HC Deb 21 October 1999 vol 336 cc600-5

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House—

  1. (i) approves the Tenth and Eleventh Reports of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (HC 747);
  2. (ii) accordingly suspends Mr. Don Touhig, Member for Islwyn, from the service of the House for three sitting days; and
  3. (iii) accordingly suspends Kali Mountford, Member for Colne Valley, from the service of the House for five sitting days.—[Mrs. Beckett.]

2.10 pm
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

The House is considering today a motion for the approval of the 10th and 11th reports of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, which were agreed in July.

Our inquiry resulted from a report by the Social Security Committee that my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who was then Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, had been given a photocopy of a draft report on child benefit. The Committee had been unable to discover how this leak had come about and asked that the matter be placed before the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. The Liaison Committee, which I also chair, considered that the leak represented substantial interference with the work of the Social Security Committee. We have set out in our 10th report the circumstances surrounding the leak, and I shall summarise them for the benefit of the House.

The Social Security Committee met on 10 February to consider a draft report on child benefit. It was agreed during that meeting not to proceed to formal consideration, but to consider a revised draft at a future meeting. The Committee Chairman, the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), invited Committee members to ask Ministers to send Treasury officials to give evidence, and the desirability of enlisting my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn as an intermediary was discussed.

My hon. Friend told the Committee on Standards and Privileges that he was approached by two, or possibly three, members of the Social Security Committee in the course of 9 and 10 February. He asked the first hon. Member who spoke to him for a copy of the draft report so that he could understand the problem better. He received the copy at about tea time on 9 February and read parts of it later the same day. He then had conversations with special advisers at the Treasury about the Treasury's refusal to give evidence before the Committee, but did not discuss the draft report with them or with anyone else. The Treasury contacted the Clerk of the Committee on 11 February to say that it had been agreed that officials should appear on 24 February.

My hon. Friend told us that, in retrospect, he bitterly regretted having asked for a copy of the draft report and apologised unreservedly. He took full responsibility for that action and did not feel that he could name the person who had given him the draft report unless that person gave permission, which he or she had declined to do. Therefore, we concluded that my hon. Friend had to accept the consequences of both initiating the leak by asking for a copy of the draft report and refusing to answer a question put to him by the Committee.

We recommended that my hon. Friend should apologise to the House by means of a personal statement—which he has done—'and that he should be suspended from the service of the House for three sitting days. This recommendation took account of several mitigating circumstances that are outlined in our 10th report; we would otherwise have recommended a longer period of suspension. We had asked every member of the Social Security Committee whether he or she had given my hon. Friend a copy of the draft report: yes or no. All of them said no, so we did not know the identity of the leaker when we agreed the 10th report on 20 July. We noted that the leaker's failure to own up cast a cloud unfairly over the other members of the Social Security Committee and could only damage the Committee's standing in the House.

Before that report was published, my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford) realised that the response that she had made to the Committee's inquiries had not been accurate. She wrote to me on 23 July, stating: I regret to say that I did allow … sight of my copy of the draft child benefit report to Don Touhig MP and I offer my full apologies to you for having done so. The full text of the letter appears in our 11th report.

We welcome the decision of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley to come forward, which has cleared the other members of the Social Security Committee of suspicion. The Committee on Standards and Privileges noted that my hon. Friend is not an experienced Member of Parliament and had been absent for much of the Session through illness. None the less, she aggravated her original serious offence by denying responsibility. The Committee recommended unanimously that she should apologise to the House by means of a personal statement—which she has done—and should be suspended from the service of the House for five sitting days.

It is, of course, of the greatest importance that the work of Select Committees investigating the operation of Government Departments is not obstructed by outside interference. The premature release of a draft report is a most serious matter because outside involvement with the report's conclusions might be attempted at that stage. If there were any suspicion that such practices existed, the standing of our whole Select Committee system could be questioned. We have made these recommendations with those considerations in mind.

It is a matter of great regret to me personally that I should be speaking for the second time this Session recommending that the House should agree to suspend from its service fellow hon. Members whom I know well and respect. However, the Committee agreed unanimously that the penalties were appropriate given the gravity of the offences and the way in which leaks such as this destroy essential trust among Committee members. I should also put on record the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn played a valuable part in the decision of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley to admit her responsibility for, and involvement in, the leak. Therefore, I ask the House to uphold our conclusions and to approve the 10th and 11th reports of the Committee.

2.17 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

This is a sad occasion for the House—debates of this sort always are. I begin by underlining the fact that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges is representative of the whole House and that the reports we are debating were unanimous. I hope that I speak for the whole House when I thank the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who has given long and conspicuous service to the House, for the work that he has done since he became Committee Chairman. He has an onerous responsibility, which he shares with his colleagues and which he discharges with great distinction. We are grateful to him.

I do not want to speak at any length today—certainly not about the two hon. Members involved. I do not have the pleasure of knowing personally the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Kali Mountford). I do know the hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), whom I consider to be an honourable Member of Parliament. He has acknowledged that he made a mistake, as has the hon. Lady, and they have made their apologies to the House. I believe that the House should approve the report and leave it at that as far as those two hon. Members are concerned.

However, this is a serious episode which contains some important lessons for hon. Members on both sides of the House. The comments of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne about the standing of Select Committees are extremely important. Since their establishment in departmental form some 20 years ago this December, Select Committees have performed an important function. However, the Select Committee is only as valuable as its own dispassionate impartiality will allow it to be. If a Select Committee or any of its members views the role of that Committee as being somehow to aid and abet Government, they are misinterpreting its function. It is the job of the Select Committee to hold the Executive to account, to scrutinise and, where appropriate, to criticise. If there is, or there appears to be, collusion between Government and those on the Select Committee, the whole system is undermined.

One can understand that new Members in particular feel a certain degree of over-exuberance or a certain desire to please the Government of the day. Parliamentary Private Secretaries, who occupy a sort of political no-man's-land—they are not Ministers, nor are they Back-Bench Members in the absolute sense of the word because they have a quasi-governmental position—sometimes find their loyalties stretched. Anybody who has been a PPS knows that to be the case. From 1970 to 1973 I was one myself—

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Dr. John Reid)

With enormous distinction.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Yes, indeed, with enormous distinction, as the right hon. Gentleman says.

The fact is that when a Member serves on a Select Committee, he or she must put that duty before all others and when a Member is a PPS, he or she must recognise that it is important that Select Committee members should not in any sense have the impartiality of their inquiry undermined or attacked in any way.

I hope that the Leader of the House, who perfectly understandably moved the motion formally, will respond to the debate. After all, the Government have a role here. They must resist the temptation of either soliciting goods to which they have no entitlement or misusing stolen property if they receive it. Without wanting to expand too much on those points—or you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would rightly call me to order—I would say that there has been a disturbing proliferation of leaks of one sort or another since 1 May 1997 and several of those have involved the work of Select Committees.

In the coming Session, we should all consider the way in which Select Committees are appointed. If their impartiality is to be absolutely beyond question, we must examine their appointment and the role of Government in the nomination of their members. I personally should like a much more independent Committee of Selection deciding who should serve on Select Committees by looking at the credentials of the Members who apply. We want Members nominated to a Select Committee because of their particular expertise or interest in the subject concerned, rather than because they have been nominated by the Whips' Office. [Laughter.] The Secretary of State may laugh, but that is what has happened.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is probably sitting behind me. I am also aware that if he is behind me physically, he will be behind me enthusiastically in the points that I seek to make. My hon. Friend was indeed the victim in a previous incarnation. He had my support then as I know I have his support in making these points now.

It is never too late for a sinner to come to repentance. The fact that we may have appointed Select Committees in certain ways in the past, regardless of who was in government, does not mean that we should not look at the system afresh. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is determined to restore the primacy of Parliament, the centrality of this Chamber and the independence of the instruments that it devises, even if that means temporary discomfiture in future to a Conservative Government. Given the present Government's enormous majority, the Leader of the House could, without any real danger to herself or her colleagues, consider whether it might not be better in the service of this House and of parliamentary democracy to have Select Committees appointed in the way that I suggest.

I do not wish you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to rule me out of order. These points are relevant and have been underlined in the reports to the House by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. We should thank him for what he has done because if any Member has been prepared to be wholly impartial and to put his duties to this House before any others, it is the right hon. Gentleman. We owe him a debt of gratitude for that. His Committee has done the right thing. Although it is always sad when Members are suspended from the service of the House, it is right on this occasion that they should be. We support this report.

2.25 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I endorse a number of the comments made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). Although this is a short debate, I hope that it will be seen to be serious and instructive for the conduct of the House and its business.

I am satisfied from what I have read in the report and from conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Social Security, that there was a genuine attempt by a PPS to be helpful—indeed, it turned out to be helpful, although the request for a Committee paper was mistaken and he has accepted that it was wrong. There was over-enthusiasm on the part of an inexperienced new Member who was also trying to be helpful, but nevertheless was in clear breach of the rules as stated in the copy of the report that she had before her, namely that it should not be disclosed to anybody other than members of the Committee. They have apologised and on the basis of this report, they are being recommended for an appropriate disciplinary measure. They have made statements to the House and we can now draw a line under the matter.

This Parliament is characterised by many new Members and a Government with a large majority, and this matter points to the need for Members to recognise that their job is not just to uphold the Government, which in the case of Labour Members they were elected to support, but that they have a responsibility to Parliament. Indeed, Parliament has a responsibility to call the Executive, whoever they are, effectively to account.

In most cases, the work of a Select Committee is not partisan; there is a genuine attempt to seek consensus. Select Committees probe the effectiveness of Government policy and, in some cases, try to prevent the Government from making mistakes by ensuring that policy is properly scrutinised through calling expert witnesses and questioning the practicalities of Government policy. Clearly, it is not helpful if Government members of Select Committees see protecting the Government as overriding their responsibility to Parliament and the quality of legislation.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I share the hon. Gentleman's views about the need for disinterestedness, impartiality and independence from Government of all Select Committee members. He may recall that, many years ago when we both served on the Scottish Affairs Committee, we consistently and persistently argued the need for such high levels of conduct to the Conservative members who leaked to the then Government so disgracefully.

Mr. Bruce

That is true, but to be fair to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire, whose personal integrity I accept, his comments were sincere. The fact that, in the past, Governments and their supporters have behaved disgracefully should not be used as an excuse or justification for a Government of a different persuasion to behave in that way today. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne for making it clear how strongly the Committee feels. I hope that those elected at the last general election, not just those on the Government side, will accept that their responsibility to Parliament must always override their loyalty to the Government of the day.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Governments tend to put Members on a Select Committee to see how they do. One notices how many Members serve for only a short time on a Select Committee. Indeed, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire has complained about the rapid turnover in the membership of his Committee as, indeed, has the Chairman of the Treasury Committee. Select Committees are seen as a recruiting ground for talent.

The problem is that there is a conflict in the mind of members of Select Committees as to whether their job on the Committee is to please the Government and secure promotion, or to serve Parliament and improve the quality of legislation. It might help if a Government with such a large majority accepted that it would be a good idea to ensure that Committee membership was balanced by experience and parliamentary responsibility, and was not only a recruitment and training ground for Ministers which kept hon. Members quiescent and compliant. A Government with a majority of this size surely do not need quislings on Select Committees to conduct their business—although I am not suggesting that anybody has behaved in that manner.

The serious point is that Select Committees do some of the most effective and respected work of this House. Select Committee reports are read with interest and are seen to be objective. I know that Committee Chairmen strive to secure consensus, but their ability to do so effectively is dependent on the Government majority in those Committees recognising their responsibility to question the Executive and call them reasonably and responsibly to account, and I suggest to the Leader of the House that that is in the best interests of the Government.

On that basis, it is helpful that the report has come to the House, and I hope that many Members who have not been in the House for long will realise that they have a genuine responsibility to consider and will not make similar mistakes.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House—

  1. (i) approves the Tenth and Eleventh Reports of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (HC 747);
  2. (ii) accordingly suspends Mr. Don Touhig, Member for Islwyn, from the service of the House for three sitting days; and
  3. (iii) accordingly suspends Kali Mountford, Member for Colne Valley, from the service of the House for five sitting days.