HC Deb 24 July 1996 vol 282 cc392-407 6.24 pm
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton)

I beg to move, That this House approves the Third Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, House of Commons Paper No. 604, and in particular—

  1. (a) approves the Code of Conduct prepared pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 19th July 1995,
  2. (b) approves the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members, the modifications to the rules of the House contained therein, and the guidelines to the application of the Resolution of the House of 6th November 1995 (Conduct of Members) contained in paragraph 58 of the Guide, and
  3. (c) authorises the Committee on Standards and Privileges to make such minor amendments to the Guide to the Rules as appear to it to be justified by experience or necessarily reflect decisions of the House; and to report such amended versions of the Guide to the House.
The House will recall that on 19 July 1995, almost exactly a year ago, the House resolved that a code of conduct should be drawn up and placed before it for approval. The report that is the subject of this debate, containing such a code and accompanying guidance, is the product of six months' very considerable work on the part of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which I chair.

I want to pay tribute, with more than usual formality, to all the members of the Committee for the spirit in which they have approached that task. There were of course differences in the Committee, but all were resolved by discussion so that we achieved a consensus and produced a unanimous report for the House. Indeed, there was no vote of any kind at any stage in the whole of those six months in relation to the production of the code. I am prone to refer to the fact that I had a Quaker education, and I take some satisfaction from the fact that the Committee proceeded on what the Society of Friends would call a "feeling of the meeting basis", and that we managed to achieve those agreements.

I want to express, I am sure on behalf of the whole Committee, our collective gratitude, and I hope also that of the House, to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, for the contribution that he made to our deliberations, with much wise advice.

I do not propose to speak at great length. The Committee's views are contained in the text of the report and the associated documents, and I want to ensure that there is plenty of time for Members who wish to contribute to do so. I shall also probably be less generous than I sometimes am in giving way to interventions, because it would not be wise for me to attempt further textual interpretation on the hoof although, if I can be helpful to the House later in the debate, I shall be glad to do so.

The first part of our report contains a code setting out general principles to guide hon. Members on the standards of conduct that the House and the public have a right to expect of all Members. In the second part, we seek to set out a guide to the rules on registration and declaration of Members' interests, to the rule banning paid advocacy and to the complaints procedure.

In preparing the guide, we reviewed the current rules relating to the registration and declaration of interests, and we recommend certain changes, which I shall briefly summarise, but I should make it clear that very few of the changes are substantial. Our main concern was to achieve greater clarity and consistency in the way in which the rules are applied, taking account of the changes agreed by the House last year.

First, on registration, we recommend that the period within which a Member returned at a by-election should complete a registration form and submit it to the Commissioner should be extended to three months. That simply makes the position of Members returned at general elections and those returned at by-elections the same. At present, there is a difference.

Secondly, any Member who has a registrable interest that has not yet been registered should be required to abstain from any parliamentary action, except voting, to which the registration would be relevant, until notification of the interest has been given to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Members are of course already required to register a new interest within a month of acquiring it.

I hope that the following recommendation, like the rest, will be considered a commonsense recommendation. We recommend that accommodation provided by a local authority at no cost or at a subsidised cost to a Member solely for the purpose of holding constituency surgeries— not subsidised office accommodation, but accommodation solely for the purpose of holding constituency surgeries— should be exempt from registration.

The guide also updates and amends the guidance on the interpretation of the rules on registration and declaration, most of which have been in existence for some years. Those additions and modifications include confirmation of the long-standing practice that a Member need not register attendance at a conference or a site visit in the United Kingdom where the organiser meets reasonable travel and accommodation costs only. There is also an updated list of categories of overseas visits that are exempt from registration, including those that are financed from UK public funds.

Section 2 of the guide provides additional advice on the rules on declaration. For example, advice is given on the occasions— such as business questions, the report suggests— when Members should consider declaring a relevant interest even though there is no formal requirement to do so. We also recommend that the rule that requires notice to be given on the Order Paper of any relevant pecuniary interest when tabling any written notice should also apply to notifications given to the Speaker's Office in respect of daily Adjournment debates and requests to present a Standing Order No. 20 application to the House.

We have given particular attention to framing workable guidelines for the application of what is now called the "advocacy rule", passed by the House in its resolutions of last November. Our recommendations closely reflect the observations of our predecessor, the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life, in its second report, which the House debated last November, as well as our own detailed consideration of the application of the rule on advocacy to the proceedings of the House.

Our full proposals on the application of the advocacy rule are contained in section 3 of the guide. Paragraph 58 sets out the guidelines on the application of the advocacy rule as it applies, on the one hand, to initiating a parliamentary proceeding and, on the other, to participation in debate. The paragraph also gives examples of what is meant by initiation or participation in that context.

Paragraph 62 sets out certain parameters to the operation of the rule, which allow appropriate latitude to, for example, hon. Members who are successful in the ballot for private Members' Bills and receive assistance from outside bodies, and hon. Members who have visited a United Kingdom dependency at the expense of the Government of the territory.

Paragraph 63 gives illustrative examples of how the guidelines might operate in the case of a Member who is a company director or a paid adviser to an organisation, or who may be caught by the advocacy rule in some other way.

Finally— this is important as it would be a rash member of the Committee who said that he or she was convinced that we had every point of detail right— the motion before the House would authorise the Committee on Standards and Privileges to make minor amendments to the guide on the basis of experience.

I have said on several occasions that the resolutions agreed by the House last year constituted the most substantial strengthening of the rules of the House for a very long time. Today's resolution, while in one sense less significant as it does not in itself introduce further major change, is none the less important, both in consolidating those earlier changes and in translating them into the practical working guidance that can give them best effect. I commend it to the House.

6.34 pm
Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham)

I am delighted to have a chance to speak in this debate, and to be a member of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. When my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who is the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, asked me to serve on the Committee, I did not realise how much time it would take, but it has been time well spent, and the code of conduct is proof of that. Tributes are not often paid across the Floor of the House as the Chamber's layout makes a confrontational style of politics more manageable, but I appreciated how the Committee Chairman, the Lord President, managed our deliberations. It is remarkable that we never divided on the issues that we covered.

I shall restrict my remarks to three issues: sponsorship, visits and outside employment. Sponsorship is covered in paragraphs 21 to 23 on pages 16 and 17 of the code. Having re-read those paragraphs several times in the past few days, and following reports that started in last Sunday's The Observer, I suspect that there may be a loophole in paragraph 22, to which the Committee may have to return. The issues raised by The Observer relate mainly to Ministers, for whom there is a separate code of conduct that is supposed to be tougher than that for other hon. Members.

The exposure in Sunday's The Observer illustrates a failing of the current system. If one believes the report, hon. and particularly right hon. Members have appeared at dinners to be lobbied by business men and women, in return for large sums of money, laundered as tax-deductible "entertainment" expenses in company accounts, but which quickly end up in Conservative central office funds. According to the reports, the Premier club is hiring out the Prime Minister at up to £ 100,000 per person to have dinners with business men and women bidding for some of the most lucrative privatisation deals that the Government have on offer. If the reports are to be believed, the chairman of the Premier club, Mr. John Beckwith, is not just bidding to take over Ministry of Defence homes that are to be sold off but, according to The Guardian today,wants to—

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Although we have the privilege of saying what we believe to be right in this Chamber, if someone who has been referred to has specifically denied the report in The Guardian on the radio today, it would be courteous to people outside the House if the accusation were not read into the record.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

I am sure that the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) will have noted the point that has been made.

Mr. Jones

I am sure that Mr. Beckwith denies those reports and I hope that they are not true, but they show that the position must be dealt with and clarified. If people who take part in Premier club dinners are bidding for privatisation schemes, and the Cabinet decide who will be the successful bidders, there is a conflict of interests. That is exactly what the Nolan committee was set up to stamp out, what the public find distasteful, and the kind of practice that brings the House into disrepute. I hope that there is no truth in it.

I prefer the rightful indignation that the eminent journalist, Tom Brown, expressed in yesterday's Daily Record, where he said: Any businessman who forks out £ 100,000 for the dubious privilege of having dinner with John Major should be a candidate for instant dismissal by his shareholders. Two months ago, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), the Prime Minister said that he had devolved responsibility for party fund raising more than three years ago to avoid possible conflicts of interest. If one believes any of the newspaper reports, that does not seem to be the truth. Clearly, the Prime Minister did not mean to mislead the House. Why, then, did he say those words to my right hon. Friend? If we are to rebuild the House's reputation, such activity must cease and all Members of Parliament must stick to a code that is fair and is seen to be fair and above board.

Overseas visits are covered in paragraphs 27 and 28 on page 18. There is a clear difference between visits undertaken on behalf of Her Majesty's Government, which are part of our duties as Members of Parliament, and trips such as the "jolly" to Malta recently reported in The Independent on Sunday. Select Committee visits play an important part in informing hon. Members on issues on which they must report to Parliament. Foreign affairs and defence are two vital subjects on which hon. Members must be properly briefed. Britain's overseas aid programme supports many countries throughout the world, so the House has a duty to ensure that the receiving nations spend the money prudently. That is why the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and other publicly funded organisations occasionally send delegations. Britain is also responsible, through the European Union, for helping emerging democracies.

Last January, I was one of six parliamentary observers at the elections to the new Palestinian council. It was certainly no "jolly". Apart from the blizzard in Jerusalem, the town of Nablus to which I was deployed was dry— no alcohol— and had only one hotel. The hotel was full and I found myself sharing a room with a communist parliamentarian from Portugal named Reuben. I hasten to add that we had separate beds. On polling day, observers were up at 5 am and on duty until the following morning. It really was no "jolly".

Such visits are an important part of our job and, as such, the Committee rightly decided that they should be exempt from registration and the advocacy rule. Although right hon. and hon. Members may still accept visits paid for by companies or foreign Governments, they must register each visit and may not initiate any parliamentary action relevant to that company or country.

Another important exception to the advocacy rule involves visits to United Kingdom dependencies, such as Gibraltar. On page 30, paragraph 62(7), the code states that visits to a UK dependency at the expense of the Government of that territory must be registered and declared", but that such visits shall not be taken into account when applying the advocacy rule". The third area that I shall mention briefly is paid outside employment. I cannot understand how hon. Members find the time to do justice to a job outside Parliament— perhaps my constituents in Cheltenham are more demanding than most. At the end of the week, I find that I have little or no time to spend with my family, let alone to do another job. The work of Members of Parliament is becoming more full time and the hours that we spend working for our constituents and for our country should reflect that fact. Although it is not stated in the code of conduct, I believe that our duties here should constitute our main income. I do not seek to ban outside interests altogether, as I believe that they help us to keep in contact with the real world beyond Westminster.

I hope that no hon. Member will seek to exploit loopholes in the new code of conduct. If hon. Members find what they consider to be loopholes— and there may be some— they should contact the Commissioner or a member of the Committee, and the Committee will deliberate on the matter. I hope that the code of conduct will go some way to restoring public faith in the House and in the people whom the public choose to send here.

6.40 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

The speech by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) is unlikely to have that effect. That kind of speech may go down well at the Liberal Democrat party conference, but it is not appreciated in the House. If hon. Members choose to repeat allegations from a newspaper article, they have an obligation to listen to what is said by the principals involved. The person involved in that case made his views clear on the radio at lunchtime today. The hon. Gentleman could have checked the allegations by making a simple telephone call. As he obviously spent much time preparing extensive notes for his speech, I suspect that he could have uncovered Mr. Beckwith's response.

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

What did he say?

Mr. Bottomley

I do not intend to repeat what was said on the radio. I simply put on record the fact that someone who prepares his notes as extensively as the hon. Gentleman did, should take into account what is said outside this place.

I shall make three non-partisan points— although one might be considered, wrongly, to be partisan. The first concerns overseas visits by Members of Parliament. It is sad that a growing number of Members of Parliament do not know much about the world beyond the United Kingdom. I am glad that few hon. Members have experienced war— which is one reason why previous generations travelled. However, few hon. Members have experience of other Commonwealth countries, which can add to the quality of debate.

It is important that people travel whenever possible, and I do not think that we should rely simply on the opportunities provided by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and political observer trips. Perhaps this is not the right time to suggest it, but I believe that Members of Parliament should have the opportunity to travel almost where they want and when they want, perhaps every few years. It is important to know what the world is like: one can then interpret what is broadcast in the media and what appears in the newspapers according to one's personal experience.

I have had a number of overseas trips during my 21 years in Parliament. Some were balanced: I visited Israel and the west bank with the Conservative Friends of Israel, and I later travelled to Lebanon and the west bank with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. That experience proved immensely important and useful when considering middle east issues.

I also visited El Salvador three times. I first travelled to that country with the parliamentary human rights group, which was funded by charities, in an attempt to delay the assassination of an archbishop. On my second visit, I represented the British Council of Churches at the archbishop's funeral mass. On the third occasion, I attended the free and fair elections that aimed to prevent assassinations of archbishops and many others. That trip was paid for by the Salvador Government, who wished to have credible observers in attendance.

I have no hesitation in declaring those trips and their sources of finance. I do not want Members of Parliament to be discouraged from taking trips because an entry in the Register of Members' Interests is interpreted as a bad thing. I urge hon. Members to apply the local newspaper test. They should ask themselves, "Am I doing something that I would mind being reported in my local newspaper?" If they would not mind, they should tell the local newspaper; and, if they would mind, they should either tell the local newspaper, or not do it. People expect a culture of openness.

The rules and the changes they embody take us backwards in one sense— I do not wish this point to be considered party political. The trade unions and other socialist societies set up the Labour party honourably. In the past, Labour Members were encouraged to state that they were sponsored by trade unions under the Hastings agreement.

As I understand it, that meant that up to 80 per cent. of candidates' election expenses could be met by a trade union. I am not saying that all trade unions sponsored candidates to that extent, but I think that I am correct in saying that that meant potentially £ 5,000 in funding at a general election and £ 16,000 at a by-election, as we have lifted the spending limits for by-elections.

Under the present regulations, a Member of Parliament in those circumstances would declare that he or she was sponsored above 25 per cent. for election expenses. There is a great deal of difference between saying that one is sponsored above 25 per cent.— which is what the rule requires— and declaring funding of £ 5,000 or of up to 80 per cent., which is what the Hastings agreement allows.

At election time, there are only two legal entities: the candidate and the candidate's appointed agent. Any money that is spent during the election campaign is spent on behalf of the candidate, and authorised by his or her agent. I do not believe that we have solved the problem by proposing that money should go to the constituency Labour party, as though it were independent of the candidate. Candidates will still benefit from that funding in what I call "cash for votes". I believe that we should try, in a non-partisan way, to be open about the real situation. I do not argue that it should be illegal, but openness is important.

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I wish to clarify one point. The Hastings agreement, which the hon. Gentleman described accurately, has been terminated by the Labour party, so there is no such thing as a sponsored Member of Parliament. The rules laid down by the Committee about contributions to election funds or annual contributions to constituency parties are the same for all hon. Members.

Mr. Bottomley

I am not trying to argue against the Labour party or against contributions to constituency political associations or parties— I hope that I have made that plain. However, openness is the key.

Money that is given to meet expenses at election time or on an annual basis can only advantage the candidate. Conservative associations and Liberal Democrat and Labour constituency parties do not exist as legal entities at election time— there are candidates and their agents, and that is it. I hope that the situation will be clarified further in time. I shall happily engage in discussions with people in an attempt to achieve that.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

If that is the case, am I correct in suspecting that the hon. Gentleman is in favour of Lord Nolan's examining the question of political funding? He refers to funding local Conservative associations and Labour and Liberal Democrat constituency parties, and to money being donated at a local level. Therefore, is he in favour of the inquiry for which many hon. Members have been pressing?

Mr. Bottomley

I am not in favour of referring that matter to Nolan. This is not the time for me to provide a series of answers, but I believe that the current rules lead to greater obscurity, and are based on a legal fiction.

Finally, I refer to category 5, dealing with gifts, benefits and hospitality. Due partly to my peculiar position, my entry in the Register of Members' Interests refers to the fact that I am the recipient of a fair amount of corporate, sporting and cultural hospitality, both in my own right and through my wife. I am grateful for that. However, it is difficult to know how seriously one should treat the detail in the category.

For example, I was invited to a party at an English Heritage property in my constituency which a newspaper report suggested cost significantly more than £ 215 per person. I do not want to have to ask my hosts— private or corporate, who may have some link with my position as a Member of Parliament— how much my presence has cost them, and then decide whether I should declare it. In time, perhaps we shall learn whether the category is achieving the desired result and whether there are many complications of the kind that I have illustrated.

6.48 pm
Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

I welcome the publication of the code of conduct and guide to the rules, which will help hon. Members, but I want to refer to the application of the advocacy rule, because its implementation is already leading to consequences that I cannot imagine the Committee can have fully intended. May I give two or three instances of what I mean?

The other day, I heard from a Labour Member who came to the House relatively late in life that he was caught by the advocacy rule, because he is the recipient of a pension that he receives as a result of a lifelong career in the mining industry. As a result of that pension, which is properly declared, he is apparently precluded from initiating actions. He receives a continuing benefit as a result of his employment in that industry. That is my reading of the matter.

Mrs. Ann Taylor

May I point out that anyone who receives a pension from previous employment does not receive money in his or her capacity as a Member, and that therefore no restrictions would apply?

Mr. Waller

As I understand it, that Labour Member nevertheless receives a benefit that is related to an industry.

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Waller

If I am wrong, that Labour Member has clearly been misled, because he felt precluded from initiating actions. In a forum in the House, he drew attention to that point, but if he was wrong and has been misled, I am delighted to hear it.

May I give one or two other examples? Two or three years ago, I was invited by the Kashmir committee of Copenhagen in Denmark to speak at a one-day conference, which I did at some inconvenience. It meant flying out early in the morning. I saw little of Copenhagen. What I saw was from the taxi that took me from the airport to the conference centre, and from the one that took me on the return journey.

On my return, I properly declared the visit, and it appeared in the Register of Members' Interests as a one-off "benefit", but, as I understand it, as a result of the proposal that is to be implemented with the introduction of the 1997 Register, if I were to make such a visit in future, I would be prevented from initiating any action connected with Kashmir for one year.

That seems wrong, bearing it in mind that many of my constituents are Kashmiris and that they expect me to represent their interests, among those of my other constituents, in the House. I hope that the Committee will consider that concern, because it would be regrettable if Members were prevented from taking part in such visits for that reason.

Mr. Newton

May I establish one point, because it would make a difference, and I would be hesitant to make snap judgments anyway? Did my hon. Friend say that his visit was funded by an organisation in Denmark that was interested in Kashmir, by a Government— I am not quite sure whether one can talk about the Kashmir Government— or by what might be described as a non-governmental organisation? If the latter is true, I suggest that he considers paragraph (e) on page 32, where his reservations might be put to rest.

Mr. Waller

On this occasion, I am not sure, to be honest, where the money originated. It certainly came from the Kashmir committee in Denmark, but that committee would, I imagine, to some extent have been funded by the Government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, so there is a certain grey area here. Hon. Members may feel inhibited in accepting an invitation to go on such a visit.

More generally, Members may be invited to visit a country in which they have had a long interest. Today, I participated in a radio programme with another Labour Member, who for more than a decade has been a member of an all-party group connected with a particular country. He was invited by the Government of that country to visit it. He probably knows more about that country than almost any other hon. Member. As a result of the implementation of these rules, if he were to accept such visits in future, he would be prevented from speaking about that country for a year.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

It seems not only that what my hon. Friend is saying is important, but that it would give the House an opportunity to say that, where the code is invoked, it is possible for the House in a particular debate to waive that restriction in the circumstances. I wonder whether that is the intention of the code.

Mr. Waller

The code seems to be clear and unequivocal. It is important that we should have transparency. Members who speak in the House should understand that everyone appreciates where they come from, and that they may have interests that have to be declared, but to prevent Members from speaking because they sought to improve the extent of their knowledge by accepting an invitation to visit a country seems to be going too far.

In general terms, the public would like full-time Members— we often hear that— but at the same time they want Members to know something of what goes on outside the House, and to have experience and an understanding of other countries. We must find a happy medium between those two principles. I wonder whether the advocacy rule in its present form goes too far, and whether it includes too many visits or benefits. When I say "benefits", I use the term in the way in which it is expressed in the document. Many would not necessarily regard them as benefits.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

May I help the hon. Gentleman? He should try to draw a distinction between speaking in the House and initiating proceedings. In this whole area, that distinction is clearly drawn. If he reads the report in that sense, he will find that he has far more liberty on these issues than he thinks he has. I reassure him, because there is strong support for his case, and we believe that the report's recommendations meet all his concerns.

Mr. Waller

I fully appreciate that it is possible for a Member to speak in the House, provided that he or she has not initiated the debate or motion, or tabled a question. There is still a considerable inhibition. It should be unnecessary to prevent me from initiating a debate for a year after I have visited a country and found out a lot about it, provided that I have put it on the record and everyone knows about it. We have gone a little over the boundary that was necessary to ensure that there was full transparency. I just hope that the Committee keeps the matter under review.

6.58 pm
Sir David Mitchell (North-West Hampshire)

I declare an interest, having served on the Committee.

I should like to join others in paying tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, the Leader of the House. He has had a pell-mell round of meetings, coming from one and going to another. He has always seemed to be on top of the agenda, and has had an extraordinary ability to carry the whole Committee with him with a bluff common sense. In that, he has been fully supported— I pay tribute to this— by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), the shadow Leader of the House. It was an unusual Committee in many ways— very much the House at its best. It was non-partisan, and was seeking to safeguard the respect of the House outside this place.

The Committee has fully and fairly discharged the responsibilities under its remit, but I have one reservation. It concerns not so much the Committee's work, as its remit in relation to the resolutions of the House banning advocacy. In future years, the House may look back and feel that it has lost something.

I have never been a paid consultant to any industry or organisation outside the House, but the consultant to a trade union or trading association performs three clear roles. He holds a watching brief for that industry, advising it if anything is about to be raised in the House that would affect it— such as regulations, EC regulations or commercial interests that might damage it. Secondly, the consultant familiarises himself with the working of the industry so that, if there is a problem, he thoroughly understands it. Thirdly, he raises in the House matters that would affect that industry.

Hon. Members would, in effect, be paid overtime for in-depth study and knowledge about a particular industry. The House passed the resolution banning advocacy last November, and I fear that to some extent we may have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. Fewer hon.

Members will undertake the extra work to gain the in-depth knowledge of an industry, whether as a trade union representative or as the representative of a trade association.

Although I fully support the Committee's work in interpreting the will of the House, and I believe that we should have transparency, maximum disclosure, maximum openness and full and open declaration, I also believe that, in the long term, the House will regret that it has banned advocacy and, with it, lost the greater, in-depth knowledge that would have been brought to bear in our debates.

7.1 pm

Mrs. Ann Taylor (Dewsbury)

I start by joining those hon. Members who have complimented the Leader of the House on the way in which he chaired the Committee. Our meetings over the past few months have been purposeful. They may have been slow on occasions, but that was often because of the detailed work we were carrying out in order to try to ensure that the guidelines we produced were as consistent and comprehensive as possible.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) said that he was surprised by the number and length of our meetings. Had he served on the previous Committee, he might have been relieved mat our meetings were not more numerous, or on a daily basis. He might also have been relieved that the Committee is not, as far as we know, sitting in the parliamentary recess.

Much work has been done in the Committee. I asked my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who has taken a keen interest in the subject, whether he was going to speak. He said that he was not, as he thought that the report represented "good, hard, nitty gritty work by the Committee". I report that to members of the Committee as a compliment to all involved. It certainly felt like good, hard work, and I think that it has been productive.

The objectives we set ourselves were, first, to establish a code of conduct to lay down principles by which the actions of Members of Parliament could be judged in future. Secondly, we tried to write guidelines that would help in the detailed practical application of that code of conduct, so that, if hon. Members were in any doubt about what they would or would not be able to do following a visit, or if they had a particular interest, there would be advance guidance, and they would know exactly where they stood. The third— extremely important— objective that we have tried to stress is that all Members of the House have an obligation to take it upon themselves to ensure that they do not act in a way that would breach the letter or the spirit of the rules we have laid down.

I hope that what we have established is clear enough. I also hope that all hon. Members will read the code of conduct and the guidance notes. One thing that all members of the Committee have learned over the past few months is that many of us have forgotten some of the rules that existed, such as those relating to Members' interests. Many colleagues may not have read all the rules that existed, or understood the implications.

A couple of Conservative Members have taken issue both with the remit of the Committee and with how far it has gone. At this stage, I simply remind hon. Members why we got into the situation in me first place. It was owing to the actions of a couple of hon. Members in the case that has become known as "cash for questions". That led the Prime Minister to establish the Nolan Committee.

It was the Nolan committee's report that led to resolutions in, and decisions by, the House designed to change the rules on registration and advocacy, and to ensure that whatever we did involved as much transparency as possible, in order to start to restore public confidence in Members of Parliament, because that confidence had been so badly affected by the "cash for questions" case. Public opinion demanded that the House set its affairs in order. The public's opinion of Members of Parliament is often jaundiced because of past incidents.

I hope that the code of conduct and the guidelines that we have established will work and will be practical— I think and hope they will be. I do not preclude the need for revisiting some of the issues, as other aspects, may arise from time to time. The Committee may have to see how the code works, and try to ensure that the guidelines are as precise as they should be.

It is interesting that, when the code of conduct was published last week, there was little press or public interest in it. That might have been because there were no spin doctors explaining to the press exactly what had happened— the press seem to have to be spoon-fed on all occasions. It might also have been because no member of the Committee leaked the document, which may be unusual these days.

The inquiries that I have received about the code of conduct have been strange. People have sometimes asked whether Members of Parliament had any rules before— I think that Members of Parliament have sometimes had the same thought. Of course there have been rules, and of course the majority of Members of Parliament have been acting and operating in a perfectly honourable manner, but because of what had happened in the past, it was important that we consolidated the resolutions of the House, brought them together in one document, laid out the code of conduct and issued as many guidelines as possible to ensure that the rules were clear and there were no escape clauses.

The hon. Member for Cheltenham mentioned the recent publicity surrounding the Premier club, where contributions are made to the Conservative party in exchange for meetings with the Prime Minister. I referred to the need to have statements on that subject when I spoke in this morning's Adjournment debate.

The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) tried to say that, because John Beckwith had spoken about his lack of interest in social security offices on the "World at One" programme— although I think that he confirmed his interest in Ministry of Defence properties— it was not an issue.

The issue is not simply whether one business man has found ways of contacting the Prime Minister and has an interest in certain sales that are currently pending.

Bigger issues of principle are involved, which is why I believe that the issue of political party funding should have been referred to the Nolan committee when we first suggested it some time ago. Today is not the day to go into all those details, although I think that we will have to return to the issues on another occasion, and that: we should have had the inquiry before, and not after, the next general election.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

On this, the last day before the summer recess, the accusations that have been made against the office of the Prime Minister are the most serious that we have heard since the most recent Liberal Government, when there were suggestions that Lloyd George was selling honours for cash. The suggestion now is that the Prime Minister is using and prostituting his office for his party's financial gain. There can hardly be a more serious charge than that.

I am sure that, when inquiries are made, we will find that that is not the case, and that the Prime Minister has not prostituted his high office for his financial gain. However, is it not a matter about which we need an inquiry urgently?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is right to say that we need an inquiry urgently. We need an inquiry into the entire range of party funding. The Premier club, however, raises questions that go outside the scope of this debate, such as whether it should be a matter for tax officials and for company auditors if companies are offsetting the costs of the dinners and their club membership against their tax liability. That is not the main thrust of this debate. Had the entire issue been referred to the Nolan committee earlier, however, we might have avoided the need to raise such questions, because such practices would have diminished.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Would it not be a little more sensible for the hon. Lady to find out a little more about this matter before commenting on it? I would not criticise for a moment the lavish dinners that the Labour party has held to raise funds and its profile, and to improve its contacts with the City and its donations from industry. All those activities are entirely legitimate, and I do not for one minute impugn anyone's integrity for doing or accepting such things. I ask only for a similarly charitable attitude from her towards the other side the House.

Mrs. Taylor

I suggest only that all parties should be completely open about the scale and sources of domestic donations and of those from abroad. We have always found it very difficult to achieve any agreement with the other side of the House on that point, which is why, as 1 said, the matter should have been referred to Lord Nolan some time ago.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I find it quite remarkable that Conservative Members resist the proposition of an inquiry into political funding— because it will happen under a Labour Government. So why not accept the proposition? Let us get on with it. Why be seen to be dragged and protesting, when the inevitable outcome is that such a debate will take place?

Mrs. Taylor

My hon. Friend is quite right, and not for the first time. It is only a matter of timing. Lord Nolan is, indeed, due to examine the whole issue. The problem is that he will not examine it until after the next general election. I think that the electorate have a right to know about party funding before any general election.

The hon. Members for Eltham and for Keighley (Mr. Waller) expressed some concern about hon. Members being able to undertake foreign visits for fact-finding purposes. We should make it clear that there are no restrictions at all on what hon. Members can do.

Restrictions apply only if an hon. Member has had a visit paid for. The restriction is simply that, for a period, the hon. Member should not initiate any action that would bring benefit to the sponsor of that visit. I think that that is a very minimalist approach. The approach is not over-burdensome, and it will not inhibit genuine fact-finding missions, which are frequently necessary.

The hon. Member for Keighley made a couple of points, during which I felt it right to interrupt him. I am grateful to him, as I am to the Leader of the House, for giving way. The hon. Member made two points— one of which was of concern to him, and another which was of concern to a colleague— that show that not all hon. Members fully understand all the implications of the current rules or of the new rules.

An hon. Member who receives a pension or undertakes employment that is totally unrelated to their membership of the House is not restricted in his or her activities. An hon. Member who goes abroad at the request of someone abroad who pays for that visit is prohibited not from speaking in the House but from initiating any action for a certain period.

The hon. Member for Keighley said that, on one visit, he was not sure where the money had originated. I must say that the onus is on each hon. Member to be sure who has paid for a visit that he undertakes, and that it is somewhat foolish to undertake visits on any other basis.

The hon. Member for Eltham talked about sporting activities. He also cited an English Heritage party in his constituency. All hon. Members, as constituency Members of Parliament, are entitled to normal hospitality in our own constituencies. Clearly, however, there are problems with sporting occasions, and with estimating their value. On this matter— as indeed on every other matter— we now have the Parliamentary Commissioner, who can give advice to hon. Members. In the first instance, it is to him that all hon. Members should go if we are seeking advice on that basis.

The hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir D. Mitchell), who served on the Committee, disagreed with its starting point. He wishes that we could turn the clock back, and that we had never passed the resolutions of last November. I think that we had no alternative but to tighten up our rules. We were right to do so, not only because of the problems that had arisen but because the lack of public confidence in the House.

I do not think that this code of conduct and the guidelines that we have laid provide the answer for everything, but they will start the process of giving clearer guidance to hon. Members about how they can and cannot act. The public expect no less, and I hope that this will be a useful starting point.

7.17 pm
Mr. Newton

With no discourtesy intended towards the House, I do not think that I need to sum up at length. I regret that material was introduced into the debate which is not very relevant to it, and that it has been used to recycle allegations that— as we now know— have been denied by one of those named. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister commented on the material at Prime Minister's Question Time on 23 July.

However, given the fact that what was said was said, I must say that the suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is— I think that I remember the phrase used by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn)— "prostituting his office" is an absurd allegation to be made under the privilege of the House, and that it is bordering on the disgraceful.

In quieter terms, I shall deal with the debate in general. I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) has said on every subject other than the one that I have just mentioned. I am grateful to her and to other hon. Members for their kind words about my chairmanship. I reciprocate those words, and endorse the compliment paid by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir D. Mitchell) to the hon. Member for Dewsbury on the part that she played in our deliberations.

I agreed with the comments by the hon. Member for Dewsbury on what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Waller). I think that, if he examines paragraphs 63(d) and 63(e) of the report— to one of which I have already referred— he will find that we have dealt with the anxieties that he expressed, which are the anxieties that were expressed last November. I think that we have dealt with those anxieties successfully in this code, and that he will find that his mind can be put at ease.

Equally, I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham that, unless I am misremembering the 25 per cent. rule, which he regards as somehow a slip backwards, it is basically exactly the same rule as already exists. There has been no change in that respect, but there has been a change in the nature of the on-going relationships of the Labour party under what was known as the Hastings agreement. Clearly, that is a matter for the Labour party, not for me.

Our approach has indeed been consensual, because I also agree with the hon. Member for Dewsbury that my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, and, to some extent, my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley— had he been here, the same could be said of my hon. Friend the Member for Chislehurst (Sir R. Sims)— expressed reservations about what the House did last year. However, the job of the Committee that I now chair has been to give practical guidance on interpreting and implementing decisions.

I think that the House should now—

Mr. Flynn


Mr. Newton

No, I shall not give way.

I hope that the whole House will acknowledge the need for us to examine the rules and consider the Committee's work, and agree that we must collectively try to make the rules work to the benefit of the reputation of this place, about which we all care a great deal.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House approves the Third Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, House of Commons Paper No. 604, and in particular—

  1. (a) approves the Code of Conduct prepared pursuant to the Resolution of the House of 19th July 1995,
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  3. (b) approves the Guide to the Rules relating to the Conduct of Members, the modifications to the rules of the House contained therein, and the guidelines to the application of the Resolution of the House of 6th November 1995 (Conduct of Members) contained in paragraph 58 of the Guide, and
  4. (c) authorises the Committee on Standards and Privileges to make such minor amendments to the Guide to the Rules as appear to it to be justified by experience or necessarily reflect decisions of the House; and to report such amended versions of the Guide to the House.