to reveal their identity to the party being funded. The purchase of influence or reward is unacceptable and it is an evil that can be stopped only by openness. No doubt the policing of an open system would present problems, but they are not insurmountable.
524 I welcome and support the committee's particular recommendation about the Register of Members' Interests. I believe that Parliament is helped by the direct knowledge that Members can bring to it from their personal involvement with the outside world. If all hon. Members spoke only with second-hand experience, our debates would be somewhat diminished. There is, however, a consequent need to declare clearly the nature, extent and value to a Member of his outside connections.
Perhaps a more controversial recommendation, and certainly the most controversial one according to today's debate, is the appointment of a parliamentary commissioner for standards. His proposed role would assist Members of Parliament to perform their duties and in no way supplant their responsibilities. He would assist in drawing up the code of conduct and by maintaining the register, advising new Members and conducting preliminary investigations into complaints. I can only speculate about what effect the presence of such an officer would have had upon some of the more colourful episodes that we have observed, even within the past 48 hours, and that have been described before a rather astonished public.
The proposed amendments to the adjudicating role of the Select Committee on Privileges should help to ensure that the rules of natural justice are followed.
Liberal Democrats have advocated that changes should be made to the rules governing the employment of Ministers after they leave public office. I believe that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was somewhat too complacent when he said to the committee:It is still right to leave decisions about these matters to the judgment of the individuals concerned.The life of a Minister may be "nasty, brutish and short", but that is taken into account by politicians when they embark upon that course. From my rather modest experience in that sphere, I do not believe that Ministers become unemployable after they demit office, but the appropriateness of the employment should be subject to external scrutiny. I therefore welcome what the Government have said about that today.
The arrangements for potential whistleblowers in the civil service are also to be welcomed. They will help to limit any attempts to bring improper political pressure to bear upon their independence. Liberal Democrats are unhappy about the growth in Government reliance upon quangos and the evident abuse of powers of political patronage not only to ensure that those quangos are run by agents of like mind to the Government, which is certainly understandable, but that they are used to reward political cronies. The proposals to require the disclosure of political activity and independently to oversee the appointments processes in all Departments is therefore to be welcomed warmly.
Although many of the jobs in the hands of the quangos should be carried out properly by accountable, elected individuals—a point on which I am in complete agreement with the Father of the House—the proposed changes should help to change the more unattractive aspects of the quango culture.
The Nolan committee's recommendations should be accepted. When the Leader of the House replies to the debate, I hope that he will suggest how he proposes to put the issues for decision before the House, particularly those affecting the conduct of Members of Parliament. Of course I understand the desire of the Government to hear the views of the House, but we are entitled to hear from 525 the right hon. Gentleman, as Leader of the House, how he proposes to scrutinise the proposals in detail and give effect to them with a view to meeting the timetable recommended by the Nolan committee. Great importance should be attached to that timetable because an integral part of the committee's recommendations was that matters should be dealt with urgently.
I do not think that there is any point in arguing about whether nine tenths or three tenths of the proposals are capable of being implemented before the end of the year. What is clear is that the Nolan committee expected Parliament to act speedily.
The Ministers who are participating in the debate do so in a double role—as Members of the House, who are leading the discussions in the House, but also as members of the Government. We are entitled to hear their answers to our questions in both those roles.
On behalf of my party, I endorse warmly the work of the committee and express my thanks to all those who clearly laboured long and hard to produce this valuable report.
§ 7.4 pm
§ Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing)
I begin by declaring the interests that I have recorded in the Register of Members' Interests.
In many respects, I agree with the suggestions in the Nolan committee's report, but I feel bound to say that if they are accepted in isolation, there is a serious danger that, far from raising standards in public life, they may lower them because, at the end of the day, it is the individuals who take public office who set the standards. I believe that the House is already facing a considerable recruitment problem. Given the implications of the report, that matter cannot be divorced from the issue of Members' and Ministers' pay. That issue is extremely relevant if we are to recruit to the House people of adequate standard. I shall return to that later.
I should like to stress one simple point right at the beginning. The expression "full-time Member of Parliament", which has been bandied today and even appears in the report, is misleading. I doubt that there is a single Member of the House who is not full time in the sense that he fulfils what is a normal working week according to any normal outside standard. Many of those Members with outside interests put in the greatest amount of work in this place, not least, for example, because of their membership of Select Committees, which are an increasingly effective means of holding the Government to account.
I am glad that the Nolan committee has accepted what I suggested in my evidence, when I said that the present arrangements for scrutinising breaches—if I can put it like that—of the normal standards of the House were not working. The split between the Privileges Committee and the Select Committee on Members' Interests is not satisfactory. The Privileges Committee, with its huge membership, takes far too long to convene between one meeting and another. The Select Committee on Members' Interests is not the appropriate body to deal with such breaches.
The Nolan committee's suggestion that we should appoint a Sub-Committee of the Privileges Committee to deal with the matter is entirely right. We must, however, give the structure an opportunity to work. Despite the 526 persuasive arguments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), I am, therefore, not convinced that the proposal for a parliamentary commissioner for standards is appropriate.
I entirely go along with the initial proposal about the parliamentary commissioner's duties. I agree with the idea that he should be an improved registrar of Members' interests and give advice. The idea that he should carry out independent investigations, however, is not appropriate. I am particularly concerned that page 44 of the report states:the commissioner should be able to send for persons, papers and records, and will therefore need to be supported by the authority of a Select Committee with the necessary powers. To give the powers personally to the Commissioner would require primary legislation".I do not like the way in which the committee suggests we should get around that particular business. The power to send for persons and papers should not be delegated by a Committee of the House to some outside individual, however distinguished. I believe that that proposal poses considerable dangers and I sought to explain some of them to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor).
It is dangerous to have someone independently carrying out inquiries into all types of allegations, and then perhaps publishing his opinions, without the Privileges Committee having a grip on the thing. A new Sub-Committee of the Privileges Committee, able to work quickly and effectively, with all the powers to obtain any evidence that it needs about allegations, should be given a trial before we go along with that other suggestion, which has considerable dangers.
I am quoted in the report with approval as saying that transparency in respect of Members' interests is all-important. I profoundly believe that. However, it is the declaration of interests that is important to the House. The House is able to discount accordingly a speech by an hon. Member declaring an interest, the way in which he votes, and so on. That is the way in which we have always gone.
A Member either has an interest or does not. I am therefore doubtful about the proposition that it is necessary to quantify. It is not very effective, because what to one person is a large amount of money by way of a consultancy fee may be mere pocket money to another.
Perhaps one should quantify with regard to consultancies that arise from the House, but, as the Nolan committee says, not with regard to outside interests that do not arise from the House. That will be a very difficult line to draw. It will be necessary for the House, and perhaps a Committee of the House, to consider the matter and make proposals to tackle that problem. I doubt that the link between the Front Benchers is an appropriate way of doing it.
I return to my main argument. As the Nolan committee recognises, implementation of its proposals will have a significant effect on Members' ability to have outside income. I believe that, in many ways, the proposals will act as something of a deterrent, especially to those who are elected after the next general election. Therefore, one must consider the matter in its context, and it must be related to Members' pay.
I do not suggest that we should have full-time, well-paid Members of Parliament with no outside interests. They need to have both a sensible level of pay and the ability to have outside interests unconnected with their membership of the House.
527 In that respect, I repeat the evidence and the figures that I gave with regard to what has happened to pay generally. Since I entered the House, real incomes have increased by 80 per cent. Meanwhile, Members' pay has just returned to the level at which it was when I came to this place, and has been below that level, sometimes substantially, throughout the intervening time.
Ministers' pay has declined dramatically—the figures are quoted in the report. That of Ministers has declined by 60 per cent. and that of the Prime Minister by 59 per cent. Present Ministers, in real terms, allowing for inflation, are paid half what Harold Wilson and his Cabinet Ministers were paid. That is the extent of the decline.
We want people to enter the House who are of the quality to become Ministers. We cannot expect them to do so at present levels of pay. That is a serious problem. The amount that one would now need to pay to recruit that type of person as a commercial director in a middling-size plc is double or more what we pay the Prime Minister.
If we are to attract people of real ability into the House, we must consider the fact that someone—perhaps a president of the union—with a good second-class or first-class university degree, who might previously have usually come into this place, can go into the City now and earn more than a Member of Parliament in two years, with the prospect of earning vastly more later.
As the Nolan committee says—indeed, it was said in the final question posed to me when I appeared before it—surely service to the country and to public life is important. Yes; it is profoundly important, and I regard my membership of the House as the greatest honour. Nevertheless, when recruiting people, one cannot disregard the fact that, if one had remained in outside occupation, one would probably be earning five times as much as one has earned in this place—perhaps more. People need to have regard to their family circumstances, and so on.
On timing, it is vital that the proposals in the report should be related to a fundamental review of what is happening to remuneration in this place.
There is a great deal of fuzziness in the report. Many of the issues are not clearly defined. Therefore it is necessary, not for the usual channels, but for a committee to consider carefully the way in which those matters are drafted and the way in which resolutions might be placed before the House.
I make a final argument, because I am running out of time. It is much more important that we should get the matter right than that we should act fast, and it requires very careful consideration indeed by the House and its Committee.
§ Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)
First, I declare my interests, in the same way as the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) did, as recorded in the Register of Members' Interests. I agree entirely with his observations on the way in which Members' and Ministers' pay has fallen back. The new chief executive 528 of a middle-ranking unitary authority in local government will be paid as much as, if not more than, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. That must be wholly wrong.
When I became Secretary of State for Wales, seven of the chief executives of county councils in Wales were paid more than the person who was the chief civil servant in Wales. There is something wrong.
I express my gratitude to Lord Nolan and his committee and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who are members of it, whom I congratulate on their speeches. I was curious why the committee had to set out "the seven principles of public life" in more than 200 words. I should have thought that we should all know the difference between "right and wrong" and "right and wrong" as public representatives. The fact that Lord Nolan and his committee felt the need to state that does, in itself, no credit to public life.
Despite all the criticisms, I am confident that probably all of us, when we come to the House, come with the highest possible aims. What is regrettable is the steady erosion of understanding of what should be acceptable. Nolan has rightly made us take stock.
As I told the committee in my written observations, when I entered the House, the political consultant was hardly known. The first that I heard of them was in relation to teachers and the police, and now 30 per cent. of eligible Members are registered paid parliamentary consultants.
Nolan has grasped the nettle as regards multi-client consultancies in recommending that the involvement of Members in such consultancies should be immediately banned. I agree. They epitomise "the hiring fair" that the Prime Minister described.
Nolan has kicked into touch the problem of parliamentary consultancies in themselves. I concede, on reflection, that there is at least an argument for distinguishing paid advice from paid advocacy, and I want to hear more about that. I believe, however, that to be paid as an advocate in the House by an outside interest is incompatible with being a Member of the House. The Member is no more than a hired gun.
I do not blame the Nolan committee for wanting to hear more from Parliament. It has not heard a great deal so far. In any event, it intends to return to the matter in a year's time to review the position.
I wrote to Nolan in the following terms:Your committee may wish to consider what difference there is between hard cash for an immediate specified return and a consultant who may book a room for a dinner, make an appointment with a Minister, or even perhaps put down an occasional question.The House has approved the recommendation of the Privileges Committee, in the recent cases before it, as regards the behaviour that we felt fell short of the standards that the House was entitled to expect of its Members. The Privileges Committee said:
We see no sustainable distinction between a payment of £1,000 for tabling a parliamentary question and a consultancy for which the fee is £1,000 and the only requirement is the tabling of a parliamentary question".Personally, I would go further: I see no distinction between being paid to table a parliamentary question either on its own or as part of one's paid duties as a consultant. It is the same concept of a "hired gun".
529 The Privileges Committee has deferred its consideration of that part of the remit from Madam Speaker dealing with a general position on the need to clarify the law of Parliament regarding consultancies. We did so pending the Nolan report. Lord Nolan and his committee have come and gone on that aspect for the moment. I suppose that the Privileges Committee, either as part of its original remit or as a result of further instructions from the House, must now return to it; hence, I have gained the impression that Nolan has kicked the ball into touch on that issue.
I find the delicacy on the part of the Nolan committee in this difficult to reconcile with the fact that it had the temerity to give birth to a draft code of conduct for Members of Parliament. On page 39, under the heading "Financial Interests", the report states:A Member must not promote any matter in Parliament in return for payment.Subject to clarification as to what "in Parliament" means, that is ample to cover the whole range of parliamentary consultants, be they single or multi—otherwise, what was Nolan up to? I applaud the committee's ingenuity. I take on board the observations of the right hon. Member for Worthing, who referred to the constitutional powers of the independent commissioner. It is a good idea to ensure at least that control remains with Parliament in the form of the Privileges Committee, warts and all. I welcome the recommendation for the Committee to meet in public, and in debate a fortnight ago I suggested that the Committee should be much smaller.
I turn to the employment of ex-Ministers. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—I am glad that he is in the Chamber—must feel pretty sore, having received a black eye from the committee over his bland assumption that all was well or steady as she goes. As we were reminded this afternoon, he gave that evidence on behalf of the Government. I find it deeply offensive that Ministers who have played a major part in privatising an industry or in establishing quangos can take up a major paid role in those bodies, scarcely before the ink is dry on the statute that created them. There should be a firm cordon sanitaire for that kind of employment.
We are talking not about employment generally but about jobs that Ministers have created themselves. That is what we are talking about; let us not confuse it with hon. Members who are looking for work to feed their children. What is necessary for civil servants should be necessary also for Ministers. The minimum waiting period before seeking other employment is two years, and perhaps it should be three. I see no distinction between Cabinet Ministers and junior Ministers in that regard.
As to quangos, the present situation is intolerable. I wish that Lord Nolan and his committee had examined the situation in Wales, of which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is well aware. I was glad to hear the Chancellor confirm that the Chief Whip—the Patronage Secretary—will play a much lesser role. The Chief Whip is the conduit for political influence when making appointments and I am glad that his role is to change.
In the 11 years that I served as a Minister, I was never conscious of receiving any guidance from on high, offered by the Chief Whip or anyone else, when making appointments. I performed the same role as the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his previous office. Any 530 appointments that I made, right or wrong, were my decisions and mine alone. The Chief Whip did not play a part in that process.
In Wales and elsewhere, we have seen wives of Members, wives of Ministers, ex-Members of Parliament and ex-Members of the European Parliament appointed to quangos. They may be very worthy appointments; indeed, I am sure that they are. However, would they have been appointed but for the fact of who they are? I am glad that there will be an independent aspect to appointing people to serve on quangos.
§ Sir Archibald Hamilton (Epsom and Ewell)
I, too, declare my interests, which appear in the Register of Members' Interests. They include a number of consultancies and directorships. Unlike most hon. Members who have spoken in the debate today, I am rather disappointed by the Nolan report. I thought that it represented an opportunity to clarify some extremely complex and difficult areas and I am not certain that it has done that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) recognised the public disquiet about standards of behaviour in public life, while acknowledging that some expert witnesses had appeared before the committee and said that that disquiet was unjustified. However, he did nothing to attribute blame for the gap between the two positions. It may have something to do with the media, which insist upon reporting everything in the most unfavourable terms possible. We are becoming so cowed by the media that we rarely dare to speak out against them in any way.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater also spelled out clearly to the House what an incredibly incorruptible political system we have compared with many other countries. He illustrated his point graphically by referring to the number of Italian parliamentarians who face being put in the slammer and so on. It would have been useful to include that information in the report. It is extremely important to put in context the problems that we are discussing today, because they are minuscule compared with the problems facing parliaments and democracies all over the western world.
We have an admirable civil service. The permanent under-secretary is the accounting officer in any Department and there is a clear division of responsibilities. I think that that is one of the reasons why our system is extremely difficult to corrupt through financial fraud and so on. I believe that the report should have paid tribute to that fact.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins), who said that we cannot view the issues in isolation without considering the salaries of Members of Parliament. We must attract professional middle-class people to this House as they have a tremendous amount to offer. But if they are told—as I suspect Labour Members will tell them—that they will receive a salary of £32,000 per annum, they will not come.
Lord Nolan entered chambers in 1953 and was married in that same year. I am informed that he became a tax barrister and I am sure that his earnings, in today's terms, were well in excess of £32,000. He managed to educate his son at a public school and I suspect that he educated 531 his two daughters in the same way. I assure him that one cannot do that today on £32,000. At one stage perhaps Lord Nolan contemplated becoming a Member of Parliament and came to the conclusion that the salary was too small for him to consider so doing. We must put the issues into perspective and remember that a number of hon. Members, not unnaturally, have aspirations to earn more than £32,000 per annum. They do not consider that to be a fortune—although I have no doubt that their constituents might think that it is.
We must also look hard at the question of a waiting period for Ministers before taking up employment after leaving office. I do not believe that Ministers are comparable with civil servants. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater said, civil servants are able to anticipate their retirement and they receive generous pensions with which to retire. It is quite different when a Minister leaves office. It may be an involuntary act anyway, and he may still be young and burdened with heavy expenses. We should bear in mind the fact that the House has decided that redundancy pay for Ministers should be set at three months' salary. If we then make them wait two years before they can pick up another job, it is clear that the whole question of redundancy money will have to be reviewed—in particular, whether it should last much longer.
My other criticism of the report concerns its findings on disclosing remuneration. That is just a ploy to embarrass in front of our constituents those of us who receive consultancy fees. The argument seems based on the idea that if I earn £1,000 a year as a consultant I shall not be doing much in the House for that, but if I earn £20,000 a year in consultancy fees I must be doing infinitely more in the House. In fact, the reverse is true: many consultancy agreements involving large sums of money mean that much more is being asked of Members in terms of work outside the House. Consultancy agreements often mean representing companies which go in for a wide range of activities. I work for an American defence contractor, and I spend some of my time looking for companies over here for it to acquire—that has nothing to do with Parliament.
I turn next to the vexed issue of the distinction between advocacy and advice. It is thought wrong to be paid to be an advocate. Let us face it, Nolan has made it clear—as a long-term recommendation—that there should be a total ban on all forms of advocacy in the House by hon. Members who may be pursuing the interests of bodies with which they have entered into consultancy or sponsorship agreements. What is the difference between someone with a consultancy agreement and someone who is a lawyer or a solicitor tabling amendments to a Criminal Justice Bill? In principle I see no difference at all. The latter will be employed, perhaps, by a firm of solicitors; if he failed to table the amendments or failed to press the case that the partnership thought important, the firm could sack him.
If we press ahead in this way we shall remove professionals who have something to say about the law and something to contribute to Criminal Justice Bills. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) believes, too, farmers would not be able to speak about agriculture, or accountants about Finance Bills, and Members sponsored by trade unions would be 532 unable to comment on labour relations legislation. Even Opposition Members who are lecturers would be unable to comment on education Bills. That is the logical conclusion of banning paid advocacy in the House. We cannot draw the line between a Member with a consultancy agreement and a Member who is paid by a particular profession. We need to get away from glib assumptions about a division between advocacy and advice, because it will be extremely difficult to make such distinctions without removing the expertise that we need in this House for commenting on legislation.
I shall end by discussing the commissioner for standards. Many of us are worried that we may create an independent post that will end up being responsible to no one and creating mayhem in this place—even though we may have voted to set up the post in the first place. The solution to the problem is to make Madam Speaker the commissioner for standards. I am sure that she has many other things to do besides inquiring into whether Members of Parliament are behaving properly, so if she does not want to take on the responsibility herself I suggest that she appoint someone who is answerable to her. The role would then become part of the Speaker's Office and would be clearly seen to be independent and answerable to the House. That would remove many of our fears about an independent commissioner over whom, once we had appointed him or her, we would have no control at all.
§ Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)
I, like others, declare my interests: as a writer, broadcaster and shareholder. I should also announce that I have been a paid consultant for 45 years, first for Bristol, South-East and then for Chesterfield. The idea that a Member of Parliament can be a consultant only on behalf of companies or individuals—and be paid especially for that—is an illusion.
This is not really a new problem. I am alarmed when I am told that we have had a marvellous system hitherto. Lloyd George, whom I met nearly 60 years ago, sold titles. Then we had the Marconi scandal—not to mention 10,000 Enclosure Acts, under which this House handed over the common land to rich farmers. So let us not mislead ourselves: there has always been a problem, but it has always been limited in terms of the numbers of people involved.
The House is in such difficulties now not because one or two Members have done what they have done but because the House failed to take seriously its responsibility to lay down what our standards should be. So the Prime Minister used, of all things, the royal prerogative to set up a royal commission to examine the conduct of the House of Commons—clean contrary to article 9 of the Bill of Rights, which stipulates that no one from outside may presume to regulate what we do here. [Interruption.] Of course Lord Nolan's committee is a permanent royal commission, set up by the Prime Minister without consulting the House—he just announced it—to examine what we should do next. When the House is treated in that way, surely it must begin to take seriously what it has failed to do.
My argument is a simple one and is already known, but I wish to spell it out to the House in some detail: we should lay down what it is lawful for a Member to do and a Member who does not stay within the law will not be eligible to be a Member.
533 I am very doubtful about an ethics commissioner. When I first heard about "ethics man" taking over our affairs, I wondered whether the speaker had a lisp. I have 40,000 ethics commissioners in my constituency and if I act illegally I am answerable to them. We have heard talk of an induction scheme. Are we going to insist on qualifications for getting into the House of Commons? Many Members who have spoken today seem not to understand that democracy is not about qualifications. No one needs to have any qualifications whatever to get into Parliament; if we insisted on them, many people would never get in here. It is, however, much harder to get elected than to pass an exam. We are answerable to our constituents—that is what democracy is about.
§ Mr. Budgen
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that all this talk about the seven principles of public life—
§ Mr. Benn
I have just realised that I have only 10 minutes in which to speak, so I am afraid that I cannot allow the hon. Gentleman to read out the seven principles. I hope that he will forgive any discourtesy.
There are 400 classes of person who are disqualified from sitting in this House of Commons—I know because I have been through them all. Judges cannot sit here—Lord Nolan could not sit. Roman Catholic priests cannot sit here. No one has suggested that they should be allowed to do so provided we have a "religious commissioner" to determine whether they are qualified. They were excluded because in the old, prejudiced days it was thought that the Pope ran every Catholic priest. That is not true any more, of course. Anglican Ministers cannot sit here either.
I repeat that we should state what behaviour we object to and then make it illegal. Without wanting to get at anyone, I object to the thought that people who are elected to serve their constituents and pursue their convictions should act, for money, to promote the economic interests of a company. I have no objection to people representing bodies like the Police Federation, or to people being barristers or writers—how could I, when I am one myself—but when I hear a Member advancing an argument in the House I want to know that it is his own argument, or that he is representing his constituency, and not that he is being paid to put an argument to the House. His electors are entitled to the same reassurance.
I have drafted an early-day motion which appears on today's Order Paper and which one or two Members may have seen. It would add to the list of disqualifying officesany person … who is specifically paid to promote or seek to promote the financial, commercial or industrial interests of a company inside Parliament or in dealings with Government Departments".That could not be clearer. That is different from being on a board and advising on this or that. Being a company director is different from being in this place and being paid to book a room and to use it—
§ Mr. Benn
I cannot give way because I do not have time.
Being a company director is different from being in this place and booking a room or seeing the appropriate Minister to arrange something. Such activity in this place should be a disqualification.
534 Against that background, there is no need for an ethics commissioner. If someone breaks the law, he or she will be taken to court. The hearing will take place in public, unlike the hearings of the Privileges Committee, which take place in private. The hearing takes place and the Member will be liable to disqualification. As for classes of person, that is a matter of judgment. I am not committed to that form of words. If there is a wish to ban trade union representatives, let those who take that view make the case and try to carry the day. The same applies to solicitors and writers, for example. Whatever we do, the procedures must be embodied in law: let us not start with the idea of there being some administrator who will take us aside.
Ethics cover more than personal conduct. For example, would an ethics commissioner say, "Mr. Benn, you should not have supported the poll tax protestors"? Are we not to do this or that? Before we know where we are, democracy will be subordinated to some allegedly objective test.
I was amused when the right hon. Member for Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) said that he objected to a commissioner. He said, "Parliament can decide." He should apply that argument to our attitude towards Brussels. He has expressed the very objection that some of us have to the European Commission. He objects to the attitude of the Commission being applied to him.
I return to the point of order that I made yesterday. We are not facing the situation which confronted the country 300 years ago when the then king tried to arrest the five Members. Instead, the business community is trying to buy the five Members. If we do not take a strong line against the commercial corruption of Parliament, as exemplified by the strong line that was taken years ago against the attempt by the then monarch to control Parliament, we should give up.
We are in the present mess because as the House of Commons we have lost our self-respect. We should have dealt with the problem years ago. We should not have left it to emerge as it did so that the Nolan report would be imposed upon us by a worried Prime Minister. We should have taken action ourselves. Now that the issue has arisen, we should take our own action. Let us proceed by law. The law should be set out so that everyone knows what it is. Our constituents can then introduce ethical elements.
I am disappointed that the Nolan report does not contain a recommendation that every voter should receive from his returning officer, with his polling card, information about the interests of every candidate and not only those of the outgoing Member. If that information were available, everyone who voted would know that they were voting for an official of the Transport and General Workers Union or for someone sitting on 10 boards. Let the electors choose: it is one of the characteristics of a democracy that they should decide. This is not a little club that we protect with little rules. That is not what it is about. We are not here because we like one another: we are in this place because we have been sent here, and the ultimate discipline on our conduct is the view that those who sent us here take when they decide to return us or to send us packing.
§ Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey)
It is splendid to be able to take up the remarks of the right hon. Member for 535 Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) on one of his high days. He made an extremely interesting and exciting contribution to the debate. I fear that I would not have been able to enter Parliament under the stiff criteria that he laid down. I came from the humble world of industry. I was with a company that was making fruit gums, After Eight mints and other lovely products of that sort. There was a wish to improve the lot of other people and, above all, to create wealth. We wished also to create employment. We all wished to be members of a company that contributed to about one fifth of the working population of York. That is something rather different from that which is represented by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). Both of us know about the company that I am talking about.
One of the strands of this place is that its Members are all from different backgrounds. We come from different places and we have different attitudes. That fabric makes this place, a place that has survived for hundreds of years. We must be extremely careful that we do not unpick it in a moment of deep penitence or one of deep-seated madness. Whatever else, we must work out correctly the problem that is before us. We must not panic. We must not say, "We cannot touch that which now exists." It is only right that we must react to any problem that confronts us.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), the Father of the House, reminded us of the position in 1947 and referred to the report of the Strauss committee. As I understand it, that was the last occasion on which such issues were considered. It is only right that they should be examined again. Equally, it is right that the Nolan report should give us the opportunity to do so. As the right hon. Member for Chesterfield admirably stated, the outcome must be decided by the House and by no other authority.
Under the heading "Members' Financial Interests", which begins with paragraph 9, the good Nolan committee states:The reasons for the public's reduced confidence in the financial probity of Members of Parliament are not hard to identify. The public reads extensive press reporting of cases in which Members have accepted money for asking parliamentary questions, are said to have stayed at expensive hotels at others' expense without declaring an interest and are employed by multi-client lobbying firms".There is all that huff and puff about what goes on in this place, but there is little grain of substance. We know full well from the sittings of the Privileges Committee—I am sorry that the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) is not in his place—what happened when it examined the two Members and money for questions. The newspaper that was involved had been given information by an unknown business man and the names of four Members. It found nothing during its investigation to substantiate the allegations relating to those Members. It then set out to try to entrap two Members.
If that is the basis for huge public disquiet and embarrassment, I greatly regret it. We cannot consider these issues without taking into account the fact that some aspects of investigative journalism have started to replace some of the aspects of reporting facts. If that is the way in which the world lives, it is not surprising that we should find ourselves caught up in the present position. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) 536 said in his excellent speech, we are faced with problems with which we must deal in a way that is best for the interests of the House as a whole.
I have not properly declared my interest. I shall do so straightaway and as it is laid down in the good book. I have a non-executive directorship. That might worry the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. I had two such directorships but I resigned from one, finding it difficult to get to the meetings and deal with the issues that are the responsibility of non-executive directors because of the pressures in this place and the various activities that relate to it.
I understand why it is felt that consultancies are difficult. They are difficult to understand because people do not realise the importance of them. Those who have had management and industrial backgrounds find especially that consultancies are the natural route through which their interests can be expressed outside the House.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell (Sir A. Hamilton) said, lawyers have a remarkable capacity to earn money anywhere. They can earn money by their sheer skills. If someone has been involved in a background of manufacturing enterprise, it is not unreasonable that he should take an interest outside the House in sustaining manufacturing enterprises. Many manufacturing enterprises in Britain need the assistance of those who can help them to learn what it is to deal with the complexities of the rubric of the society in which they live, with the complexities of law and legislation or of getting export credit and everything that happens when trading overseas. All these aspects of business life affect small companies that are trying to make their way and, indeed, large ones. They look to many sources of advice, and sometimes they select Members.
When it comes to the declaration of interests, including consultancies, I understand the recommendations of the Nolan committee. I understand also that lobbying must be of maximum interest to the committee. It is a difficult matter, but, on the other hand, lobbying Members has been endemic to the House ever since its foundation. In the press, the Members' Lobby is seen as an exchange of information of various sorts. That results in reputations being made in print and sometimes rising circulations. It would appear that those results are all to the benefit of newspapers. Members use the Lobby and the Lobby is the entrepÔt of ideas that are subsequently exploited. Perhaps money does not change hands. Indeed, I doubt whether it ever does. But once we have such a system it is not surprising that we become involved with outside interests that are seeking to find ways of procuring an influence, perhaps at a modest level. Nevertheless, they seek to procure influence.
But it is quite unreasonable for the committee to say that there should be a statement of the earnings from consultancies, but not a statement of the earnings from all other sources of external interest. It is inevitable that if the matter is dealt with only on the basis of consultancies, investigative journalists will have a field day. They will say, "Ah, Member X is getting a consultancy worth Y. What else is he getting?" They will look at his other interests and find out. They will find a way to expose a Member's external income.
That would be a travesty of the way in which we should react to the problem with which we are trying to deal. There must be a compensatory amount of privacy if there is to be a disclosure of pecuniary advantage. We must 537 balance those two things. Some privacy is pretty crucial for a Member seeking to discharge his public office at a time such as this when we have media interest, 24 hours a day from all over the world, in what Members of Parliament may or may not be doing.
We must move slowly on the matter. We must take serious counsel. I was attracted by the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) that a committee of Privy Councillors from both sides of the House might be a conduit through which Nolan can be rationalised into what is practical, and what is practical can be applied without the distortions that may happen if the work is done at speed.
I also understand that we must merge the Privileges Committee with the Select Committee on Members' Interests. That is an excellent suggestion and if it is a smaller committee thereby, I for one would be delighted because the 17-man Privileges Committee that we now have is far too substantial for the efforts that we have to make.
I respect what Nolan advises us to do. I understand his keenness to see change. I recognise that there are areas which must be changed. But if we are seriously to preserve our inheritance and not reduce the total panoply of the House for attracting people of talent and enterprise, those changes must be carefully worked out over time in order to be made practical and applicable to our Parliament, and then we can decide ourselves—no one else—to implement them.
§ Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe)
The only interest that I have to declare—I do so with pride—is that I have long had the honour of sponsorship as a parliamentary candidate by the Co-operative Movement. As the House knows, I am also a member of the Committee of Privileges, but, of course, there is no financial interest there.
I shall not be speaking at length. My main purpose is most warmly to welcome Nolan's vindication of those who think it wrong for the Privileges Committee to be continuing to sit wholly in private at a time when Ministers talk of their commitment to open dealing and when, virtually by common consent of the major organs of opinion, the British people now want to see what is being done at Westminster in their name.
From the moment the Privileges Committee was reconstituted last July, I made plain my view that, wherever it could be avoided, we should no longer meet behind closed doors. The caveat "whenever it could be avoided" was to allow for occasions when, for some compelling reason, more especially one involving any possible breach of natural justice, the Committee ought to meet in camera. Yet we still meet in secret even when there is no conceivable legal or other reason for so doing and even when a witness specifically requests to be heard in public, as Peter Preston has done in the case of his impending appearance before the Committee.
The Prime Minister's insistence on secrecy, he told me, is based on precedent. "That's how it has always been" is his attitude. But if precedent had always been strictly adhered to, the Privileges Committee would still be meeting by candlelight and threatening, even imposing, fierce penalties against any journalist who dared to anticipate its reports. We heard earlier that Lord Nolan 538 had looked at proceedings in the Privileges Committee going back to 1947. What some of its present members have done is to look back to the Committee's proceedings as long ago as the 17th century, and to do so is to crave further modernisation.
I hope very much that this first report of the Nolan committee will now very soon bring our proceedings out of the shadows and into the 20th century while there are still a few years of it left. That would remove a demeaning stain on the reputation of the House; at the same time it would improve the quality of justice dispensed by its most powerful Committee.
The decision now, as I understand the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, will be one for the House as a whole, free from any pressure from the Government, or from anyone else, and of that I approve. We ought never avoidably now to meet in secret in Committees of the House, not because it is unpopular with, in fact deeply resented by, the British people, but because it is patently wrong to do so.
For the same reason I hope that the Nolan committee will urgently reconsider and reverse its decision not to tackle the funding of political parties. It is indefensible that one political party, at a moment of unprecedented unpopularity, should be allowed a veto on this crucially important issue. Surely no inquiry into standards in public life, properly so-called, can possibly avoid the core issue of party funding. As Simon Jenkins, its former editor, said in The Times yesterday:It is hard to imagine anything more corrupting than party cash handed over in secret, whether from a property dealer, an Arab Prince or a banker desperate for a peerage.For his part, speaking last Sunday on BBC television, Lord Nolan said of his committee:We are cast in the traditional role of an auditor, a watchdog not a bloodhound, and if a watchdog sees something which needs looking into, it should bark.That gave the impression that he was determined to stand his ground on party funding, but his bark seems to have been silenced by the Government. That is damaging to his committee's reputation and extremely disappointing to those of us who were encouraged by some of the recommendations in his report.
The Prime Minister's first reaction to the report was to accept its "broad thrust", but he has gone no further since then. We must hope that those two words mean more than that he is prepared to endorse only the principles of acceptable conduct in public life set out in the report:selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.Some might say that for the Prime Minister even to accept the report's principles is an important step forward. Certainly some of them are not much in fashion in Whitehall now. Take accountability, openness and leadership. Our attempts to let the public see as much as possible of the Privilege Committee's proceedings was all about accountability and openness and it was leadership we were asking for in pressing the Prime Minister to depart from the ancient precedent to which he still clings in defence of secrecy.
The public now want not only to hear talk about precepts but to see them matched by practice. They are entitled to see beyond the doors of the Committee Rooms of the House, to know what is happening as it happens and to hear the Nolan committee barking loudly for full disclosure of all donations to all political parties.
539 I have only one other brief comment to make as a member of the Privileges Committee. In picturesque language, Lord Nolan's report says:The Committee is assisted by a small secretariat.It then goes on to list the names of 12 people who have assisted its work. Those who have criticised the pace of the Privileges Committee's work may like to know that our staffing consists of the admirable Jim Hastings, the Committee's clerk; one third of the time of Paul Derrett, a Committee assistant; and what is called "access" to a shared secretary. What word other than "small" would Lord Nolan use to describe a secretariat as small as that? He might like to come and bark in our forest or, alternatively, perhaps we should start barking too.
§ Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West)
I start by declaring my interest. I have been a Member of this House for 31 years and, for 22 of those, I have been a practising wine merchant.
Important and serious issues have arisen today. I identify three of them. The first is the extent to which we regulate ourselves. I am uneasy about upsetting the delicate balance between the judiciary, Parliament and the Executive. I firmly believe in self-regulation, but we must do that as effectively as is practicable.
The second issue is whether we should go for legalistic rules or a set of principles with a code of practice. Again, I am firmly in favour of the latter. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) that an adviser of one sort or another would be enormously helpful. When I came into the House, an older Member drew me a little map on the back of an envelope that showed where the Chamber, the dining room and the loo were, and he said, "That will do you for the first week." That was the whole induction course that I had on arriving in the House. There is something to be said for helping new Members particularly, and for making available to Members at any time someone who is what the Canadian Parliament would call an ethical adviser but, please, let us not call him a commissioner—that would not give the right sense at all.
Thirdly, there is far more right with our system than is being given credit for. But recent events have identified problems and clearly Lord Nolan has drawn attention to matters of uncertainty and confusion, and the need for clarification. I want to draw attention to two of those matters and to make two practical suggestions.
The first concerns the declaration of Members' interests. I fear that, too often, the declaration of those interests has become an alibi for half covering them up. When tabling questions, writing to Ministers or speaking in the House, Members assume that, because they have registered their interest in the register, that is sufficient, but it is not. People do not go around with a copy of the Register of Members' Interests in their pockets. Interests must be declared at the relevant time. If one is to make a speech that has some relevance to one's interests, one should declare that. If one tables a parliamentary question or writes to a Minister and one has an interest, that interest should be declared.
I put forward one practical, brief suggestion that could be implemented almost immediately. When a Member tables an early-day motion and has a paid interest, he has 540 to put an "R" on the Order Paper to indicate that interest. Either that or the letters IDI—I declare an interest—should be put alongside a parliamentary question when a Member is in a paid position in relation to that question. That would be a practical and useful step forward. We on the Privileges Committee had the unhappy experience of dealing with two hon. Members. In that case, such a proposal would have helped to clarify the position.
The second change that I propose is this. At present, one must put an entry in the Register of Members' Interests within a month of acquiring that interest. I cannot for the life of me understand why there should be such a delay. If a Member has something to register, he should do so before he writes to Ministers, lobbies in any form, asks questions or makes speeches. That would have prevented one of the two cases before the Privileges Committee from occurring.
I hope that the House will consider those two practical suggestions. The first is that a paid consultancy should be identified on a parliamentary question, and the second is that nothing should be done in relation to using the benefit of an interest until it has been put on the register.
We are all grateful to Lord Nolan for his work. He has done an immense amount in relation to hon. Members. I hope that he will not fail to turn his attention to the interests of Members in the upper House, who, in exactly the same way, can be influenced by the possible effect of a consultancy.
I come now to the vexed question of consultancies. They appear to be in two forms. The first relates to Members who watch Bills, watch draft regulations and the like, and generally advise a trade union, trade association or a large company. They perform an important role. These days, there are too many regulations, directives, and pieces of legislation, and companies often need someone to interpret, to guide and to show them the way through them, and to explain the effect on their business of what is going on.
I gingerly raise the possibility that was put to me by a much respected former Member, Sir Robin Maxwell-Hyslop. When Members act on behalf of companies and, as a result, table parliamentary questions, incurring public expenditure, perhaps we should consider whether that company should make some contribution to those costs. I am not sure, but that is a matter for further exploration. There is a big difference between a Member advising a company and, crossing a silent line, a company advising him about what it wants raised in the House. That invisible line divides what is acceptable and what is not acceptable. I should like to ban the latter, but I recognise that there is a thin line between the two, and that it is almost impossible for someone outside to discern whether that line has been crossed.
The best way that the House can help itself is to ensure that transparency exists, that, when someone has an interest, it is declared and available for everyone to consider and, most particularly, that it is declared when it is relevant to the business in hand.
The question of the declaration of the amount of money paid for a consultancy has been raised. Once it is on the register that someone is being paid, that should be sufficient. I do not think that it really matters whether the Member is paid £5,000 or £10,000.
§ Sir David Mitchell
The hon. Gentleman says, "Yes it does." No one in the debate has yet given a good reason—perhaps we shall hear one later—why amounts should be declared. What is important is that when a Member does not act entirely as a freelance operator, when he is in some way financially benefiting from what he is doing, that should be declared. That it is declared is sufficient to give Members the warning that they ought to have.
In relation to Members' earnings from consultancies and the like, we cannot ignore the fact that Members are paid extraordinarily little for what they do. When I came into the House, I think that we were paid £3,800 a year; now it is over £30,000, but the purchasing power is within £100 of what it was 30 years ago. I do not know of any other profession that has seen no real increase in the value of its take-home salary over 30 years, a period in which the work load has gone up many times—from 25 or 30 letters a week to 200 letters a week. There is a multitude of other work, such as the Committees of the House. It was a part-time operation when I came in, but it is no longer so. It is very much a full-time one today.
I draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that, on 23 November 1994, I asked for a list of those Officers of the House who earn more than we do. Is it really right for nearly 150 of those who look after us to be paid more than we are? Are Members of Parliament really worth so much less than our excellent staff? Are they really worth so much less than those who administer the Palace of Westminster or service the House in many ways, and do it so very well for us?
§ 8.9 pm
§ Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)
First, I must declare my interests—although they are all in the register. I am sponsored by the Manufacturing, Science and Finance union; I am an unpaid consultant to the Prison Officers Association; and I am an unpaid adviser to the National Association of Licensed House Managers. [Interruption.] I am sorry; I did not catch what was said by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley).
§ Mr. Hoyle
It is all in the register; I have nothing to hide. The hon. Member for Eltham need only look in the register. Indeed, he probably has it with him. I am pleased to be able to say that I have nothing to be ashamed of.
In such circumstances, the House finds itself in difficulty because it is complacent about itself. It is time that the House faced up to its low standing with the public. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) gave two figures from a Gallup poll: he said that 64 per cent. of the public believed that most Members of Parliament make a lot of money using public office improperly, and he said that the figure nine years ago was 46 per cent. He could have gone on to quote the other 542 figures: he could have told us that 77 per cent. of the public believe that Members of Parliament care more about special interests than about people like themselves—which is a real condemnation—and that only 28 per cent. of the public think that Members of Parliament have a high personal moral code.
We ought to be extremely concerned about that. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) is not present, because he mentioned the Privileges Committee and cash for questions and pointed out that only two Members of Parliament were involved. In fact, only 20 Members were surveyed; two of them accepted the money, while another was prepared to take it and then give it to charity. That is not a good record—and what would have been revealed had the investigation gone further? Moreover, it was alleged that other Members, who were not named, had been taking money for quite a while.
We should be concerned about all this. There is a gravy train in the House—and, amazingly, Conservative Members are involved. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), with his little interests in a shop, can laugh; he comes from south Wales. Let me put it this way to him, and to the hon. Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell): Conservative Members have 766 outside sources of income. One Conservative Member has 16 such sources, another has 12, two have 11, one has nine, one has eight and one has six.
If we assume that those consultancies are worth £10,000 a time—some are worth more; some may be worth a little less—the Member with 16 of them will earn £160,000, quite apart from his £30,000 salary. Something is wrong. No wonder the public believe that there is sleaze in the House if that is going on. We must know how much Members of Parliament are being paid for all those consultancies. Their constituents have a right to know as well. We have heard a good deal from hon. Members along the lines of, "The public do not want to know; they want to believe that Members of Parliament are honest." I suggest that, at election time, Members of Parliament do not go around saying, "I have 16 consultancies, and I am paid n thousand a time." None of them does that—and, when it comes to making a declaration of what they are receiving, we see them moving away from Nolan.
I have always believed that being a Member of Parliament should be a full-time job, but I also agree with the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins). One reason why Members of Parliament, particularly Conservative Members, accept consultancies and the retainers that go with them may be that their basic salaries are far too low. We should certainly pay Members a salary that is commensurate with their duties—although Nolan did not make that point.
In recommending the appointment of a parliamentary commissioner for standards, Nolan did not suggest that such responsibilities should be taken away from the House, which would be wrong. He suggested that such a commissioner could report to a smaller version of the Privileges Committee, which would meet in public—which Labour members of the Privileges Committee have advocated. I was very pleased that Nolan recommended that such a Sub-Committee should meet in public whenever possible, and should report to the full Privileges Committee. An aggrieved Member could appeal to the full Committee, and if necessary the matter would be dealt with by the House of Commons as a whole.
543 I do not think that anyone wishing to dispel public unease about the activities of Members of Parliament could disagree with any of those proposals. We should not only be transparent; we should be prepared to put on record what we do and what we earn. If we are not prepared to do that, the public have a right to ask what Members of Parliament have to hide. That is the cause of much of the unease—the sweeping under the carpet, and the cosy club atmosphere that many Members of Parliament want. I believe that those days have gone.
I always appreciate the speeches of the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), and what he said today was very humorous; but he spoke of matters that belong to the past. Time has moved on. Public unease has grown since the 1950s. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), however, reminded us that there were scandals in the past as well. We must put our House in order; we have taken far too long in reaching that conclusion. Standards have deteriorated since 1979, but only now is the House prepared to get to grips with that.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was extremely complacent. Given that the Nolan committee was set up by the Prime Minister, I expected him to say, "We must examine these proposals on an urgent basis, and act on them." If we delay as long as he suggested before debating the matter again, we shall find ourselves in the summer recess, and we shall not be able to begin to implement even the recommendations that Nolan believes should be implemented immediately until autumn or even the end of the year.
I hope that the Leader of the House will take account of that in his reply. If we are to restore public confidence in the House, the Nolan recommendations must be acted on as urgently as possible—and I believe that they should all be implemented in full.
§ Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)
The hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) will not be surprised to learn that I am diametrically opposed to much of what he said. I hope to pick up some of the points that he made in what must necessarily be a brief speech.
I have been a management consultant for the past 21 years but I have never felt uneasy about operating in the House. I have given political and governmental advice, although some of my work had nothing whatever to do with politics. However, I have never acted in a covert way and I suppose that my activities are perhaps more in line with those outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) in his interesting interjection.
As time is short, I shall confine myself mainly to the proposals affecting Members of Parliament, but I agree that we should outlaw the situation that allows Members of Parliament to be employed cavalierly by lobbyists to press the case for a new railway or road and to be paid a large sum of money to canvas and speak to that end. As I understand the Nolan report, that is to be outlawed.
I am also worried about the recommendation relating to Ministers. Goodness knows we have heard how badly paid they are, and I do not think that we can put them in cold storage for two years after they have left office and 544 expect them not to have a proper job. A minimum interim period should be established, but the matter needs to be examined carefully before a decision is made.
I part company from the two right hon. Members who were members of the Nolan committee—my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore)—when it comes to parliamentary consultancies in general. The report condemns them and recommends the abolition of some, but also suggests strongly that they should in fact be phased out. As we have heard, it demands that the amounts earned should be declared. The hon. Member for Warrington, North said that there is a large difference between the amounts earned by different hon. Members, but I disagree.
What about directors, writers, broadcasters, solicitors and trade union advisers, all of whom in some way owe their jobs to the fact that they are Members of Parliament? Are we to treat some hon. Members differently from others? Is there to be a small core of hon. Members who become the lepers of the House because they have to declare their earnings whereas others, who probably earn much more, get away without doing so? I should not have thought that partial discrimination was the way for the Executive to proceed. I hope that the Government will pay heed to that.
If there is to be financial declaration, it should be total and every hon. Member with an outside interest should declare what he or she earns. There should be either a total declaration or no declaration at all, but there cannot be discrimination.
Of course, we know that the situation would be exploited by the media, who would have a field day if we had to make complete disclosure of such information. Hon. Members would be pilloried by the media, locally and nationally.
I see an inexorable move towards the "full-time" Member of Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) said that we are all full-time Members of Parliament but those with outside interests work harder than others.
If we are unlucky enough to have a Labour Government after the next election, I anticipate an accelerated move to full-time Members of Parliament with no outside interests, but who are chained to the House, with no further opportunities, and all for about £32,000. There will be great pressure because the public already think that we should receive only half what we get now. The issue will be fudged by the Government of the day, whether Conservative or Labour. Any increase will be small and will not make up for what is lost with the abolition of outside interests.
I am glad that I am in the later stages of my time here. If I were in my 30s or 40s, I should not want to stay after what I have heard here today and elsewhere. The parliamentary climate is deteriorating. My advice to all contemplating a political career is to think very seriously about it because I can envisage a new authoritarian atmosphere which will not be conducive to their making the best of their abilities.
The Opposition may laugh, but the Nolan committee came about because of "sleaze". If we are unlucky enough to have a Labour Government, they will find that they will receive the same media attention and accusations of 545 sleaze will be directed at them. They should not think that they will get away with anything. They will have a very rough time and should bear that in mind.
The most disturbing aspect of the debate is not the personal feelings or individual cases that hon. Members have used to illustrate their speeches, however, but the fact that Parliament's sovereignty is being undermined. I do not accept what has been said today by the two members of the Nolan committee. The sovereignty of Parliament is being undermined, and that was borne out by the remarks by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath).
We are to have a commissioner on standards, or ethics officer, as the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) so neatly put it. He will be a veritable gauleiter with strong powers to make recommendations. It is true that he will report to a sub-committee, but it will be his poodle. It is hard to imagine that it will reject his recommendations which will in fact be decisions. The committee would not dare do so. The commissioner will submit his proposals and they will be accepted.
The Nolan report is bullish and I do not like its tone. I know what Lord Nolan was trying to achieve and that he was dealing with serious problems, but the thrust of the report is authoritarian. It implies that the committee has come to stay as an institution in its own right, to monitor, judge and instruct. If we are not careful, it will be Parliament's over-zealous headmaster and will monitor public life in general. That would be very much against the interests of democracy.
The truth is that, for good or ill, Parliament must police itself. The public decide whether they like us and, if they do not, they throw us out. That process must not be subverted by the frenzied, unscrupulous media or for short-term political gain, the attractions of which are clear and have been illustrated by many speeches from Opposition Members. Parliament is the highest court in the land and cannot be ruled by a High Court judge, however eminent, or by a registrar, however qualified or respectable.
The Nolan report is not holy writ. We do not have to obey its timetable or respond to the demand for early action. A period for consideration is very important. Parliament must safeguard its sovereignty and deal with the situation circumspectly. There should be no rush to judgment.
§ Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South)
I confess that I am an occasional lecturer and author. In fact, I am the author of a book on the effectiveness of the House and the chapter that deals with this particular issue converted me to the idea that something must be done. It has always seemed to me that Conservative Members in particular should declare their lack of interest as well as their interests. For example, in debates on state education and health, they should make it clear that they use neither.
I congratulate the Prime Minister on setting up the Nolan committee and trust that he will accept its recommendations, with a few exceptions. I find that I agree more with Conservatives than with my hon. Friends about what is wrong with the Nolan report. For example, I think that the Speaker should be the commissioner for standards and that the recommendations should be embodied in law.
546 It is right that the committee should move on to examine the funding of political parties. The Prime Minister and the chairman of the Conservative party say that the giving of personal donations to the Tory party should be confidential and that donors should be guaranteed anonymity. That does not seem unreasonable, so let Nolan tell us about private donors to political parties—their nationality, the amounts that they give and what they appear to receive in return—without revealing their identity. We should then be able to resolve a mystery of the Tory party funding—the gap between total receipts and corporate and other declared donations—but donors would not be exposed. I urge the Government to consider that proposal.
One Nolan recommendation with which I disagree is that the commissioner for standards should be a person of independent standing. It seems ridiculous that we cannot at least put the supervision of parliamentary standards in the hands of the Speaker.
I can see the virtue of having some outside people on the commission for standards rather than on the sub-committee that is proposed by Nolan. However, as one who has long argued for a new and independent role for the Speaker, it seems to me that the holder of that office should chair the commission. That would mean that we would have constant access to the guardian of our standards. Some people say that the Speaker could not cope with that extra burden but there is a simple way round that and I have been advocating it for a long time. It is that the House should have a chief executive. That would remove the managerial responsibilities from the Speaker and the Clerk, and the Speaker would be able to handle the new responsibility.
Hon. Members should declare their incomes from all sources, should be banned from using their capacity as hon. Members to make money, and banned from working for bodies providing parliamentary services and from accepting contracts of employment. What other employer would allow an employee to take a contract of employment with another employer? That does not go anything like as far as the arrangements for American and French legislators.
Conservative Members have said, and I agree, that there has always been a massive amount of hypocrisy about Members' remuneration. The payment of Members of Parliament was reintroduced in 1911 by Lloyd George after a period of some hundreds of years during which they were not paid at all. He described the pay of Members of Parliament as,not a remuneration, but a recompense, not a salary but an allowance. The only principle of payment in the public service is that you should make an allowance to a man to enable him to maintain himself confidently and honourably, but not luxuriously, during the time he is rendering service to the State. That is the only principle, and it is the principle on which we have proceeded.Lloyd George introduced a payment of £400 a year. By that precedent the idea grew up that a Member's pay was an allowance for broken time from a regular job, and for too many it still is. I was in the House when a Conservative Member of Parliament, the director of a famous civil engineering company, said how grateful he was that his company allowed him time off to attend Parliament.
Nowadays the job of an assiduous Member of Parliament is clearly full time. The idea that we collectively benefit from the wisdom of those hon. 547 Members in all parts of the House who spend a significant proportion of their time in the everyday world of the courts and the City is totally false. Some of the efforts by hon. Members to acquire interests are demeaning to us all. There was not only the money-for-questions scam because the House will remember the case of the Conservative Member who advertised for employment in the parliamentary House Magazine, stating:it was one way of drawing the nation's attention to the fact that I only had one consultancy and could take on more".I also object to the provision of research assistants to Members by lobbying or commercial interests. I do not know how widespread that is but Nolan should investigate it. It occurs throughout the House and it is quite wrong. The present office costs allowance is perfectly adequate for the secretarial and research costs of a Back-Bench Member, and Front-Bench Members get Short money.
We need a proper, professional evaluation of the work of a Member of Parliament—a job evaluation. That was carried out very successfully by professional consultants in 1983 but was disregarded by the Government who pegged Members' pay at 89 per cent. of that of a grade 6 civil servant. That is the top end of middle management, a senior Library Clerk in the House or an assistant accountant employed by the Fees Office. The 1983 exercise needs to be carried out again and the most stringent limits placed on outside earnings. In evidence to Nolan, an hon. Member said:It is a great honour and a privilege to be an MP but that does not feed, educate or clothe one's wife or husband or children.He could have fooled me! It was an extraordinarily insensitive remark to make in public when one considers what many of our constituents are paid—those of them who have jobs.
The whole area of Members' work and outside employment is an embarrassment and must be cleared up. The requirements relating to Members' interests should be enshrined in law and not left as an unenforceable code of conduct. We could start with a code of conduct and then put the matter into law.
The relationships of Ministers and civil servants should also be specified by statute. The report in November by the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service proposed legislation to govern the employment of civil servants rather than control via the royal prerogative, which is simply government by proclamation. That legislation could cover the civil servant who had to report wrongdoing by a Minister, and the appropriate outside body for that seems to be the Civil Service Commission.
The legislation would also cover Nolan's proposed commissioner for public appointments instead of having appointments to quangos made by the royal prerogative. Select Committees should have the right to examine prospective appointees to top jobs in quangos. We could not cover them all but simply having the right to do that would put fear into everybody else. My party has been as guilty as any other in creating quangos but now quangos are out of hand. When I first came to the House they were advisory bodies but now they are executive bodies. Wales is a well-known example. There are more members of quangos in Wales than there are local councillors, and they spend more. The whole area needs a clean-up with a view to making as many quangos as possible democratically accountable to elected bodies.
548 This is the thin end of a very big wedge. Perhaps it will not happen during my time in the House but I hope that during my lifetime outside interests will be on the way out. There will be a proper, settled payment for being an MP and hon. Members will not be able to have employment that in any way derives from their membership of the House. They will be made to declare their incomes and the idea of outside employment will wither away. Nolan has usefully taken the lid off a can of worms and I hope that the debate will move from sleaze, which taints the House—all of us—and on to major constitutional questions. The report is a useful first step.
§ Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)
I shall speak in a personal capacity and not as the Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. I declare the interest that is contained in the Register of Members' Interests. I first got involved with the Committee and the matters that we are debating in 1975. It was the first Committee to be set up to look at the whole question of registration and Members' interests. We have come a long way since then and I am proud of the progress that we have made.
When I became Chairman in 1979, some of the Committee's activities were greatly resented and I had to twist the arms of some hon. Members to get them to register. They felt that they should not register because they were not statutorily required to do so and a resolution was not good enough. That view was shared by Mr. Enoch Powell, at that time a distinguished and highly respected right hon. Member, who refused to register. The trouble was that other people who were incarnations of Enoch Powell tried to do the same. They got short shrift.
I shall not enter into an argument about a statute because a resolution of the House presents no difficulty and I no longer have to twist arms to get people to register. Entering the area of statutes would be like entering a hornet's nest.
Over many years, I have tried to use two principles when helping to guide the Committee. The first was transparency and the second was compliance. Openness has been the golden thread running through our deliberations and those of Nolan. However, the need for people to comply willingly with the regulations has been of paramount importance.
Two thoughts were in my mind when considering compliance. First, the Committee should have regard to the traditions and practices of the House and to the nature of the people who are elected to it. On the whole, those people have a strong sense of dedication and vocation. Secondly, if our regulations do not match the spirit of the place because they are thought to be too intrusive or bureaucratic, they are doomed. Instead of showing willing compliance, Members will not respect the regulations and will attempt to circumvent them.
I am grateful to Lord Nolan and those who served so conscientiously on his committee and who rightly responded to the challenge. I do not agree with all that is in the report, but I can go along with much of it. I am glad that hon. Members are not cut off from the rest of life. That is contrary to Opposition opinion, which probably reflects the true voice of the Labour party. Nolan is right to come down on the side of those who believe that hon. Members should be allowed to have outside 549 interests and that, far from diminishing proceedings of the House, they would enhance the contributions to the collective wisdom of the House.
I am also pleased that the Nolan committee recognises the difference between councillors and Ministers who have executive responsibilities. As Back Benchers, we do not have such responsibilities, and it is an important distinction to make. The report was right to recommend that hon. Members should not be paid for acting on behalf of lobbying companies. I do not say that because I have anything against lobbying. I know that it is an integral part of the democratic process. Indeed, I have benefited very much from the briefing that I have received from lobbying companies from time to time.
In my verbal submission to the Nolan committee, I said that the Select Committee on Members' Interests lacked the powers and the expertise to act as an investigative tribunal and that, in an adjudicating role, it left something to be desired. I had in mind the more serious cases that have come before us and are before us. I therefore welcome the appointment of an independent commissioner for standards, who will report to a Sub-Committee of the existing Privileges Committee, thus retaining the absolute right of Parliament to be the sole judge of a Member's conduct.
I am not sure that we have got it right. The powers that the independent commissioner would be given are too extensive. Indeed, they have been criticised by many hon. Members in this debate. Some have suggested the Speaker for the job. Frankly, I think that our Speaker is busy enough. The powers are certainly too great. I also worry about the cost and about creating a new bureaucracy. Nevertheless, I like the idea of using an independent adviser. Certainly, it will help the Sub-Committee to consider the more serious complaints when Members have to face the somewhat daunting experience of being questioned and cross-examined by their colleagues. It is right that such Members should be allowed to call up advisers to help them when they are questioned. If not, it will increasingly be found to appear to be and act like a kangaroo court.
The commissioner and the new arrangements are supposed to be put in place by the beginning of the new Session in November. I do not want to procrastinate, as I said in one of my interventions, but there is much to be thought out. We are in awful danger of underestimating some of the complications, not in setting up the bureaucracy but in deciding what should and should not be registered and what agreements should and should not be put on the register. I feel bound to say that I am not convinced that the Government would be wise to rush into the matter. Many hurdles on the way must be overcome.
A new commissioner, for example, must have a pretty good working knowledge and understanding of the House and its Members, not least because compiling the new register will impose additional information, some of which is controversial. I have no problem with facing up to the need for greater clarity in the register. We have had a stab at it, goodness know how many times, as members of the Committee. But there is no reason why we should not try again. No one should underestimate the complexity of that task alone. It is not just a question of semantics.
The report picks up consultancies as the greatest cause for public concern and recommends immediate prohibition of Members from dealing with organisations providing 550paid Parliamentary services to multiple clients".In the first instance, the report presumably aims at Members with consultancy agreements with public relations or lobbying firms. That category may not be as easy to define as some people think. How and on what criteria are such consultancies to be distinguished from, say, advertising agencies, financial advisers, management consultants, trade associations or, indeed, legal practices, all of which have clients of their own?
In paragraph 55, Nolan also appears to regard consultancies in general as the category that, more than any other, might be thought to influence a Member's conduct in Parliament. He appears to believe that, therefore, they should be registered with greater transparency to include disclosure of income. Is that necessarily true? Why is a consultancy more likely to be influential than, for example, holding certain kinds of directorships, or continuing to practise a particular profession? In short, one could interpret the report as suggesting that a consultant, say, to a financial services company with many clients, would have to register, but if he were a non-executive director, he would not. I do not mean to be pedantic, but I know from experience that the more grey areas are left, the more difficult it becomes for the registrar or even the new commissioner to implement the House's decisions.
Registering financial agreements between Members and firms that employ them and the level of detail which will have to be addressed should not be regarded as easy, either. There is also the question of trade union sponsorship, which is an area of professional influence. Are those receiving such sponsorship supposed to register along with those who have consultancies? Is it regarded as a fact that such sponsorships influence parties and Members? That of course brings in the whole question of political funding. In that respect, the Nolan committee has strayed beyond its immediate remit.
On the principle of disclosure, the report recommends that the remuneration of financial considerations received by a Member for parliamentary services or by way of sponsorship should be entered into the register, possibly in banded form. We are all familiar with the fact that the Nolan committee asserted that a Member who gets £1,000 a year as a parliamentary adviser is less likely to be influenced by the prospect of losing the money than one who receives £20,000.1 disagree. To require Members to report into which bands their additional income falls would suggest that the amount of their outside income has some overwhelming significance and influence. It ignores other influences.
All of us know that our constituents are among the big influences in our lives. They know something about us. We do not want them to know anything about, or to appear to do something or do something of which we would be ashamed and which would affect our reputation if they knew about it. Constituents have influence because they have the power to elect us. The local party organisation also has influence; it has the power to de-select. Those are very important influences. The report seems to assume that all Members start from the same financial position—
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but the time is up.
§ Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South)
I shall be very rapid. My interests are declared in the Register of Members' Interests. I have a considerable number of them, as people will see. I thought that the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) was referring to me, because 14 non-executive directorships are listed, although nine of those are unremunerated. I am also sponsored by GMB, which pays £600 a year to my constituency.
In his opening speech, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster drew a distinction between aspects affecting Members' interests, which he said had to be decided by the House, aspects affecting Ministers and those that affect quangos. I was glad to hear him say that the Government would be introducing measures that dealt with Ministers and quangos, but I was disappointed that he seemed to accept that it was for Members of the House themselves to bring forward proposals relating to their Nolan recommendations.
For any proposals to come through, there must be a timetable. The will to keep to the timetable recommended by Nolan has been expressed. I would have thought, therefore, that it was the Government's responsibility to find time during which Members were able to debate these issues. Over the past few weeks, the Leader of the House has not seemed to be enormously pressed for time. I hope that time will be found for the issues to be discussed.
Under what format will that happen? Our debate has shown that the issues are complex and that people have different reactions to them. In the A, B and C category time scale for the recommendations on Members, there are three in category A, seven in category B and one in the category C. I would have thought that it would be perfectly possible for the Government, in Government time, to introduce the three measures in category A, so that the House may debate and decide them, and then cover the measures in category B in a number of separate debates. I hope that it will be possible in the time scale that Nolan suggests to discuss his recommendations and the general issues involved in Government time, during which debate Members would be free to table amendments. I realise that that would take some time, but the issue has proved important and I hope that we will be able to make enough progress in the time scale envisaged.
The two major outside interests that I hold are two non-executive chairmanships. I have held one since 1989, and although I took up the other—the chairmanship of Yorkshire Enterprise—only in the last financial year, it was a job I was returning to, having done it for eight years before I became a Member of Parliament. Those jobs were not given to me because I am a Member of Parliament but are related to my earlier work in the west Yorkshire economy. If those organisations wish me to do those jobs, I am happy to be involved directly in those matters, doing public-private sector work in the west Yorkshire economy.
However, there are other demands in one's life that one must satisfy before accepting any other responsibilities. One has to be satisfied that taking a job will not interfere with one's responsibilities to Parliament. We have responsibilities not only to Parliament but to our constituents, and it is enormously important that those responsibilities are completely fulfilled.
552 One also must fulfil one's responsibilities to one's party. The work we do must be consistent with the principles of our party and with what one wishes to stand for. It would be wrong to speak directly in the interests of certain bodies here, but it would be wrong also to be involved in an organisation if it worked inconsistently with the principles for which one spoke in the party and in Parliament.
That is why, although the only roles that I have taken after entering the House were not directly derived from my being here, they are connected with my interests here. One of my jobs is concerned with housing, so I spoke to the then Labour spokesperson on housing to ensure that doing it was consistent, in his view, with my membership of the House and of the parliamentary Labour party.
The other decision that I have had to make is about money. I acknowledge that it is a matter of individual conscience, but I am perfectly happy with the idea that the financial figures are set down. It might be more consistent if, as one or two other hon. Members have suggested, we followed the principle of total disclosure of all earnings from outside sources. I certainly believe that there is value in setting down exactly the total amount of cash each Member gains from each appointment, rather than using a banding system.
It is up to us as individuals to decide what our outside earnings should be used for. I try to ensure that I use the money either for additional office costs, for funding other aspects of my job as a Member of Parliament for which we are not recompensed, or for the benefit of other causes that I wish to support. In my case, those are usually causes associated with or supported by the Labour party. But that is entirely a matter for an individual Member and his own philosophy.
It is important to move forward on the proposals, so I hope that the Leader of the House will assure us that time will be found for those that would affect Members to be discussed and decided on by Members. We recognise that these must be decisions of the whole House, and I hope that they can be taken in the time scale that Nolan suggests.
§ Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford)
I realise that other hon. Members still want to speak, so I shall make my comments brief. I start by making a declaration—that I have not much to declare. I have a little broadcasting and journalism; apart from that, according to the gauge cited by an Opposition Member, who described Members with 16, 17 or 20 consultancies, I must be something of a failure, for I have none. However, having come from industry, I believe that I have some understanding of what is necessary to contribute in the House on what helps that process.
I start by asking: what is this all about? It struck me when the Nolan committee was set up, and I make no bones about repeating it now, that I do not recall ever having voted for the Committee to be set up in the first place. I agree with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that it was done by prerogative. My views on the position of Parliament mean that I should like to have had some say in deciding what would be set up.
However, the water has gone under that bridge, and now I shall examine what Nolan was all about. The committee was asked to examine the problems caused by 553 a perception of a lack of probity in public life; yet when I read through the results, especially the evidence, I kept coming up against the fact that the committee found that the public perception was far from the facts demonstrating the level of probity in public life—including standards among Members of Parliament, civil servants and Ministers.
The committee was asked to investigate very few cases over that period. Most of them concerned allegations about Members of Parliament, and none could be demonstrated or proven against Ministers or civil servants. The committee made some fairly general statements about that fact, and early in the report the point is made that there is a gap. My hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith) asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) what problem had created the gap between perception and reality. That, more than anything else, is the question that needs answering. The report deals with the reality, yet the perception is otherwise.
I have been in the House only three years, although it has been a pretty interesting three years. I have not had as long as others to see a decline in anything, but in view of the torrid state of affairs over the past three years I wonder what things could have been like for those who have been here for 30 years. I can hardly believe that they can have seen more change than I have.
I shall now mention some of the aspects of the report with which I agree; I shall return to the gap in perception later. As I said in my evidence, I believe that it is legitimate for Members of Parliament to have outside interests. However, I also believe that we require transparency. Our constituents and others should be able to look and see what we do, and when we speak we must make it clear if we have a general interest out there.
I am against any Member making a speech simply because somebody out there has paid him to do so. That is wrong—Nolan makes that clear to some degree—and transparency would put an end to that. I say to the Opposition that I have no objection to Members having direct involvement with trade unions, as it is important that that side of the argument is heard as much as that of commerce and industry. That involvement must, however, be well known.
I would like to know, however, where the mention of lawyers was during this committee process. It now appears that two classes of people are developing who can exist in this place. We may be in serious danger of saying that any involvement with commercial activities or the wealth-creating sector here only infects and taints, while anything to do with the professions somehow uplifts and makes us better; therefore, those involved with the latter are better than those who may be involved with the former.
Another problem is that Nolan seemed to say that if one made money before one came here, that was okay; one could then afford to be a good Member of Parliament, because one could afford the extra costs. If one inherits money, that is also okay. I am worried that a gap is developing between the different types of Members of Parliament, and I gave evidence on that matter.
Although the argument for banning lobbyists may be tremendously persuasive and have much support in the House, I am not certain how we would achieve such a ban. We can ban one thing today, but it would erupt somewhere else under a different guise. A lobby company 554 may be a rogue company which will find some other mechanism. A lobby company that has someone to represent it here should list on the Register of Members' Interests every company that it represents, and that would have a sobering effect.
The draft code of conduct referred to on page 38 of the report says that, although it is accepted that Members should have outside interests, when those interests come up in a Standing Committee of the House the Member must immediately take himself off the Committee. That negates the idea that such outside interests bring anything to the House, and is a strange straddling of two stools.
I find it difficult to agree with the idea of a parliamentary commissioner for standards. I believe absolutely that Parliament should be the ultimate home of discretion for us all, and that our judges should lie within this body. I feel that having a commissioner would be another act of folly, as we would push the jurisdiction of the House outside to some passing judge of no fixed commitment or abode.
As the number of those who transgress is very small, we do not need somebody from outside to act. We want someone from this place, or a group of people, who accept the fact that this is not a party political issue, and that whoever is looked at should be looked at with fairness and with a sense of natural justice. If, however, we are forced to go down the road of having a commissioner, I would say to Madam Speaker that such an appointee must come solely from her office. There is no way that I will vote for somebody from outside this place, who does not know of the pressures and the work of the House, to sit in judgment on Members. I will not accept another judge coming in to declare on us all. Who, more than judges, are more distant from the population whom we serve? We are the elected Members. I would prefer to keep this matter within the House.
The real problem is that we have become careless with democracy. Most of the developments here have resulted in power seeping away from this Chamber, to Whitehall and to Europe or in statutory instruments. For example, when the Nolan report was made public, I was concerned to hear members of the Opposition and the Government pronouncing on what they thought of it. The Government said that they essentially accepted the broad thrust of the report, while Opposition Front Benchers said that the Government had to accept the report in full.
I do not care what Front Benchers from either side of the House thought of the report, because it is to be debated and decided by Members here in this place. It is an indictment of the Executive and the shadow Executive that they immediately think that they can coerce Members into accepting a decision on the report. Members must decide, and it is not for the Executive or the shadow Executive to tell us what to do.
Whatever we decide to implement will be of no worth if the media do not agree to sign up to what we agree. As long as we go on saying that we will publish reports and findings, the media will go on saying that that is not enough. As long we go on saying that we believe in certain aspects of what we do, we will find the media crawling down our backs, saying that we are nothing but a group of sleazy people acting in our own interests. The media must recognise that they have responsibilities in this matter. They are often referred to as the fourth estate, and they have a huge amount of power and influence. 555 They influence people to make laws and regulations and they influence the way in which taxpayers' money is spent.
I urge the Nolan committee now to consider where the media's influences come from: who pays their lunches and bills; who sends them on trips; who coerces them to write articles; and what motivates them. Without some idea of what they do and some recognition that they have a responsibility in this matter, whatever we decide here tonight or on any other day will never be of use to anyone.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey)
I declare that I am a sponsored member of Unison, which entails no personal remuneration but a payment of £600 a year to my constituency in accordance with the Hastings agreement, which is also a published document.
I commend the work of the Nolan committee, particularly the speed with which it has done its work, the clarity with which it has expressed itself, the openness of its deliberations and the fairness with which it has approached its task. I also commend the right hon. Members for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), who sat on the committee, for their speeches tonight, both of which were extremely thought provoking and raised important questions of detail with which the House will have to grapple—I hope, shortly.
I welcome the report and its recommendations. I also welcome the three-year remit that the Prime Minister has given the Nolan committee and the fact that it can return to these issues if the House makes no progress.
I wish to concentrate mainly on the section of the report that deals with Members of Parliament. That means not that I underestimate the importance of the rest of the report but that tonight I wish to concentrate on an area about which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said very little in his opening speech. He properly dealt with the Government's and the Executive's view, but the crux of many of the issues lies within the House and concerns the conduct of hon. Members.
I hope that, in replying to the debate, the Leader of the House will outline the mechanism by which he proposes to make progress on some of those recommendations—the time scale, perhaps—and the Government's view. I recognise that it is a matter for hon. Members to decide, but the Government must have a view and I should like to know what it is.
The Nolan committee was right express concern aboutthe very substantial increase in the number of Members of Parliament employed as consultants".The report identifies the fact that 168 Members share 356 consultancies between them. That is a relatively new matter, which seems to be snowballing with the growth of lobbying firms. We must ensure that the mechanisms that we have in place are modern and efficient enough to deal with changes that occur outside the House. Although we sometimes need to cherish our traditions, we must be ready to change them if the need arises.
I support the proposed ban on multi-client lobbying companies, which was long overdue. The idea of transparency when a company has a multiplicity of clients is 556 almost impossible to achieve and I hope that the House will take immediate action to put that into effect. I also welcome the recommendation that the House should set in hand without delay a broader consideration of the merits of parliamentary consultancies. My instinct, although I wish to listen to the debate, is that they, too, should be banned. I agree with Nolan that we should look at three quid pro quos if there is to be a ban. First, resourcing for Opposition parties should be much better so that they do not have to rely as much on briefings from lobbying companies. That is done in Germany, for example, where the civil service helps to service opposition parties as well as the Government. We need to look at that issue as legislation becomes increasingly complex.
Secondly, we must consider higher remuneration for Members of Parliament, an issue referred to today by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
Thirdly, we must consider the wider issue of proper resourcing for this legislature. The Executive spends massive sums; I believe that it spends more on advertising than it costs to run the whole of Parliament. I do not see how we can do our job as a legislature properly, looking after how the Executive runs the country, when we have, as a member of the Privileges Committee pointed out, such tiny resources to do that job.
I also agree with the suggestion that the agreement between anyone who has an arrangement with an outside commercial interest and remuneration received as a result should be disclosed. Most of our constituents would not accept the argument that the size of the payment has anything but a direct bearing on the potential strength of that interest. Our constituents are looking for us to make those declarations.
It may seem a rather odd thing for a member of the Select Committee on Members' Interests to say, but I whole-heartedly and unreservedly welcome Lord Nolan's recommendation that the Committee should be abolished. I do not say that with any great joy, but I have served on that Committee since I was elected and it has been a tough and unpleasant duty. Many other members of the Committee probably share that feeling. I cannot go into detail about what is going on on that Committee, but it has been wrecked by the Government's decision to appoint a Whip to it. As a result, we are without an effective system of policing the Register of Members' Interests, just at the time when we most need it. The independent element suggested by the Nolan Committee, albeit sublimated by a Sub-Committee of the Privileges Committee, is an ingenious means of trying to deal with the real difficulty that we have come across in the past few months. Those months have been difficult for me and every member of the Committee.
You might be interested to know, Madam Speaker, that you are being touted as the new commissioner for ethics. That is an interesting proposal, but I am also attracted by Lord Nolan's solution. The main thing about which I am concerned is that Parliament should take fast action to implement some of the extremely important Nolan committee recommendations.
The Strauss committee sat in 1969 and produced a relevant recommendation, which was not even debated in the House. That is why it is important that we are seen by the public, who expect us to take action on the Nolan recommendations, to be serious in our approach. We do not have to be sloppy or look like we are panicking, but we must make faster progress than the House is used to 557 making on such issues. We must fight to reach a consensus on how to deal with them seriously. If it all comes down to party politicking, on one side of the House or on the other, we are doomed to failure. We must strive for consensus to make rapid progress.
The report of the Nolan committee gives us the chance to make such progress. It is no longer acceptable for Members to serve in the House but not to take the necessary action for years. Such action would leave festering resentments and some misapprehensions among our constituents to destroy the foundation of our democracy and our legitimacy in this place.
I would welcome an assurance from the Leader of the House that the extremely tight, but good, timetable for the implementation of the recommendations relating to the House and with reference to Members of Parliament, will be adhered to. Lord Nolan wants 21 of the 32 recommendations to be put into effect now and 10 of them to be put into effect by the beginning of the next Session. That will include setting up new committees and some difficult detailed work, which I hope that the Select Committee on Members' Interests will be able to undertake. Lord Nolan asks for just one recommendation to be implemented by next year.
I hope that we will stick to that timetable. I look forward to the Leader of the House offering us a serious plan of how we will proceed now the debate has been held.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies (Stamford and Spalding)
I remind the House of the interests that I have declared in the Register of Members' Interests.
Two absolutely fundamental principles should underlie this debate and one would hope that they are shared across the House. First, we have an absolute fiduciary responsibility to those who sent us here to act in the interests of our constituents and in the public interest. From time to time there may be trade-offs between those two interests and trade-offs between the short-term and the longer-term national interest. We must handle those trade-offs and make honest judgments about them.
But one thing is clear. No other influences—no private interests or partial affections, to use the words that are used here every day at 2.30 pm—should influence our deliberations or decisions in any way. That is an absolute principle. Therefore there should be no ambiguity about the question whether it is proper for outside bodies—to use the evocative phrase used by my hon. Friend the Member for Hampshire, North-West (Sir D. Mitchell)—to advise Members of Parliament as to the way in which they should conduct themselves in this place, what questions they should table and what matters they should speak about, let alone the way in which they should vote. For that reason, I was grateful to the Nolan committee for drawing my attention to the recommendations of the Strauss committee. Reading those recommendations on that subject, I wished that they had been accepted when they were made. I hope that they will be.
The other fundamental principle must be that the regulation of the House—establishing proper rules of conduct and enforcing them, when necessary—must be the responsibility of the House alone. It is wrong to suppose that that responsibility can be assumed by the Executive branch of Government. It was shocking that the Leader of 558 the Opposition appeared to consider today that it was a responsibility of the Prime Minister. To slough off our responsibility on to the Executive branch would be a subversion—indeed, a perversion—of the constitutional balance. The Leader of the Opposition's question today gave us a horrifying preview of the attitude that a future Labour Government would take to Parliament and to the constitution.
As it is our responsibility, we must get this issue right and, as has been eloquently said on both sides of the House, we must not act in haste and repent at leisure. We need to use the Nolan report as something of, as it were, a consultant's report—if I am still allowed to use that word in a positive sense in the debate. Any institution, any business, any organisation, may from time to time wish to appoint outside consultants to advise it on the future conduct or course of its business.
The report should form, not the whole agenda, but part of the agenda for a careful examination of these issues by a competent House of Commons committee. That might be the Privileges Committee, the Select Committee on Members' Interests, a merged committee involving both of them, or a new ad hoc committee. We need to consider those matters in considerable detail and on the basis that decisions must be made in the House—they cannot be abdicated to an outside committee or commission, no matter how distinguished a member of the judiciary heads it, or to the Executive.
I have said the most important thing that I wanted to say. Having said that, perhaps I may add some brief comments to the suggestions made by the Nolan committee. The committee has obviously done some thorough work on the subject, and its conclusions need to be treated seriously but, as I have said, that can in no way relieve us of the responsibility for considering the merits of those proposals and considering the issues in the broadest possible way.
First, I have some hesitation about publishing the financial earnings of Members of Parliament derived from activities relating in some way to advice on politics or on Parliament. I suspect that that recommendation is driven more by the media's thirst for prurient information of a personal kind than by any other consideration. The essential thing is that interests should be declared; the amount of remuneration is not especially material.
Secondly, it is difficult to maintain the distinction, suggested in the report, between consultancies, or activities outside the House that have some political or parliamentary aspect, and other outside activities.
When I entered the House, I continued for some time to do my previous job as a director of a merchant bank in the City. In no way was my job changed, except in the time I spent on it. Many of the clients with whom I dealt would not have had the faintest idea that I was a Member of Parliament. If one is sitting at the boardroom table and a fellow board member says, "You are a politician, you must have some idea about Government policy on this matter or on that Bill which is due to come before Parliament", one cannot say, "I am afraid that part of my contract makes it illegal for you to ask me that question". I think that it will be extremely difficult to maintain this distinction, and I hope that the Committee of the House which examines the matters in detail will consider that point very carefully.
559 Finally, I am particularly concerned about the recommendations on the composition of Standing Committees. I must declare an immediate interest as I have been delighted to serve for a number of years on the Finance Bill Committee. If the Nolan proposals were adopted, I—with my City background and other interests—would presumably be excluded from serving on that Committee, as would accountants, tax lawyers and others with a professional background in finance. We would be excluded from contributing to that legislation.
I can only assume that the recommendation was made by a committee whose members have never bothered to pick up a Finance Bill. If they had, they would realise that only a very specialised category of the human race is likely to take an intelligent interest in a matter that is so dry and so technical. If we were prevented from contributing to debates about subjects of which we have professional knowledge, we would be a great deal less useful to the public whom we are here to serve.
§ Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)
I have two interests to declare which appear in the Register of Members' Interests: I travelled to Dublin as a guest of the Irish Government and I visited Malta as a guest of the Maltese Government. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not in either Government's pocket.
I wish to raise a matter which has not been discussed in the debate today, although it was alluded to by my hon. Friends the Members for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) and for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle). There is a serious argument that hon. Members should be full-time Members of Parliament with no paid outside interests. That would alleviate the problem of outside influence and pressure from commercial and professional bodies. A majority of the public sent that message to the Nolan committee, but only one Member of Parliament—me—put that view to the committee.
Time is short, as the Front-Bench spokesmen wish to sum up the debate. I therefore simply refer hon. Members to the evidence that I gave to the Nolan committee. The case for having full-time Members is a solid one, and four main arguments have been produced against the counter-view which appears in the Nolan report. They suggest that the committee is wrong to reject the notion that Members of Parliament should not accept employment outside the House. I think that we should have full-time Members of Parliament in a modern democracy.
§ Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr)
I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) has had an opportunity to refer to the question of full-time Members of Parliament. He was able to speak for only a few minutes, but he raised an issue to which no one has alluded in the entire debate. There was a time when I might have agreed with my hon. Friend and I discussed the issue when I gave evidence to the Nolan committee. It is certainly worthy of debate and it should not be dismissed out of hand. There is a case to be made for having full-time Members of Parliament and I am glad that my hon. Friend has had a chance to put it on the record.
560 I attended six or seven of the morning sittings of the Nolan committee and I listened to the evidence of about 18 witnesses. Having listened to the questions, it did not take long to work out which way the committee would jump. In many ways, therefore, its recommendations did not come as a complete surprise. It was similar to Select Committee proceedings, where one can work out how Committee members are thinking from the questions that they ask.
I only wish that the Chancellor of the Duchy had attended more often, instead of coming along only to the session at which he gave evidence. It would have been useful for him to listen to the questions asked by the committee and the answers given by the witnesses. Had he done so, he would not have made the speech that he gave today. I wish, too, that the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath)—the Father of the House—had sat and listened to the evidence sessions of the Nolan committee. Clearly, he does not even understand the present rules governing the Register of Members' Interests. I respect and admire the right hon. Gentleman, but he trivialised the beginning of today's debate with arguments about the price of a bottle of port, which was ludicrous and demeaning on the part of a former Prime Minister.
I refer to the speech by the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King). Like some of my hon. Friends, I was on the receiving end of questions from the right hon. Gentleman when we gave evidence to the Nolan committee, and I learned a good deal from his questioning. I was advancing proposals for a much more rigorous register than the current or the proposed one, but I too was searching for something that was practical and acceptable to the House. It is no good going for the extreme view; the House would not stand for it. Nor can we carve up a solution between Front Benchers—nobody would want that. The right hon. Member for Bridgwater did a first-class selling job for the work of the Nolan committee. Towards the end of his speech he said, tellingly, that the House cannot walk away from this issue. That is a crucial point. We walk away from it at our peril.
This has not been a partisan debate. It is only natural, as the Government have been in power for 16 years, that there should be more Conservative Members with consultancies and hence more Conservative Members who feel aggrieved and under threat. They should not feel threatened by the Nolan report's recommendations. The House can take a sensible view and then implement it quickly. Taken together, the changes proposed are sensible.
This is probably the most important constitutional change since I entered the House 21 years ago. It may even be the most important since the granting of the universal franchise. We in this House expect our fellow citizens to obey laws whether they agree with them or not; yet for several years the House, while expecting Members to obey its resolutions, has crucially failed on occasion to take action when its rules have been disobeyed. We all know of such cases. By and large, we have proved ourselves incapable of putting our own house in order. That is the ultimate proof that self-regulation can be self-delusion.
The public are anxious about Members of Parliament in general, even though they support us in our constituencies. We cannot escape the fact that 64 per cent. of people believe that we are on the make, even though 561 that is not true. Certainly I would not claim that it was true. This view that the public have has arisen out of isolated incidents, and that is the problem that we all have to face. I can think of no other reason for the public perception than the fact that there has been the odd case of impropriety in recent years.
This view has arisen not just because there is now more openness about our proceedings, which are carried on the wireless and on television. There must be another reason, and it is the fact that we have neglected the fundamentals. While we insist on knowing all the details of legislation and on poring over every dot and comma, while we pass—too many—laws to restrict and instruct our fellow citizens, as a Parliament and as the supposed grand inquisitor of the nation we have continued to live with old-fashioned procedures and modern myths. One of those myths is the idea that ours is the oldest and most democratic Parliament in the world. People repeat that ad nauseam, but although we may once have been the mother of Parliaments, the world has changed since then and we have failed to change with it.
It was said earlier that we are the highest court in the land, so we should be left alone. I would argue that we are the highest court in the land, but we should not be a law unto ourselves because we are the law makers. That is the distinction that I draw. I do not understand why some hon. Members find the House under threat if we look for something other than complete self-regulation.
Time is short, but I shall refer to paragraphs 57 to 59 in the report. They are to be found on page 31. It is not easy to find one's way through the report because the paragraph numbers start differently at each chapter. Paragraph 57 reads:We are well aware that some will consider that we are over-reacting to a few isolated cases … Others will feel we should have gone further, and moved immediately".Paragraph 58 states:It is clear that, while some cases have been so bad as to require direct action even under the existing rules, there are problems of principle and practice over the separation of public and private interests, which damage the standing of Parliament. Neither we nor the media have invented the problems.That is the reality. The Nolan committee did not invent the problems, and the media did not invent them either.
Paragraph 58 continues to remind us thatthe 1969 Strauss report was shelved without debate".I remind the House that the 1976 Salmon royal commission was shelved without a debate. The introduction of the Register of Members' Interests was resisted until the Poulson scandal forced the hand of the then Labour Government of 1974. It has taken 20 years since then to get the register fully operational, even though we may criticise it now. We know that in recent years some senior Members have refused to comply with the register.
Paragraph 58 adds:The overall picture is not one of an institution whose Members have been quick to recognise or respond to public concern.Paragraph 59 reads:On the other hand we do not believe that the position is so grave that it has to be addressed outside the framework of the House's own rules.That is my point. I do not think that we are going outside those rules. It is true, of course, that there must be checks and balances.
562 The original discussion paper of the Nolan committee, entitled "Issues and Questions", led it to be concerned about parliamentary sovereignty. As I said in my evidence to the Nolan committee, I do not want to be misunderstood by anybody. I am honoured to be a Member of this place and to represent the area where I was born and raised, but I do not accept that Parliament should be sovereign over all matters. I am for a written constitution and reform. In a unitary state, political power should be divided and should not reside in one institution, however old and democratic it may be. There should be written codes agreed and enforced by the House and written laws agreed and enforced by the courts, and both should apply to Members.
I was pleased to read in the Nolan report that the committee had taken up the point that the Salmon commission raised in 1976, which is that there appears—there is a dispute about this—to be a gap in statute law, with the result that the bribery, or attempted bribery, of a Member in his or her parliamentary capacity is outside that law. We were asked to take up the matter in 1976 but we never debated the Salmon report. That was a scandal. I raised the issue as a Back-Bench Member when the Labour Government were in office. I raised it again when there was a change of Government in 1979. The issue has remained with us for 20 years and I hope that the Government will now take it on board. The Nolan report asks us to review the matter.
We seek to retain power at the centre of government, in what is still one of the most secretive government systems. As a result, defects in our system have not been taken up. Instead, they have built up in the absence of a relief valve. The pressure has increased. The defects have become worse and worse over the years.
Last Friday, The Daily Telegraph reported:a moment of panic following a spat of minor scandals involving Tory backbenchers and Ministers last year, causing the Prime Minister to establish the Nolan Committee.My argument is that we have not examined these issues for years, with the result that "minor scandals" have caused a blunderbuss of a commission to be established. I believe that standards have been falling for years and the time is long overdue for them to be reconsidered.
The Nolan inquiry has done an excellent job. I shall not argue about whether the report goes far enough. The report is a package. It has been assembled by a committee of people who have experience of public life both inside and outside the House. They have submitted unanimous recommendations for us to take account of and act upon for the good of the public. We would be crazy to dismiss their recommendations or try to put them into a siding.
The report has shown that in respect of the civil service and the quango state there has been something wrong in the conduct of public affairs. The committee has done civil servants a real service. I have read the report from cover to cover. Civil servants can work more easily and have a greater comfort factor in the way in which they carry out their functions if all the Nolan report's recommendations are implemented, along with, of course, the changes introduced by the Government. I accept that they are taken in tandem, but that is a great bonus for our civil servants.
Our argument, as The Times said on Friday, is that the regulation that we are being asked to accept as Members of the House is minimal. The Times described it as a "light touch", although one would not think so from some of the 563 extreme language, based on old-fashioned myths, suggesting that somehow 700 years of parliamentary sovereignty is under attack. That myth is peddled by those who seek to mislead people outside the House about the powers of the House and the nature of British society.
Even so, I accept that this is the first outside interference in hundreds of years in the conduct of the House, but in a very narrow area. However, the changes do not interfere with our prime functions. First, they do not interfere with our ability to represent our constituents in the House. Secondly, they do not interfere with our ability to hold the Government and the Executive to account. Thirdly, they do not interfere with our ability to be the forum of the nation where ideas good, bad and tasteless can be tossed around this cockpit of debate. Nolan interferes with none of that in any way, shape or form, so I cannot see why extreme language describing the House as being under attack is being used.
Acceptance of the Nolan recommendations means, as I told the inquiry, that Parliament ceases to be the absolute arbiter of the public interest boundaries. We have no right, as 651 elected citizens on behalf of our fellow citizens, to be the sole arbiter of the public interest boundaries in every walk of life in Britain. It is not on, it is unacceptable and we are not qualified, even by election, to carry out that function. We have to share that and it has to be shared between ourselves and other interest bodies in society.
Society has become more complex and technical. It is as though over the years the House has not wanted to know about that or be part of it. That is one reason why, over the years, the House has ceded so much power to Whitehall over the decades—it can deal with the technicalities, so do not bother us with that kind of change in society. That has been partly caused by the make-up of the House not being full of people like myself—qualified engineers. Therefore, we should embrace change and do so quickly. We should agree the detailed changes to the Standing Orders and related matters well before the House rises for the summer recess.
One change that we must make, which I do not think is mentioned specifically in the Nolan report but which is crucial in view of its recommendations about the Privileges Committee, is that that Privileges Committee must be given the power to sit during a recess. It is unbelievable that, as far as I am aware, it is the only Select Committee that has no authority to sit when the House is not sitting. The delay that the two Members in the recent cash for questions affair suffered was one reason why they felt an injustice. The matter was raised last June or July, but it was Easter before the House dealt with it. Why? Because for all the weeks that the House does not sit, the Committee of Privileges was not doing any work because it had no power or authority from the House to do so. That must be corrected forthwith. It could be corrected by a motion tabled by the Leader of the House next week. It is crazy not to make that change in the new situation.
§ Mr. Sheldon
Please, will my hon. Friend include the Public Accounts Committee, which also does not have the power to sit when the House is not sitting?
§ Mr. Rooker
As it is the only Select Committee on which I have ever served in 21 years, yes. I learned more about the machinery of Government in my two years on that Committee than I have in a decade or more on the Opposition Front Bench. Yes, of course that must be the case.
I also believe that the House should regularly review the changes that we institute. We should begin ourselves to think about the implications of the changes for current and future Members. We should not have to wait for someone else to do that. We can think ahead and see the implications of the changes, because that will be important to the way in which we do our work.
I hope that Ministers will not fall over when I say that I do not put all the blame on the Government. Like some of my hon. Friends, I have experience of sitting on both sides of the Chamber. We are a transient group of Members, holding our places on trust on behalf of the people, and no one, from the highest to the lowest, has anything to gain by seeking to make cheap, narrow and partisan points in relation to the changes that we debate, the changes that we propose to introduce and the changes that I hope we shall introduce following Nolan. Nothing is to be gained from such behaviour; we would merely further demean ourselves in the eyes of the public and raise the percentage of those who think we are on the make from 64 to 74 per cent.
The evidence from Nolan is that the public have seen through us and that they do not like what they see. The conduct of policy and the conduct of politics must change and be seen to change. Failure on our part will have the consequence of tearing at the fabric of society. That is a measure of the esteem in which we are held. If we do not do these things, people outside, will be torn asunder. They may not think much of us, but they will think a lot less of us if we do not deal with the changes.
The current membership of the House must be able, with honesty, rightly to claim that we left the political process in better health than we found it. We can start by implementing Lord Nolan's recommendation.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)
When proposing this debate a week ago, I had envisaged and intended that it would provide the opportunity for a wide-ranging debate. I am not sure that I had anticipated it ranging quite as wide as occurred in the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker). It went well beyond some of the matters that were covered by the Nolan committee, but it was entertaining for all that, and it would have given many people, apart from myself, pause for thought. I can say only that it is clear that he is a well-qualified engineer.
I especially agree with the hon. Gentleman's point about enabling the Privileges Committee not to get into the position that it was in during the last summer recess. I hope that I carry with me at least one its members who 565 I can see in my sights. There are, however, obvious difficulties, which we should not ignore, about getting together during the summer recess a body that consists of 17 people. There is no magic answer, but the hon. Gentleman's point needs and deserves further consideration.
§ Mr. Newton
If that is a bid for further action from the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, having said what I have just said about the Privileges Committee, it would be ungracious of me not to undertake to consider any proposal that he might make.
Following today's debate, one thing that I am clear about is that it was right for the debate to take place as soon as possible after the Nolan committee report was published a week ago. It was also right to have an opportunity to gauge reaction, as we have had this afternoon and evening, before making firm decisions about how to proceed. My speech will seek to reflect the spirit in which many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have taken part in the debate.
§ Mr. Quentin Davies
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the matters that we have been discussing are extremely complex? We have had an interesting and wide-ranging debate, but many hon. Members have not been able to take part. Does he agree that there has not been sufficient and full consideration by the House of all the matters before us, and that it would be sensible to set up a committee of the House, or to charge the Select Committee on Members' Interests or the Privileges Committees with considering the matter in detail, taking what evidence they think is relevant and returning to the House with considered recommendations?
§ Mr. Newton
My hon. Friend is anticipating a point that I wish to come to later in relation to how we might proceed from here. I shall return to it later.
There is no point in disguising the fact that, during the debate, many different points and perspectives have emerged. To a significant degree, however, I am encouraged by what I take to be the three strands of fairly general—I certainly cannot say universal—agreement that have emerged. The first point would certainly not have universal agreement as a number of hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), my hon. Friends the Members for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Budgen) and for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), and the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) have suggested putting everything in statute, which would go well beyond the Nolan committee's suggestion.
Apart from that, there has been a general welcome for and endorsement of the importance of self-regulation in the House. It has, perhaps, not been fully recognised today that that is persistently stressed in the Nolan report. Paragraph 1 of its conclusions, for instance, places heavy emphasis on the importance of self-regulation and the committee's wish for it to continue. It states:Those standards have always been self-imposed and self-regulated because Parliament is our supreme institution.That is an important recognition of both the position and the reasons.
Other parts of the report make, in effect, the same point. Paragraph 59 states: 566we do not believe that the position is so grave that it has to be addressed outside the framework of the House's own rules.Paragraph 89 strongly recommends that the House should draw up a code of conduct setting out the broad principles that should govern the conduct of Members.
Paragraph 92 makes an important point, and I shall quote it in full:One of the consequences of privilege is therefore that the House of Commons regulates the activities of its Members itself. Where Parliamentary business is concerned, they are answerable to the House and not to the Courts. Because Parliamentary privilege is important for reasons entirely unconnected with the standards of conduct of individual Members of Parliament, we believe that it would be highly desirable for self-regulation to continue.I believe that that view is widely, and rightly, shared in the House.
§ Mr. Budgen
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a world of difference between regulating the procedures of the House and imposing—by means of a motion in the House—a particular and new condition on all persons who wish to become Members of Parliament? For instance, it would have been wrong, would it not, for the House of Commons to say that no Member of Parliament could be a clergyman in the Church of England. That, rightly, is decided by statute.
Surely, when we reach the stage of regulating through the registration of Members' interests—which changes all the terms and conditions of employment—the nation will have an interest in the matter. We are not doing this just for ourselves, as a private club; it must surely be done by the House of Commons—by the legislature, acting on behalf of the whole nation.
§ Mr. Newton
My hon. Friend links two slightly different points, on which I want to make different comments. First, it has historically been the case for centuries that the House has had rules governing the procedures and conduct of its Members, in various forms. We should think very hard before moving away from that position, especially in the light of the comments made in the report. Secondly—I might have said this to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) had I had a little more time—there is a clear distinction between putting into law, as the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 does, a list of offices held that disqualify, and what would come much closer to a list of criteria needing to be interpreted and considered by the courts before it could be decided what was and was not in order. I hope that I have made my concern reasonably clear without labouring it too much, because I must now make progress.
My second encouraging conclusion is that there is a general acceptance of a need for change, in the direction—I choose my words carefully—of the report's recommendations. Substantial reservations are expressed about particular proposals, and considerable emphasis is placed on the need for clarification; but few would argue for no action at all. There has been much echoing of the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) today, and one phrase that has been quoted more than once since he spoke is, "We cannot walk away from it."
Thirdly, the debate has pointed to a whole range of questions arising from the report's recommendations which have to be addressed and answered before specific resolutions in a clear and workable form can be put to the House for debate and decision.
567 I took that to be fairly clearly recognised by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) in a reference that he made to discussing the detail on resolutions. That was echoed in a number of speeches right through the debate, not least in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson Smith), the importance of which should be recognised, given the experience which my hon. Friend has had as Chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests. He struck a cautionary note about the difficulties of dealing with some of these matters and the need to take care in proceeding with them.
Perhaps that was inevitable because, although tribute has been rightly paid to the Nolan committee for having produced this very substantial report in the short space of six months, it was inevitably unable to address some of the definitional difficulties such as the distinction referred to by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney between advocacy and the giving of advice. It could not address some of those questions as fully as it might have wished had it had more time and as fully as some of them would need to be addressed if we were talking about devising specific resolutions to put before the House. There are a number of such points that I could make.
I would say to the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) that some of the concerns expressed about the need to refine the detail more than was possible for those devising the report, whatever we may think the points of detail are, are not something that can be simply dismissed or waved away. I emphasise that an important part of the thrust of the report is its criticism of the lack of clarity in our existing rules and procedures. We would be doing no service to anyone inside or outside the House by rushing ahead to replace the current set of uncertainties and grey areas with a new set because we have failed to think the problems and difficulties through.
A key question, and again this is a phrase that has echoed through the debate, is to decide how best the work can be carried forward with proper care but without undesirable delay. As many hon. Members have said, we have to get it right.
Before I come back to offer a tentative answer to that question, it might be sensible to say something briefly about the categories of recommendation made in the report: category A, those for implementation with the minimum of delay; and category B, those which, in the committee's view, could be implemented or on which significant progress could be made by the end of the year. The hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) rather exaggerated the extent to which the report assumes that everything can be done between now and the end of the year. There is specifically a saving clause in that recommendation. Finally, there is category C, which deals with the longer term.
There is only one recommendation in category C, which, uniquely in this part of the report, is directed to the Government rather than the House. It is that the Government should take steps to clarify the law relating to bribery of, or receipt of a bribe by, a Member of Parliament. Given that that recommendation is directed to the Government, it is something that will be considered 568 in the context of the Government response to which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster referred earlier.
I will therefore focus principally on the recommendations categorised as A and B. For the category A recommendations—the shortest-term ones—there does not appear to be any great problem. The first is a proposition that Members of Parliament should remain free to have paid employment unrelated to their role as Members of Parliament. It clearly requires no further action. That has been implicitly accepted in the course of the debate.
The second recommendation in category A is that the House should restate the 1947 resolution, which I will not rehearse. That plainly presents no great difficulty because it is there already and we would be doing no more than reminding people of it. If that is felt to be appropriate, clearly it can be considered.
The fourth category A recommendation is the setting in hand of a broader consideration of the merits of parliamentary consultancies generally, taking account—I think that is the phrase—of the financial and political funding implications of change. That, again, seems to be reasonably straightforward, which is not to say that the consideration itself would be straightforward, and would seem to point either to referring the matter to one of our existing Committees or, as I am inclined to think may be preferable, to establish one specifically for that purpose.
Before deciding precisely what is right in that respect, it is necessary to spend a moment considering how to proceed with the bulk of the recommendations, which are those falling in category B and which have been the principal focus of most of today's contributions. One possibility would be for me to suggest resolutions following discussion in the usual channels, but my doubts about that have been reinforced by some comments made today. I have grave doubts about whether the House would think that process appropriate or right.
Some understandable suspicion has been expressed, articulated perhaps most clearly, but not only, by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith), about an attempted diktat by members of the Government Front Bench or of proposals based on a deal between members of the two Front Benches. I am inclined to think—this picks up a comment made a few moments ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Stamford and Spalding (Mr. Davies)—that the appropriate course is to operate according to the House's normal procedure in such circumstances, which is to ask a group of senior and respected Members of Parliament to make recommendations on how we should proceed in the light of the report and to make specific proposals for resolutions that might be put to the House having considered some, many or all of the points raised in today's debate.
That would be more consistent not only with the House's usual practice but with the report itself which, as the two members of the Nolan committee recognised today, has to a significant extent provided a basis for consideration of action by the House. A phrase that they both used but that I do not think was mine was that the committee had in some respects passed the buck to the House. That implies that we now need a proper House mechanism for considering how to proceed.
§ Mr. Newton
That is no doubt something that could be considered and might be appropriate for the committee, were it to be established. My approach in my curtailed response is that I am not seeking to make snap decisions about matters that should be the subject of wide consultation.
In response to the hon. Member for Dewsbury, I must say that I believe that the approach that I have sketched might well be more, rather than less, likely to achieve the pace of progress towards decisions that many of us desire. As has been said repeatedly today, most forcefully by my right hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), the devil is in the detail. Frankly, if we attempt to have debates on principle, they will inescapably be debates in which people will say that they do not want to make decisions until they have a clearer idea of shape and detail. Decisions in principle will not mean very much without detail. Only when the detail has been worked out can practical changes occur. In my view, the sooner we get on with it, the better.
If it were felt right to proceed in that way, the question would be whether an existing committee or a new one established for the purpose would be the right course. The latter would probably be preferable, not least for the reason mentioned by the hon. Member for Dewsbury. Regardless of whatever else might be said about their difficulties, the existing committees—the Privileges Committee and the Select Committee on Members' Interests—already have other work on their plate which the House would not like to see pushed to one side.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor
Is the Leader of the House suggesting that the remit of the committee should be to consider Lord Nolan's proposals or to work out how to implement them?
§ Mr. Newton
I would want to embrace both thoughts. Questions that have been raised today about the specific proposals have to be dealt with before one can say that the only purpose of the committee is to implement them exactly as they stand. That is particularly true with regard to some of the points made about the commissioner for standards. If the hon. Lady is going to suggest that that is an attempt to delay or avoid acting on the proposals in the report, I should have to resist that suggestion. However, the work needs to be carefully and thoroughly done before specific proposals are put to the House.
I believe that such an approach would give the best chance of proceeding in a way that the House would wish. That embraces something that I had not entirely expected to hear from the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), which was the powerful demand for consensus, something that I have not always sensed in her contributions to our proceedings. I strongly believe, and I hope that everything that I have said in the debate—apart from anything that I have said in my previous years as Leader of the House—has shown that I have no doubt whatever that this place and its rules work best when we move forward in a careful and considered way and seek to achieve the maximum consensus. That is the basis on which I hope we can proceed in this instance.
As everyone reflects on the debate and if that approach finds favour, I propose to undertake early consultation in appropriate ways—and I do not mean just through the usual channels—with a view to presenting a specific proposal to the House.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.