HC Deb 29 January 1998 vol 305 cc564-71
Dr. Fox

I beg to move amendment No. 159, in page 10, line 33, after 'person', insert , organisation or trade union'.

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 160, in page 10, line 38, after 'person', insert , organisation or trade union'. Government amendment No. 222.

Dr. Fox

We want to get through a great deal of material this evening. I hope that the Committee will understand that the length of time that I take on the amendment does not detract from the seriousness with which we regard the issue.

The White Paper says that the Parliament must be open, responsive and accountable. It confirms that Standing Orders will cover Members' pecuniary interests. The Bill says that the Standing Orders must prohibit Members from advocating a matter on behalf of any person by any means specified or from urging any other Members to do so in return for payment or benefit.

I shall not detain the Committee by going over recent history, the traumas that Parliament has been through, and the measures that we put in place to deal with such matters, or mentioning any of the on-going sagas involving hon. Members on both sides. That is irrelevant. However, it is important that the Scottish Parliament should have an opportunity for clarity and transparency with the new measures to be put in place.

Given the current and past political culture in Scotland, the Minister should consider our amendment, which would add "organisation or trade union" after "person". We know about the close relationship between the trade unions and the Labour party, which remains the largest party in Scotland. The relationship is stronger in Midlothian and Sedgefield than in Islington, where the Labour party probably attracts the appropriate residents. Without the amendment, the Government may be open to the charge of having one rule for their friends and other rules for the rest.

Mr. Canavan

Does the definition of "organisation" include limited companies and lobbying organisations, from which many Tory Members of Parliament have accepted huge amounts of money to further their cause?

Dr. Fox

The hon. Gentleman belittles the debate. I do not want to get involved in the petty accusations that tend to bedevil such debates. I hope that it will be made clear from the outset that the definition includes companies and lobbying organisations. If the Government do not accept the amendment, I hope that they will come up with their own.

The House has always had a tradition that declarations of interest are not made during oral questions because of the time that that would take. Why do the Government think that there should be different arrangements for the Scottish Parliament?

I also wonder whether the Bill should include a provision to prevent or restrict participation in the proceedings of the Parliament by a Member with a registerable interest. Surely the important fact is that the Member should register and declare the interest. That should guarantee that the Parliament knows whose case he may be advocating. If that is transparent, I do not know why there is any need for a power to prevent or restrict.

Mr. Salmond

Let us say that a Member of this House declared that he was paid by Westminster Communications—a lobbying company with hundreds of clients. How would the House know for which, if any, of those hundreds of clients the Member was making a case?

Dr. Fox

The best way would be by asking questions openly in a democratic debate. I do not understand the benefit of preventing or restricting the participation of a Member. Declaring and registering an interest should be enough. There is a chance to avoid some of the pitfalls that we have had here in recent years. The Minister should take the opportunity to make matters clearer and more transparent from the outset. If he cannot accept our amendments, he should give a commitment to consider similar amendments to ensure that there is not one rule for one and another rule for others.

Mr. Dalyell

I hope that this is the right time to make these points. The Law Society of Scotland is of the view that important matters such as the Register of Members' Interests, being in primary legislation, should be subject to adequate parliamentary scrutiny, and should not be formulated in Standing Orders, which could be subject to simple amendment procedures. It is also concerned that the clause creates the framework for an offence provision but delegates the scope of that offence to the Scottish Parliament in its Standing Orders. Is it appropriate that the Standing Orders should contain provisions creating offences as provided for in subsection (6)?

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine)

We support the amendment, because the public's concern about paid advocacy extends beyond the individual to organisations of any description. We hope that the definition extends to private limited companies. People should not be advocating causes on behalf of a financial interest. They should represent the people whom they were elected to serve.

Will the Minister tell us the legal definition of "person"? It would also be helpful if the Conservatives could give us a definition of "organisation". There is some debate about the legal definition of "person". The book provided by the Scottish Office does not extend the definition, leaving the impression that a "person" is an individual. The public would like it extended to cover organisations and other bodies.

Mr. Salmond

For consistency, the Conservatives must withdraw the amendment. They have argued on other amendments for matters to be left to the Parliament. The issue can and should be dealt with in the Standing Orders of the Parliament. We had a brief preliminary discussion at the consultative committee, when the subject was raised obliquely. I am not sure whether anyone has the full answer, but we all recognise that the public believe that there is a huge problem in this place. That problem remains; it has by no means been settled or solved.

We should have a few guiding principles. Members of the Scottish Parliament should be full-time, not part-time. There is a case for someone with a family business still needing to be present in that business, but that is different from someone having 20, 25 or 30 directorships littered around. Even if those directorships are declared, the Member is still cheating his or her constituency and the public.

We had a debate about standards when some hon. Members were embroiled in what became known as the "cash for questions" scandal. One member of the Committee inquiring into that made a speech. It was regarded as acceptable—I checked the Register of Members' Interests—that he had almost 30 directorships.

There is a fairly narrow dividing line between cash for questions and that scandal, and somebody—albeit openly—declaring almost 30 directorships. The new Parliament will have to agree not only that everything should be declared, but a little more. People who have the privilege of serving a constituency should be expected to work full time and devote their time and energy to that job, not serve other interests.

I sympathise with those who represent voluntary organisations. Indeed, one of my colleagues represents one of the nurses' unions, for very little payment. There may be a case—I have mentioned two of them—for specifying such interests, to ensure that access to Members of Parliament for those who are in difficult circumstances and who are often dispossessed in society is declared. We cannot and must not have a range of allowances whereby people can cheerfully accept salary cheques from 30 or 40 different sources as well as picking up the pay of a Member of the Scottish Parliament.

I have two points for the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox). First, given his previous arguments, should we not leave this matter to the Standing Orders of the Scottish Parliament? Secondly, I shall reverse an argument that I have been making. At times during the passage of the Bill, I have tried to protect the Scottish Conservative party from the English Conservative party. Given the contribution of the Scottish Conservative party representative on the consultative committee, I am not certain whether the Scottish Conservative party is fully on board with the spirit of non-advocacy and total declaration that has been presented from the Tory Front Bench. Perhaps the communication lines are not operating between Scotland and Westminster. I suggest that Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen inform their Scottish colleagues of the far more rigorous attitude being adopted—at last—by the Conservative party in Westminster.

7.30 pm
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Kelvin)

I sense that Committee members do not want to be detained for long on this matter. I had not intended to speak, but I am tempted to do so by a few of the points raised by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond). It may have been a slip of the tongue, but the hon. Member said that this Parliament has "a huge problem" of Members accepting cash for questions. I do not think that that is true. The problem of public perception of Parliament is bad enough, without that comment being allowed to pass unchallenged on to the record.

Mr. Salmond

If the hon. Gentleman checks the record, he will see that I mentioned cash for questions and said that Parliament had a huge problem in its public perception and standing as a result of the many incidents over the past few years, which have certainly created public disquiet and damaged the reputation of this place. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman, of all people, does not recognise exactly what I am talking about.

Mr. Galloway

The hon. Gentleman should not be surprised, because, a couple of years ago, I was falsely accused on such matters, and entirely cleared by the Standards and Privileges Committee. I am extremely sensitive to such false or reckless allegations or imputations that we have a huge problem. I do not believe that we have a huge problem. In so far as we have a problem at all, it is certainly made worse by people carelessly, recklessly, tossing around such talk. [Laughter.] The hon. Gentleman laughs, but it is no laughing matter.

More importantly, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, rather contradictorily, raised the issue of Members' outside interests. He said that it is all right if a Member has a family business or a family farm, but it is not all right if a Member has directorships. He did not deal with the issue of newspaper columnists, for example. I declare an interest as a newspaper columnist—as is the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Jenkin

Is he paid for it?

Mr. Galloway

I am certain that he is paid—but not as well as I.

Will Members of the Scottish Parliament be allowed to write columns for The Herald in Glasgow and remain MSPs? It is preposterous to say that they could not. Where do we draw the line—at newspaper columnists, farmers, participants in a family business? This fraught area deserves more careful consideration.

Mr. Wallace

Does the hon. Gentleman think that the line might be drawn by the electorate? Candidates should make it clear whether they intend to engage in any other activities, and voters will decide whether it should be dealt with

Mr. Galloway

The hon. and learned Gentleman anticipated exactly what I was going to say. Who sits in the Scottish Parliament ought to be a matter for the electors. Electors are fully aware when a candidate goes before them of the profession, business interests and jobs in which the candidate will continue to be involved. If the electorate were not aware, it would be the job of the opposition parties to draw it to their attention. It is easy to take a cheap, populist line in this area, but if it is not thought through, very many people will be precluded from standing for the Parliament.

There is an argument with which we are all familiar. I heard it from a Conservative Member, who very persuasively made the point that, as a dentist, he had to keep his hand in. It was rather an apt pun, but it is absolutely accurate. I do not know whether he is still an hon. Member.

Dr. Fox

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as a former obstetrician, I would not like to go down that line.

Mr. Galloway

I shall not follow the hon. Gentleman down that line. [Laughter.] When one is in a hole, it is best to stop digging. [Laughter.] The hon. Member in question may have lost his seat in the interim.

Mr. Ancram

He is still with us

Mr. Galloway

He is still with us.

The hon. Member in question made the point that politicians are here today and gone tomorrow, so it is good to have a trade on which to fall back. As I explained to the right hon. Gentleman last night, I am a jobbing politician. None the less, I think it important that people keep their hand in, in some trades, because, if they do not, they will lose the ability to practise them if they ever have to return to them.

Hon. Members may laugh, and it has been an amusing little exchange, but the point is valid. In some jobs and professions, people are required to continue work. There might even be some benefit in people having some limited outside interests which they can bring to bear in Parliament—as long as nothing is hidden from the elector and as long as the elector is not, to use the phrase of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, in any way cheated. I cannot see how electors would be cheated if total transparency were observed.

Mr. McLeish

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) that we need balance. We are talking about a very important matter. It is set in the context of Westminster, but it concerns a huge public interest issue. We are trying to achieve a balance in laying down important requirements for the Parliament to pursue, and at the same time leaving it to develop in its Standing Orders the very details that will govern Members' interests. That is the right balance to strike.

We do not depart at all from openness and transparency. We want a Parliament that works normally and effectively, but one in which MSPs by their actions can illustrate a new way of working which reflects the new politics about which we have often talked. Of course, we will not have a chance to implement the new politics until Members are elected on 6 May 1999, powers begin to be transferred from Westminster and we become actively involved. Nobody should infer from the debate anything other than the seriousness with which the Government view the matter.

I shall make a few comments about the background to clause 22 before responding to the Opposition amendments and talking about our amendment, No. 222. The Government are committed to ensuring that the highest possible standards apply to elected members at whatever level. In the case of the Scottish Parliament, the provisions in clause 22 are intended to ensure that certain essential elements of the regulation of Members' interests are set in place. That is essential so that the Scottish electorate can have confidence that its representatives are not being unduly swayed by external influences.

The provision will therefore ensure that the Parliament provides for a register of Members' interests, which will be published and available for public inspection. Any Member who has a financial interest in a matter, or another interest of a type specified in the Standing Orders, must declare that interest before taking part in the proceedings of the Parliament. The Standing Orders must also prohibit Members from advocating any matter on behalf of a person in return for payment or benefit in kind.

The clause goes on to create a criminal offence—

Mr. Dalyell

Are the Standing Orders to be subject to simple amendment procedures?

Mr. McLeish

As I said earlier, we are laying down important requirements in statute on the face of the Bill. It will then be up to the Parliament itself to look at its Standing Orders and develop further the position on Members' interests. That is a wholly reasonable position for us to adopt at this stage, as I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate.

Dr. Fox

Will the Minister tell us the definition of the word "person" as used on the face of the Bill?

Mr. McLeish

I shall deal with that specifically when I deal with the amendments.

Clause 22 goes on to create a criminal offence where a Member is found to be guilty of contravening those Standing Orders.

The Bill establishes a framework that will be fleshed out in the Parliament's Standing Orders. That is an area that the Government—and, I am sure, the Parliament in due course—will want to keep under continuous review. It will wish to apply the best practice available, which will include taking account of the work in that area by the Nolan committee and the continuing activities of the Neill committee and the Joint Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.

The argument for Government amendment No. 222 is similar to that for amendment No. 221, which has just been accepted by the House. It reinforces the powers available to the Parliament to deal with Members excluded under subsection (5).

Amendments Nos. 159 and 160 seek to insert a reference to "organisation or trade union" into the relevant parts of subsection (4). That is the part of the clause that would prohibit a Member of the Parliament from advocating or initiating, either himself or by urging another Member to do so, any matter in return for payment or benefit in kind.

I have to tell the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) that his amendments are unnecessary. Clause 22(4) mentions only "any person", but I am advised that, in accordance with the normal rules for interpreting statutes, "person" includes a body of persons, corporate or unincorporate. The provision would therefore cover paid advocacy on behalf of any organisation or trade union, so it is not necessary to add the suggested words to the Bill. I therefore invite the hon. Gentleman to withdraw the amendment.

Dr. Fox

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation, and also to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Kelvin (Mr. Galloway) for giving a balanced view of how registered interests ought to work in the Parliament. He is right to say that what we really require is transparency. I understand why the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has his own interest in trying to blacken the name of this Parliament, but I do not think that there is a huge problem here, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 222, in page 10, line 41, at end insert and for withdrawing his rights and privileges as a member for the period of his exclusion'.—[Mr. McLeish.]

Question proposed, That the clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill

Mr. Dalyell

My question may be more appropriate to this debate than to the previous one. It is: is it appropriate that Standing Orders should contain provisions creating offences as provided for in subsection (6)? I remind the Committee that that subsection reads as follows: Any Member of the Parliament who— (a) takes part in any proceedings of the Parliament without having complied with, or in contravention of, any provision made in pursuance of subsections (1) to (3), or (b) contravenes any provision made in pursuance of subsection (4), is guilty of an offence. I am advised by the Law Society that that is a matter of some substance.

Secondly, should the offence provisions apply to the Lord Advocate and the Solicitor General, given that they will not be taking part in proceedings, or in advocating or initiating any cause or matter on behalf of any person in the Parliament? The ministerial advisers will know that that question, too, came from the Law Society.

Thirdly, will there be any corresponding requirement for the Advocate General for Scotland to be registered in the register of interests at Westminster?

One could ask the question—although it may be more appropriate on clause 82—what happens if there are two strong-willed lawyers in the position of Lord Advocate and Advocate General? Obviously, that could be a difficult relationship

Mr. McLeish

In the context of the points made earlier about balance, yes, we are happy about the provisions in subsection (6) that place that requirement on the Parliament. It is in pursuance of subsections (1) to (3), and the point is appropriate.

It is right to remember that we must lay down those important requirements for the Parliament. I think that the Committee would regard that subsection as vital for the overall conduct of the Standing Orders. It will, of course, be for the Parliament itself to develop further details within the Standing Orders covering a wide variety of Members' activities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) referred to subsection (8). Again, we believe it highly appropriate that such measures should apply. The holders of the posts specified need not be external to the membership of the Parliament. As for the Advocate General's being on the Register in this House, I shall write to my hon. Friend on the subject.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 22, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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