HC Deb 27 October 1999 vol 336 cc1020-74

[Relevant document: The Report from the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, Session 1998–99 (HC 214-I, II and III).]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dowd.]

3.40 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

We are taking this opportunity to debate the work of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. That Committee was established by both Houses, and the proposal to set it up was sufficiently uncontroversial that it was agreed to, without debate, in July 1997.

The purpose of the Committee was to identify—separately from the continuing work of the Select Committee on Modernisation, but, in the context of privilege—the rights and duties that we need as a modern Parliament. The Joint Committee reported on 30 March this year. Today, the Government thought it right that the House should have the opportunity to give its views on the report.

First, I thank the members of the Joint Committee for all their endeavours. The Chairman, Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead, is a distinguished Law Lord, who devoted considerable time and effort to producing a most thorough report. Most of the Lords who were members of the Committee are respected and experienced former Members of this House—although we do not recognise them so readily from their new titles. They included two former Law Officers, one from each side of the House: Lord Archer of Sandwell and Lord Mayhew of Twysden. There were two former Home Secretaries: Lord Merlyn Rees and Lord Waddington, one from each side of the House. Furthermore, Lord Wigoder played an important part; he is a lawyer of great distinction, and helped to chair the Committee.

Distinguished Members of the House of Commons served on the Committee: my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), my hon. Friends the hon. Members for Bootle (Mr. Benton) and for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie), and the hon. Members for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler). The Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who apologises for being unable to attend the debate this afternoon, was a member of the Committee in her then capacity as Leader of the House.

That collection of experience and wisdom produced the most extensive survey of parliamentary privilege in more than 30 years. The Committee distilled evidence from lawyers and parliamentarians from throughout the Commonwealth. The report is thorough; it was pursued diligently and is well produced. Apart from our focus on the report, it is also receiving much attention in Commonwealth Parliaments—especially in those of the southern hemisphere.

One of the problems that the Committee was unable to resolve related to the term "privilege" itself. The word has connotations of benefit or advantage which are not related to public need or duty. In 1967, when that subject was previously examined, it was recommended that the term be changed to "rights and immunities"—a term which is currently more familiar. However, although the recommendation was made in 1967, it was not pursued and the Joint Committee advises us—correctly—that to use a different term, rather than one that has been used for such a long time, would have little benefit and might cause more confusion. It would seem as though we were making a fundamental change, whereas in fact we are not. However, if anyone feels moved by the spirit of imagination to come up with a different phrase, they can use this opportunity to do so.

The Committee tried to examine what legal protection a modern Parliament really needs. The bottom line of the approach that is needed in these Houses of Parliament is freedom of speech. The great merit of the report is that it focuses attention on that key requirement, and clarifies what it ought to be, but gets rid of much unnecessary extra baggage.

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

My right hon. Friend rightly points out that the Committee had to examine what a modern Parliament really needs. Was it, therefore, sensible that a Law Lord should have been the Chairman of such a Committee? I have nothing against the noble Lord; he is a most able and distinguished person, but was he a suitable choice?

Mrs. Beckett

I can say, with hand on heart, that I had no connection with that matter at the time. I am sure that my right hon. Friend has no intention of impugning the capacity and the work of Lord Nicholls. His question is a legitimate one, but not one which I am in a position to answer.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I was a member of the Joint Committee. I fully understand the concerns raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), with whom I have served on the Public Accounts Committee and the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I have to tell him that, during the 15 months of the Committee's deliberations, we could not have got through the legalistic maze that faced us, or dealt with the matter in an appropriate and logical fashion, had it not been for the work put in by Lord Nicholls. I have great admiration for him and think that he did a great job—indeed, the Committee would still be sitting and floundering had he not been there to guide us. He did not influence our decision, but helped us to see our way through.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and take his point that the combination of someone with legal expertise and experienced parliamentarians gave us the best of both worlds.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Before the Leader of the House leaves it, may I pursue the point raised by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon)? The report states: Parliament needs the right to regulate its own affairs, free from intervention by the government or the courts. The cause of concern is that an over-legalistic approach—one driven by legal niceties rather than a profound appreciation of the broader role of Parliament—might have given rise to some difficulties, and, to that extent, I can understand the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman. Does the Leader of the House have any sympathy with the argument that that might have biased the approach expressed in the report?

Mrs. Beckett

It is not a question whether I have sympathy with that point, which is a perfectly legitimate theoretical point. However, I think that that argument would arise only if one were dissatisfied to a significant extent with the terms of the report. I am not dissatisfied with it; if the right hon. Gentleman is, I am sure it will emerge during our debate.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

Will the Leader of the House give way?

Mr. Alan Williams

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Beckett

If the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) will forgive me, I shall give way to my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West first.

Mr. Williams

Even had the Joint Committee not been set up when it was, it would soon have had to be set up because of the European convention on human rights. The so-called legal niceties have to be observed if we are to conform with that convention, so it was a dominant element in our discussion and Lord Nicholls' guidance helped us in that respect.

Mr. Hawkins

I am grateful—

Madam Speaker

Order. I must ask the Leader of the House to respond to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) before taking another intervention.

Mrs. Beckett

I apologise, Madam Speaker—I was trying to help the hon. Member for Surrey Heath. My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point and I do not dissent from it.

Mr. Hawkins

Without wanting to overelaborate, does the Leader of the House agree that the balance in the Joint Committee's work mentioned by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West is between the sanctity of parliamentary privilege and Parliament's governance of its own affairs and the fact that parliamentary privilege is, of itself, a legal concept? It is because of the legal protection that all of us have as Members of Parliament that the experienced chairmanship of Lord Nicholls was needed.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. However, I should add that, although the understanding and expectations of parliamentary privilege of those outside this place tend, perfectly naturally, to focus on the freedom of speech that it affords to Members of Parliament, it also gives protection to witnesses who come to give evidence to Parliament—for example, to Select Committees—and enables them to give their evidence without fear or intimidation from those who might dislike what they have to say. The freedom of speech that lies at the heart of parliamentary privilege is not for Members of Parliament alone, but extends to those who inform our discussions.

The principle that underlies that is enshrined in article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, which states: freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament". The Joint Committee has recommended that that article, which is a powerful protection, should be confined to activities that justify so high a degree of protection and that the boundaries within which it can be exercised should be made clear. That would involve new statutory definitions of "proceedings in Parliament" and "place out of Parliament". It also recommended that section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996, which enables an individual Member of Parliament to waive privilege, should be repealed so that it can be replaced by a provision for the House to waive privilege in cases where there is no risk of legal liability for someone who makes a statement in Parliament.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

That point troubled me when I looked at the report. If the House chose to waive privilege in respect of something that a Member had said which, at that point, would not give rise to any legal liability, does it remain possible that the material to which the removed privilege applied could subsequently become subject to a court action?

Mrs. Beckett

That is certainly not impossible. The hon. Gentleman may later wish to discuss the issues raised with some of those, of whom sadly I was not one, who served on the Committee. I understand that the issues were exhaustively thrashed out and that the Committee tried to come to the right balance and achieve a proper degree of protection.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

indicated assent.

Mrs. Beckett

I see that the hon. Gentleman, who was on the Committee, is nodding. The Committee wanted proper protection, but wanted it to be exercised by the House as a whole.

The second core principle underlying the principle of privilege has been the right of Parliament to control its own affairs. The Joint Committee has proposed—and I think that all hon. Members will agree—that the right of each House to administer its own affairs within its own precincts should be confined to activities that are directly and closely related to proceedings in Parliament. The corollary is that Parliament should not, as has been the case in the past, be a statute-free zone on matters such as health and safety. That will be recognised and welcomed by many hon. Members. The Committee also recommends that while the House should retain its jurisdiction over its own Members, its power to punish non-Members for contempt should be transferred to the courts.

Among the privileges that we have all, at least in theory, enjoyed for several years, although mostly without exercising them, are freedom from arrest in civil cases and protection from the service of civil writs by post. In the Lords, there has been similar provision under privilege of peerage. There has also been a lack of clarity about whether peers unfortunate enough to be detained under mental health legislation are thereby disqualified from sitting and voting. The Joint Committee has done us all a useful service in identifying the fact that many of those provisions have fallen into desuetude, are no longer necessary and need not be preserved in our rules and proceedings.

I am on slightly delicate territory because I was not a member of the Committee and because it reported to Parliament, rather than to the Government. I hope that it will not be thought presumptuous of me to give an idea of the approach that the Government are minded to take to the report before I have had the opportunity to listen to the debate. Because it is addressed to Parliament rather than the Government, I propose not to go into detailed, line by line comment, but to summarise the Government's approach to the report with which, I am happy to say, we broadly agree.

The report's 39 recommendations cover a range of issues, including freedom of speech, bribery, control of Parliament's own affairs, disciplinary powers and the handling of parliamentary papers. The Government broadly concur with the vast majority of the recommendations.

There are just two small proposals by the proposals of the Joint Committee that might need a little closer examination and to which we hope that the House will give further thought. The Joint Committee's logic on both issues is clear; I do not quarrel with that. The issue is whether it is necessary in practice to go quite as far as it suggests.

The first proposal is that the power to imprison Members, which has been long unused, should be replaced by a power to fine. That is set out in paragraphs 276 to 279 of the report. The House is well aware that the suspension of a Member now carries an automatic loss of salary for the period concerned. That was not, I think, the case and was not so fresh in Members' minds when the Joint Committee undertook its consideration. Of course, the punishments of admonishment or, ultimately, even of expulsion remain. I admit that I am not certain that we also need, in those circumstances, a power to fine Members of Parliament for misconduct over and above the financial penalty that suspension carries.

Mr. Alan Williams

May I explain our thinking? It is not correct to suggest that the Joint Committee was not aware of that point, because we considered the existing position in detail. However, we felt that the suspension of a Member also punished his constituents, who would be deprived of his or her services in the House. On other occasions, suspension may not be relevant. We have a limited range of penalties available to us. As the current Chairman and other members—myself included—of the Joint Committee will, I hope, tell my right hon. Friend, we find it difficult to find appropriate gradations for the penalties. We are trying to be fairer, not more draconian.

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely accept my right hon. Friend's point. I apologise, because I did not think that the Committee had considered the matter so recently that it would be, as I said, fresh in its members' minds. I understand that there are a variety of circumstances; no doubt other Members may touch on this issue during the debate.

I take my right hon. Friend's point that there is a distinction between the financial penalty to Members and their opportunity to serve their constituents. However, I find it a little hard to envisage the circumstances in which the House might wish to fine a Member without considering the option of suspension. I flag up that point, because the Committee has done a thorough job of clearing away powers that are thought to be no longer necessary. Although I accept that the Joint Committee considered this issue at some length, the question is whether the power is needed. That is a matter for the House to consider.

The second issue that I wish to flag up is the recommendation in paragraph 267, which suggests that the breach of an embargo on the publication of a Committee report should be treated as a contempt. Again, we have seen Standards and Privileges Committee reports directed precisely at such matters in the recent past, and I am sure that such an approach will have a strong deterrent effect. I am not entirely sure that much more can be achieved by seeking further to punish those who publish leaks. Indeed, I would be a little nervous of venturing into this territory, but, again, it is a matter that may be raised in the debate.

Mr. Alan Williams

I am sorry to intervene again, but I would like to clarify the matter. We spent 15 months considering the issues, so my memory may be at fault. However, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) may recollect what happened. I believe that this particular provision was imported from the Scotland Act 1998.

Mrs. Beckett

I freely confess to my right hon. Friend that not every word of the Scotland Act is etched on my memory. [HON. MEMBERS: "Shame."] It is a shameful thing to admit, but I thought that I had better do so.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

It is not a sackable offence.

Mrs. Beckett

That is just as well. However, my right hon. Friend may be right. If he is, that will emerge in the course of this or other discussions.

One of the main reasons for setting up the Joint Committee was for Parliament to produce a response to proposals by the Home Office for a new law dealing with corruption. The issue there was how the rare cases—they are rare indeed—of bribery involving Members of Parliament or peers should be dealt with because of the unsatisfactory state of the current law. The Joint Committee recommended—the Government entirely agree—that Members of Parliament and peers should be treated in the same way as other citizens and should be subject to a new corruption statute. The Law Commission has produced a draft Bill on the matter and the Government will obviously look to introduce it when legislative time permits.

The Joint Committee acknowledged—it is right and important that it did—the difficulties that are faced by people involved in public life and the fact that they are more vulnerable to mistaken or malicious allegation. It was against the background of that recognition that the Joint Committee nevertheless recommended that Members be brought within the scope of the statute law on bribery. That has to be the correct judgment.

I welcome, however, the further safeguard that the Joint Committee recommended that consent for prosecutions under the new legislation should require the consent of the Attorney-General. The Government accept that recommendation. Obviously, we all expect and hope that such cases will be few and far between. Indeed, let us hope that, in the years to come, that is another aspect of our safeguards and provisions which will wither away and will no longer be needed. When corruption legislation can be introduced, we anticipate that it will contain such a safeguard.

The report recommends that we have a parliamentary privileges Act. Some of the recommendations made could be implemented in other legislation or, indeed, not necessarily in primary legislation but by resolutions of the House or by administrative action. However, it seems to the Government that the bulk of the reforms proposed could not be put in place fully without a new Bill.

Equally, however, such a Bill has to compete with other priorities for legislative time, and I cannot at this stage promise the House early action. Obviously, the Government will consider how such legislation might be introduced. Perhaps this is just such an issue on which a draft Bill might well be prepared. It is exactly the sort of matter that might well benefit from pre-legislative scrutiny.

This is a further good example of recognising the importance to the smooth working of Parliament of ensuring that our fundamental rules on rights and duties, as well as other aspects of our work, are kept up to date to meet modern needs. The Joint Committee has given us a thorough and incisive report. This is the first opportunity for the House to express its views. Although I have given a preliminary indication of the Government's reaction to the report and what it proposes, I obviously undertake that we will take into account what is said in this debate before work continues to implement it.

4.2 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

I thank the President of the Council and Leader of the House for what she said and for the tone of her remarks. I also thank her for finding this opportunity to debate this important report before the end of the Session and for responding positively to the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.

It would be very wrong not to pay a tribute at the outset to the right hon. Lady's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who is now the Patronage Secretary. The Joint Committee was set up on her initiative. She was a most diligent attender at our meetings and she played a full part in our discussions not as Leader of the House, or subsequently as Patronage Secretary, but as a parliamentarian. Everyone who was present on the Committee appreciated that.

As the President of the Council and Leader of the House said, the Joint Committee first met on 20 November 1997. We had about 33 formal meetings and various informal meetings. We met for the last time on 23 February. To take up a point made in an intervention by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), all of us on the Joint Committee, without exception, felt that we were fortunate to serve under the chairmanship of Lord Nicholls, who chaired our deliberations with good humour.

It would be dishonest to pretend that there was not, on occasion, a degree of creative tension between the parliamentarians and the Law Lords, but, nevertheless, it was a constructive tension and we came up with a report to which we were all glad to sign our names. It would be wrong not to thank Lord Nicholls, not only for the manner in which he chaired the Joint Committee, but for the enormous amount of time that he put into it, both at meetings and between meetings.

As the Leader of the House said, this is, first and last, a parliamentary matter. When the House finally comes to decide on the Committee's recommendations, it will do so on the basis of free votes. I am sure that the right hon. Lady would agree with that. It was therefore right that party politics should play no part in the Committee's deliberations, and they certainly did not. I should be surprised if they did in this debate.

Although I am speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, I was also a member of the Committee, I have a personal interest in the implementation of the report, and I hope that a report that was agreed to unanimously by a Committee of both Houses will commend itself to the majority of colleagues in this House.

The Leader of the House implied a positive response. It would have been rather embarrassing for the current Patronage Secretary had she said otherwise. I am delighted that the Leader of the House said what she said, and I welcome in particular her suggestion that we should have a draft Bill. If any subject lends itself to consideration in that way, it is this one. Her reservations seemed to be mainly on points of detail. I understand that, and I shall deal with some of them.

It is good to have a positive response from the Government, especially as so many of the changes require legislation. Other changes do not, and I shall touch on some of them.

The right hon. Lady said that the subject aroused interest far beyond this Parliament. Apart from our 14 sessions of oral evidence, when we had some Commonwealth witnesses, we received a great deal of written material, much of it from Commonwealth Parliaments, mainly in Australia. Their wealth of experience was valuable to us as we came to formulate our recommendations, because a number of those Parliaments have a system similar to our own. The Australian Federal Parliament has already enacted a modern Parliamentary Privileges Act, which we considered, and two Australian states—Western Australia and Queensland—still derive their privileges directly from the privileges of this Parliament.

Mr. Sheldon

With reference to Western Australia, I had the advantage of meeting not only the officers of the Western Australian Parliament, but some of the Members. There were grave misgivings about the work that has been done so far by Lord Nicholls's Committee.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have a high regard, will acquaint us with some of those misgivings during the debate. I shall listen, as I know the right hon. Lady and others will, with particular care to what he says. No one would pretend that the report is perfect; no report ever is. However, for reasons that I shall explain, I believe that it is a good and positive report. It makes proposals that the House would do well to consider carefully.

There has been great interest throughout the Commonwealth since the report was published. It is slightly disappointing that not much attention has been focused on it in the House or among those who comment on the affairs of this place and who study our proceedings.

The report deals with some of the fundamental constitutional issues that concern, or ought to concern, every hon. Member: the proper relationship between Parliament and the courts; the extent to which Members of Parliament need immunity from the law to fulfil their duties to their constituents; and the reconciling of the rights of the individual citizen with the collective interest of the nation in having a free and effective Parliament. Perhaps as we begin our debate on these issues, those who are truly interested in a vigorous and free Parliament and a free nation will comment on these matters.

At the beginning of the Committee's inquiry, there might have been some who were tempted to throw away a system so dependent on ancient statute and practice, and to start again. However, the moment one looks at the matter closely, the more clearly one realises that the core privileges of Parliament are as central to our constitution today as they ever were. An attempt to invent a new set of powers would create much constitutional and legal uncertainty. I agree with those who say that there is some dead wood to be got rid of, but the essentials of what we have are vital to democracy and to parliamentary sovereignty. As the report says: Parliamentary privilege is founded on the principle that the proper conduct of Parliamentary business without fear or favour, let of hindrance, requires that Parliament shall be answerable for the conduct of its affairs to the public as a whole, and specifically in the case of the House of Commons, to the electorate. It must be free from, and protected from, outside intervention. Parliament is sovereign over its own business. The Committee strongly endorses that view. Tradition is important. We should take what is tried and tested and build from there. That is what the Committee sought to do.

The Leader of the House quoted article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, which encapsulates the privilege of freedom of speech—our fundamental freedom. Many Members have long supported a new statutory definition that would give both Parliament and the courts detailed guidance on what is included in the term "proceedings in Parliament". That was a recommendation of the 1967 House of Commons Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, and several other Select Committees have since made similar recommendations, but the traditional parliamentary view has been that broader legislation would ossify privilege and involve the courts increasingly in dealing with privilege matters. I am bound to say that listening to the evidence caused us to modify that view.

The courts are constantly reinterpreting privilege in one context or another and the development of judicial review over the past decade has been rapid. Rightly or wrongly, Ministers no longer simply have to answer to this place for their decisions, but are subject to judicial review. Appreciable inroads have been made into the traditional interpretation of article 9, which tells the courts not to impeach or question what is done in Parliament. Sometimes judicial interpretation of ancient statute might be a good thing. It is easy to contend, for instance, that the Lords decision in Pepper v. Hart, which permitted the courts to look at our debates when interpreting statute, furthers Parliament's intentions. It may be that, to give justice to the individual, the courts need to use parliamentary proceedings more, but, crucially, those developments should not undermine parliamentary sovereignty.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

Will my hon. Friend perhaps reserve his judgment in the case of Pepper v. Hart, which leads a number of disputed issues into the long grass of legal research? As two litigants shape up to each other, each has to comb through every parliamentary stage of every relevant statute to see what Ministers said in aid of the interpretation of that statute. Is not Pepper v. Hart a burden on the public good will?

Sir Patrick Cormack

That is a valid point of view, but we have had the Pepper v. Hart decision in which Lord Browne-Wilkinson made the point that what they were seeking to do would not in any sense erode parliamentary privilege. Rather, they were trying to establish what Parliament intended and whether it had been carried out. I made my remarks in that context alone. Perhaps many people wish that Pepper v. Hart had never happened.

Mr. Taylor

I may be entirely on my own in the House in wishing that that result had not come about, but I happen to think that English statute should be interpreted at face value—on what the words mean rather than what Parliament intended. The pursuit of what Parliament intended could be endless—it is labyrinthine. Would it not be simpler for our citizens, particularly our litigating citizens, to look at the statute and say, "What do these words mean?" instead of, "What on earth was Parliament thinking of?"

Sir Patrick Cormack

As I said, my hon. Friend has a point. However, we cannot put the clock back: we have had Pepper v. Hart, and we are where we are. The Committee had to recognise that fact.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

I think that the judgment was right. In future, Ministers will have to do their homework correctly and ensure that what they are saying in the Chamber is what will appear in statute. Surely that is a good thing.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I think that we could all say amen to that.

Mr. Sheldon

Before the hon. Gentleman says amen to that, I should tell him that I was involved in the beginning of Pepper v. Hart, as one of my interventions, in a debate on a Finance Bill, led to the case. The then Opposition had perhaps the most talented Front-Bench line-up that we have ever known—most of them were subsequently appointed to Cabinet—and by whom I was being pursued for my interpretation. Being a reasonable person—happy to help in any way that I could—I gave them my interpretation. The matter was pursued again and again, and, finally, led to Pepper v. Hart.

As soon as I heard about the case, I scrambled to see what it was that I had said, and, luckily, found that it was justifiable. However, the consequence has been that Ministers should be very careful about what they say, and may not be quite so helpful in the future as a Minister was able to be in the past.

Sir Patrick Cormack

That is a very important point, which was recognised by all Committee members, and on which we had a long discussion.

Hon. Members must control the way in which we conduct our business. This House must be the place where the Government are called to account on behalf of those whom we represent. The courts must not take over Parliament's role. To ensure that that happens, we believe that a firmer and clearer boundary must be drawn. However, there is no guarantee that the courts would take any notice of the resolutions of the House. We do not lock up judges any more. I therefore welcome the Government's recognition that the Committee was right when we suggested that a new statute is needed to address the issue.

If the courts need to be restrained in any drift towards becoming legislators, we in Parliament must realise that modern standards of fairness, including the fundamental right to a fair trial, mean that the House is not entirely suited to a judicial role in dealing with serious contempts of Parliament.

Mr. Bercow

To what extent does my hon. Friend believe that the aspiration that he has just expressed, that judicial interference should be prevented or minimised, has been compromised by passage of the Human Rights Act 1998?

Sir Patrick Cormack

My hon. Friend tempts me down a long and circuitous road. I am—as I said very clearly in Committee—one of those who are not at all happy about the Act's implications. Again, however, we have to face the realities as they are. Much as I personally regret it—I am speaking personally, and only personally—the Act is there, and we have to recognise that fact.

Mr. Forth

Until we can change it.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Yes, but that will not be for a year or two yet.

Much is often made of Parliament's ancient power to commit anyone to prison for a serious contempt. However, that has not happened since 1880. Does anyone seriously contemplate that the House, without due process of law, would do it now? [Interruption.] Some hon. Members may wish that we could. However, in the unlikely circumstances that it should ever be necessary, surely it would be better done through the judicial process.

Statute law may even have a part to play in making our own proceedings effective. One of the most important developments in the past 20 years has been the use of Select Committees to scrutinise Government and to examine issues of public interest. Yet the ancient power to send for persons, papers and records is uncertain in scope and effect. The new delegated legislatures in Scotland and Wales, which we have created, have been given statutory powers by this House to require the production of persons and papers. Those powers are supported by procedures of enforcement by the courts. That seemed to the Joint Committee to be a suitable model for the United Kingdom Parliament to copy.

Transferring disciplinary powers over its own members to courts would undermine the House's authority and create the risk of undesirable conflict between Parliament and the courts. That is one area which must be for Parliament alone. I share some of the reservations of the Leader of the House about giving the House power to fine its Members. The subject occupied us for long debates in Committee. The Committee intended the provision as a substitute for the power to imprison, which some would be surprised to know that we can still claim to have. I very much doubt whether either power is really needed. I understand and, to an extent, share the right hon. Lady's reservations.

Mr. Bill Michie

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that sometimes when Members of Parliament have to be disciplined, it is better to hit their pocket than to give them a day off?

Sir Patrick Cormack

That is a valid point of view and we discussed it in Committee, as the hon. Gentleman well knows. I subscribe to the report, but, as he knows, I had reservations on that issue, as did some others. When a Committee seeks to arrive at a generally accepted conclusion there are always some aspects of the report with which individuals agree more strongly than others. I was merely picking up the point made by the Leader of the House and saying that I understand her reservation and, to an extent, I share it.

I am surprised that the Bill to reform the law of corruption appears to have been put on the back burner. The Home Secretary strongly pressed the Committee to hurry its findings. Perhaps the Leader of the House or the Minister who winds up will tell us whether the final version of the Bill has been drafted. The Law Commission produced a draft Bill at the beginning of last year—indeed, we included it in the report. Where do we stand now? The report accepts that in cases of alleged bribery it is appropriate that Members should not have the benefit of article 9 of the Bill of Rights. I am glad that the Leader of the House accepts the Committee's unanimous recommendation that in such cases the Attorney-General's consent must be given before a prosecution can be brought. The Committee, which included two former Attorneys-General and two former Home Secretaries, came to its view, conscious of the fact that Members of Parliament are vulnerable to malicious or misguided allegations.

A key recommendation of the report, to which the right hon. Lady referred, is the repeal of section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996 and its replacement with a broader power of waiver to be exercised by the Speaker, advised by a small Committee of senior Members. To recommend the repeal of a provision so recently enacted requires justification. My hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) expressed some concern about that. I shall try to explain why the Committee came to its view.

The intention of section 13 is to remedy an accepted unsatisfactory situation. Article 9 of the Bill of Rights prevents a court from examining those actions that form part of proceedings in Parliament—speeches, questions, motions and investigations of Select Committees. Before section 13 was enacted, article 9 prevented a Member from calling evidence about proceedings to demonstrate that an alleged libel had been committed and prevented a defendant from calling evidence about proceedings to prove that his allegations were true. Where a case was dependent on such evidence, either the parties did not proceed, or if they did, the judge stayed the proceedings of the court. That has always been so, but, in this litigious and media-dominated age, that has rightly been perceived to be intolerable.

Section 13 was intended to allow an hon. Member to waive part of the House's protection from the scrutiny of proceedings by the courts to allow proceedings relating to him to be examined in court in a libel action. However, section 13 was drafted and enacted quickly in the charged atmosphere of a particular case. The House will know the history and it is summarised in the report from paragraph 60 onwards.

I am tempted to quote the aphorism, "Hard cases make bad law", but I am not concerned with the Hamilton v. Al Fayed action. If I were, you would doubtless stop me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the case is set to begin on 15 November and our own current sub judice rule prevents us from discussing it today. I am concerned not with that case, but with section 13 itself.

The section has a number of defects. It does not extend just to present or past Members of either House. It could be used by a witness, a petitioner, an Officer of either House, the adviser to a Select Committee or perhaps a lobbyist—any of them could in certain circumstances waive his privilege in a libel action without the House having any opportunity to judge whether Parliament would be damaged by the case continuing. Section 13, therefore, undermines the very concept of parliamentary privilege, which belongs not to any one of us, but collectively to the House. Our privileges have grown up on the basis that they are collective; they are the privileges of Parliament and not the perquisite of individual Members. It is also anomalous, as the report points out in paragraph 61, that under section 13 a waiver applies simply to defamation and to nothing else.

The Committee sought an alternative that would maintain the merits of section 13, but present fewer legal difficulties and would ensure that the privilege that belongs to Parliament is controlled by Parliament. We therefore recommended that section 13 should be replaced by a power for each House to waive article 9 for the purpose of any court proceedings, and not simply for defamation, where the words spoken or acts done in proceedings in Parliament would not expose the speaker of the words or the doer of the act to legal liability. That was a key point.

In order to keep decisions outside the political arena, the Joint Committee recommended the appropriate machinery for determining whether a waiver should be given might in this House be the Speaker assisted by the advice of a small Committee. It suggested that the Committee might include the Leader of the House, the shadow Leader of the House, the Attorney-General and one or more representatives of other parties with the power to co-opt Members either generally or for a particular case. The presumption would be that a waiver would be granted unless there were overriding parliamentary reason for not so doing and some examples of where a waiver might be refused are set out in paragraph 80 of the report.

I emphasise that a waiver is not a total waiver of article 9 any more than section 13 is. There would be no question of legal liability for anyone for what he said or did in Parliament. The only exception where the operation of article 9 would be totally removed would be on a criminal charge of bribery under the proposed corruption Bill to which I referred a few moments ago.

The report contains many detailed recommendations. I shall deal with just two and then briefly summarise some of the rest. There is a good case to be made in principle for defining proceedings in Parliament in a statute to include Members' correspondence with Ministers and constituents. Previous Committees, including the Select Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1967 and the Privileges Committee in 1977 recommended such a change.

The issue is difficult, and the reasons for the Joint Committee's rejection of the idea are set out in the report. We were impressed by evidence on the extent to which the development of qualified privilege in law protects hon. Members who are acting without malice pursuant to their parliamentary duty.

There are certainly strong arguments in favour of absolute protection. We should take careful note of the subject in this debate and those that may follow. I would be interested to hear whether colleagues think that we have got it right or that privilege should be extended.

I was concerned by the Committee's conclusions on subpoenas and I needed a great deal of persuasion before I accepted them. The recommendation is that the two Houses should no longer claim the absolute right to refuse to answer a subpoena, but that subpoenas should not be issued without a judge's consent. Again, the case is carefully set out in the report, but, again, I would be interested to hear what both Government and Opposition Members have to say about the proposal.

Mrs. Beckett

I did not flag up the matter in particular in my speech, but let me return the hon. Gentleman's earlier courtesy by saying that I have some sympathy with his observations. I well recall occasions in recent years when members of the previous Government were threatened with being called to give evidence in various cases. I do not recall the individual circumstances, but it was clearly a ploy. I recognise that the Committee has made the important safeguard that a judge would have to agree, but—I hope that I am not in breach of any of the obligations of the House in saying this—I am not as confident as I would like to be that every judge would see things in quite the way that we do here.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady for reinforcing my reservations.

The Leader of the House referred to future legislation, but there are many recommendations that do not involve legislation. This is a matter for the House, as she rightly said, but I should be grateful if she or the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office would tell us whether the Government are prepared to find time for those recommendations to be debated or are sympathetic to them.

Paragraph 14 is concerned with ensuring that rules and conventions concerning standards of conduct are in readily accessible form capable of being understood by the public.

Paragraph 15 is concerned with the implementation of a new sub judice rule as set out in paragraph 202. That is a very important matter. I do not in any way challenge the Chair, but, time and again over the past year, the Speaker has felt obliged to prevent our discussing a long-running case because of our current sub judice rule. I should be interested to hear the Government's reaction to the possibility of a change.

Paragraph 18 advocates the production of advisory guides for Members of both Houses on the exercise of the privilege of freedom of speech. We have had some worrying examples of hon. Members perhaps too lightly using the freedom that the Chamber gives them to make all sorts of unsubstantiated allegations to which people can have no adequate and proper response. The report dismisses the idea of giving some sort of reply via Hansard. We did not think that that was practical or sensible, but we believe that the onus is therefore all the greater on the Member to realise just what a privilege freedom of speech is. We hope that that recommendation will find favour.

Paragraph 20 says that it should be made clear in every new statute that it applies to Parliament unless Parliament has been specifically excluded.

Paragraph 22 calls for the drawing up of a clear statement of parliamentary rights and powers, and urges that this, together with a statement of their own rights, should be given to all potential witnesses coming before parliamentary Committees. Paragraph 23 asks the Procedure Committee to examine and report on the desirability of maintaining the conventions that one House cannot compel the attendance of a Member of the other.

Paragraph 28 is concerned with the disciplinary powers of the House over its Members, and with the exercise of those powers by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, of which the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) is such a distinguished Chairman. His views on that matter will be particularly interesting.

We made a clear recommendation on leaks, to which the Leader of the House referred. Here is the one occasion when I cannot find myself able to applaud what she said, as I believe that our recommendation is particularly pertinent in light of recent events. Some of us will have found her reply not only disappointing but, frankly, inadequate. I hope that she will think again, and that the Minister will deal with the subject when he replies to the debate.

One final legislative point has urgency. One consequence of the two Houses taking charge of their own affairs was the Parliamentary Corporate Bodies Act 1992, establishing the Clerks of the two Houses as corporate officers to make contracts on behalf of the two Houses. Circumstances could well arise—and, in one recent case, very nearly did—where, because the relevant proceedings on contracts are sometimes considered in domestic Committees, which are Select Committees, article 9 of the Bill of Rights prevents the court from considering the Committee's proceedings. This could seriously prejudice the case put by the House, and could be financially costly in some cases. Perhaps the Minister could indicate whether the Government plan any action to remedy this situation by accepting our recommendations.

The report is the fullest examination of the issue of parliamentary privilege for many years. I believe that it makes sensible and, in some cases, far-reaching recommendations which will modernise and safeguard parliamentary privilege for the new century. I am sorry if I have gone on rather long, but this is an important matter which should concern every Member of Parliament. I hope that this will be the first of many debates as we proceed to discuss in detail the Committee's recommendations and, where appropriate, to legislate upon them.

I hope that all Members will agree that the report illustrates the value of Joint Committees of both Houses looking in detail and in depth over a long period at important subjects.

4.37 pm
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I intend to be brief, as the key points have been touched on and I wish to amplify only one or two.

I have already paid my respects to the noble Lord Nicholls for his admirable work in chairing the Committee, and I associate myself with the thanks expressed by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) to the Patronage Secretary, who was fully committed to the work of the Committee.

May I also—if it does not embarrass him—congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire? We did not always agree, but we always argued constructively and amicably. Both of us recognised that the other was trying to argue in the best interests of this House, and that no party politics were involved.

Privilege was a mishmash and a mess. Much of it was out of date and irrelevant, and it was time to try to clear things up. That is why we needed the help of the noble Lord. Throughout our work, our overriding consideration was that freedom of speech in the House is inviolate and must be protected at all costs.

I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Having committed about 15 months to the work of the Committee, it is gratifying that, whatever the House may decide, the Government can go along with 37 of our 39 proposals. There is one "maybe" and another recommendation on which the Government will, I hope, check the Scotland Act 1998 before the Minister replies. They will then find what we said about Parliament's recent decision on the Scottish Parliament, and whether we said that we could not have less defence for our own privileges in this House.

I shall first consider the issue of penalties. In addressing our discussions in the Standards and Privileges Committee, I have tried to draw on my experience of the old-style Committee in the previous Parliament and of the new Committee, under the chairmanship of my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). He can speak for the Committee better than I can, but we have been constrained in imposing penalties after we have found that an offence has been committed.

If we suspend a Member for a week, that leads to a £900 fine. We might feel that a £900 fine is enough in itself. Why should not we be able to impose such a fine and allow a Member of Parliament to continue to go about his work in the House? For more serious offences, we could impose a suspension, which of course would incorporate the fine. We do not request more draconian powers, and the House could impose limits on the level of fines. All we suggest is a change that would make it easier for the Committee to reach conclusions when dealing with individual cases, which all have different niceties and qualifying factors. The present system does not allow us to take those into account, which is why I support the proposal for fines.

Mr. Brady

Did the Committee consider the fact that a sum may have different value to different Members of Parliament, but a suspension from the House is an equal punishment for all Members?

Mr. Williams

It is also a punishment for constituents. We still have to work on the standard of living value of the fine, although perhaps we are being over-generous to Opposition Members, most of whom would probably find the fines less onerous than most Labour Members. However, it would be dangerous to apply subjective evaluations in that case.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), a former Attorney-General, is in his place. He will remember, as do I, the cash for questions case in the previous Parliament. I still look back on that session of the Committee with no pride. Suspension can become a political punishment. Over the past 30 years, we have had Governments with small or non-existent majorities. In such cases, suspension may become a politicised punishment. Many of my hon. Friends who have served on the Committee may disagree with me, but I look back on the cash for questions case with a degree of shame—not because of the decision that we made, but because of the incredible and unjustifiable time that we kept the hon. Members involved hanging around while the two sides of the Committee sparred before reaching a decision. The fact that the decision was being made in the run-up to an election, and might have involved suspensions, coloured the thinking. I may be doing an injustice to hon. Members, but I think that we were unfair to two of our colleagues, even though our decision about the penalty was fair.

In the same way, I think that the House should be able to look after its own affairs. I hope that the distinction does not sound trivial, but we must distinguish between the club rules that, any organisation might have, and the criminal activity that, in other circumstances, could lead to imprisonment. Members of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege work according to the tribunal criteria, under which guilt is assessed according to the balance of evidence. We do not use the far tighter criminal requirement that guilt be established beyond all reasonable doubt.

I was involved in the Hamilton case, in which I consider that the Committee reached the correct conclusion. The Committee's ruling made it clear that the conclusion had been reached on the lesser criteria of the balance of the evidence received.

Although I pay tribute to the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, I recognise the constraints within which she has to operate. Even with the commissioner, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege does not have the investigative capability to investigate more serious offences, such as corruption, which attract much more serious consequences.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne will remember, the previous commissioner had advice from a solicitor. In evidence, that solicitor said that he was struck by the fact that the Committee's investigative capability was far below that of the police. For that reason, I had no trouble in concluding that the more serious matters, such as corruption, should go before the courts.

I do not regard membership of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege as a privilege. Judging colleagues is no fun. One makes friends among hon. Members of all parties, with whom one has to mix for several years. Given that one has to deal with people whom one has known for many years, there is a risk that one's judgment might be coloured. That is only human, although I think that the Committee is, in fact, incredibly objective. People would be made to stand down from a jury if they had the same relationship with a defendant as we have with the people who appear before us.

The Government asked for our opinion on corruption and bribery. I believe that we should make such serious offences matters for the courts. It would be a pity if that recommendation were to be sidelined, but we shall have to await confirmation of that.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, and I apologise to the Leader of the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) for not being present to hear much of their speeches.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) has touched on the question of bribery and corruption. I quite agree that Members of Parliament of either House should be exposed to prosecution for such offences, if there is a proper case to answer. However, does he share my recognition that the question of what is said in either House—the question of freedom of speech—raises very difficult and important issues indeed? If I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope to be able to describe them in more detail later.

Mr. Williams

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is correct and the House must consider those matters.

I recall that a former distinguished Member of this House—Lord Merlyn-Rees—asked throughout the Committee's 15 months of investigation: "Tell me, Mr. Chairman, as I look back over all my years in the House of Commons, why on earth would it have been worth anyone's while to bribe me?" There is a myth about the power exercised by the ordinary Member of Parliament.

Mr. Bill Michie

We might describe that as a trades descriptions problem.

Mr. Williams


I am glad that the Leader of the House has accepted our recommendation that the House should no longer be exempt from health and safety requirements and other such matters. Exemption has presented problems for officials in the House taking legal action over contracts. It has also come close to costing Members dear. When the Public Accounts Committee was chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, it examined fire risk in public buildings and the absence of fire licences in some Whitehall buildings, including, most interestingly, the part of the Home Office that then housed those responsible for licensing.

I discovered that the House had no licence, and I met the newly appointed fire officer, who told me the likely consequences. I shall not go into them in detail because they might make some Members uncomfortable about being in their offices. The officer told me that in one part of the building, if a fire blocked the single stairway, the escape route involved going out of a window on to a parapet, edging along it and climbing on to a neighbouring roof. Hon. Members may note around the building previously bricked-up doors that have since been opened to gain us a lower grade of fire licence.

The situation was absurd. People who worked here were not given the legal protection to which they were entitled. Nor was the House as safe a place as it should be in which to work or—as we virtually do—to live.

4.53 pm
Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

It is with great pleasure that I say that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege has done a very thorough and complete job and we would all wish to thank hon. Members on both sides for their work.

I did not entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) when he said that he thought that privilege had been a mishmash. That was not so, and nor is it so now. In fact, the greatest of our privileges is freedom of speech, which has been guaranteed since 1689 when article 9 of the Bill of Rights made it absolutely clear, in words that bear repeating, that freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament". That absolute privilege is of the greatest importance in a democracy. In many nations, autocratic and dictatorial regimes make it clear that any major criticism of them—in Parliament or not—will get people quickly into prison. Members of Parliament have the right of freedom of speech, which, incidentally and rather amusingly, was secured mainly through the work of our forebears and the pressure applied by peers in another place. However, we will not go into that in this debate.

I shall raise four specific points. When I was Chairman of the Procedure Committee—I held the post for 14 years—these matters arose more frequently than any other, so we must try to rectify any problems now or in the draft Bill. I refer hon. Members to the sub judice rule, which will always be a point of contention. Page 52 of the report states clearly that the sub judice rule is reasonable and proper. The rule provides that matters awaiting adjudication in a court of law should not be brought forward when it would make it more difficult for justice to be served. However, paragraph 191 states: On the other hand, Parliament has a constitutional right to discuss any matters it pleases. The limitations imposed by the sub judice rule is, and can be, damaging. It is not unreasonable to refer in this context to the Pinochet case, which has been much on our minds of late. It is madness that, although all the media and every man, woman and child can debate that case time and again, the sub judice rule prevents Members of Parliament even from considering it. I do not believe that that is right in today's world.

It is immensely difficult—as I am sure the Leader of the House will acknowledge—to attempt to put into words exactly how the sub judice rule must work in every case. However, Madam Speaker has the power to make that decision and I suggest—if I may be so bold—that she should enforce the sub judice rule much more leniently than she has done recently.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I refer my right hon. Friend to paragraph 202—which I mentioned briefly in passing—in which he will see that the Committee has attempted to frame a resolution that addresses the points of concern that he and I share.

Sir Peter Emery

My hon. Friend should not think that I have not looked at paragraphs 202 and 200, which are the key to the recommendations. However, as it is so difficult to describe the rule, its interpretation will rest with Madam Speaker. I urge her to be—I will not say more modern as that is perhaps unkind—slightly more pliable in her application of that rule. Perhaps we might even go further. Although it might be right to make such a ruling initially, if a matter continues for a long time and there is wider discussion, Madam Speaker might feel it right to give way on that initial judgment.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the difficulties with the sub judice rule—especially in the Pinochet case—is that the House might want to explore matters related to the exercise of ministerial discretion rather than the actions of the court? However, by virtue of the blanket operation of the rule, we are prevented from exploring those matters.

Sir Peter Emery

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, although I do not want to enter into debate on that subject as it might seem that I am criticising the Chair, which I would not do at any time.

Mr. Bill Michie

The Committee examined that matter time after time. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how we can stop abuse in this place if there is no sub judice rule, or if it is relaxed? That could be quite damaging. We are not editorials in a tabloid newspaper; we are the House of Commons—the high court. We must have a discipline; we may not like the idea that we are restricted, but surely that is for the benefit of justice, rather than for instant television from the House when someone is being judged by their peers.

Sir Peter Emery

The hon. Gentleman makes a not unreasonable point. The only counter to it is that the media are limited in that they cannot make any comment that is prejudicial to a trial. Perhaps we should consider that point more than we have in the past, to examine how prejudicial any possible debate in the House could be. If a Member were to make a speech that appeared to the Chair to be prejudicial, we might have to give powers to the Chair such that the Member could be brought to order. Surely we must have some discipline in our House for our procedure in such matters.

In relation to bribery, it is extremely sensible that there should be a draft Bill—as the Leader of the House pointed out. I fully welcome the fact that we shall make it clear that the offences of procuring a corrupt act and of performing a corrupt act should be hit equally hard. In the most recent case of cash for questions, it seemed wrong that Members of the House were hit time and again, yet the corruptor—the person who gave the bribes—apparently got off scot free. There is something wrong in that sort of justice—it needs to be rectified.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I quite understand what my right hon. Friend is getting at, but does he agree that to suggest that our colleagues and our former colleagues, who were rightly disciplined by the House, were guilty of accepting bribes is perhaps to go beyond the conduct of which they were accused? Does he share my view that it is unlikely that any court would have convicted them of corruption? They were guilty of a breach of the required standards in this House. Is not that an important distinction?

Sir Peter Emery

I understand that. However, it seems to me that the suggestions in the recommendations go further than the implications made by my right hon. and learned Friend. I want to make certain that any condemnation should be equal on both sides. That has not been true so far. I feel strongly about that matter.

It is strange, but the interests of protection of privilege go to all aspects of proceedings in Parliament, and it is to the definition of those proceedings that I now turn. All the work of Select Committees is dealt with under the aspects of privilege pertaining to the House of Commons—with one exception: when a Committee presents its report to the country through a press conference held in a Committee Room, Members of Parliament attending the press conference are told that it is not considered a proceeding in Parliament and that there is no privilege. If an accusation is made there, it is no different from one made in the street.

It has been said that, unlike proceedings of Parliament, no record is made of such conferences, so one could not be certain of what was said. I understand that, but privilege is granted to private sittings of Select Committees, of which there is no record. Therefore, I believe that occasions such as I have described, which occur about 30 or 40 times a year, should attract privilege as part of the proceedings in Parliament.

Mr. Sheldon

I see no problem. At a press conference, one is limited by the report and one can quote freely from it to explain one's arguments. If one wants to go beyond that, there are clear dangers, of which a wise Chairman or any Member of Parliament attending such a press conference will be aware.

Sir Peter Emery

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. However, I have attended many such events over the years and, time and again, heard the Clerk remind hon. Members attending the press conference that privilege does not apply to the meeting. It should be considered part of proceedings in Parliament when Committees present a report at such conferences; I see no reason why they should not be covered by privilege.

I was sorry to hear the Leader of the House speak about leaked documents. I consider the Committee's recommendations on leaked documents, set out on pages 71 and 72 of the report, to be extremely sensible. Paragraph 266 states: The media are not, and should not be, exempt from punishment for contempt when publication substantially interferes with the work of a House or one of its committees. That is preceded by the assertion that: The primary responsibility, and therefore the more serious contempt, rests upon the person who leaked the document. That is right, but members of the press appear to be able to get away with the publication of documents that they have acquired by one means or another—they take the "publish and be damned" approach. The report recommends that the House of Commons should pass a resolution which applies to reports at any time prior to publication and to the unauthorised use of committee material, and that the House of Lords should pass a similar resolution condemning such actions.

We should hold responsible not only the reporter who writes the article but the editor and the proprietor who are responsible for the management of the newspaper in which it is published. If we ensured that they were held responsible for such breaches of principle and returned to bringing them to the Bar of the House, the practice would stop overnight.

I have purposely brought Hansard of 24 January 1957, when the last person to be brought before the House was Mr. John Junor, the editor of the Sunday Express. He was lectured and had to apologise to the House. He said afterwards that it was the most worrying, unpleasant day that he ever had to suffer in his life. It is not fines, however large, that will bring about what we want but the fact—the disgrace, perhaps—of being summoned here to apologise.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Most journalists whom I know would welcome the prospect of coming before the House in that way. The right hon. Gentleman should reconsider his proposition.

Sir Peter Emery

That was not the case with Mr. John Junor. That is why I say that we should go for the proprietor, who would not wish it, as well the hon. Gentleman knows.

There are difficulties and complications in preserving the rights of Parliament. There is no doubt that we may often be open to much criticism in trying to preserve our privileges, but we have in Britain the fairest and, I think, the finest Parliament anywhere in the world. We are lucky to be part of it and, at all costs, it must be preserved.

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

The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) made a useful and instructive speech. I am not sure that his solution to the problem of leaks is right. The privileges part of the Standards and Privileges Committee dealt with one aspect of leaks from Select Committees. It was important because there was a leak direct from a Select Committee to the Department concerned. That is a very serious matter because the Department could have interfered with the Committee's draft report. I am not so worried about final reports being leaked before publication because they are settled and cannot be interfered with. It is serious leaks before reports are finalised that trouble me. Departments involving themselves in the preparation of reports is serious. It is not that which occurred in this case, but there was a possibility that it could happen in future. We have dealt firmly with that.

I shall make a few brief comments. The first concerns the point that the shadow Leader of the House rightly made about Parliament's sovereignty over its own business. He pointed to the creative tension between the lawyers and the parliamentarians on the Joint Committee. Creative tension can be of value, but why did we have to have a lawyer as Chairman? We had an ex-Home Secretary on the Committee, and I should have thought that the balance should have been on the parliamentary side. The Chairman is a very able man of great distinction. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), for whom I have great respect, has great admiration for him and that is fully justified. I was prompted to intervene on this point by the views of the Officers and Members of the Western Australian Parliament. They felt that this approach was far too legalistic and that there was far too much involvement of lawyers. I share their view. The lawyers should, as they say, be on tap but not on top. They were certainly needed, but why was the process so legalistic? Why are there legalisms throughout so much of the report?

Sir Patrick Cormack

I do not think that the lawyers came out on top. They made a valuable contribution to our discussions. I must be honest. I have not said this before anywhere, in public or in private, but, at the beginning, I shared the right hon. Gentleman's prejudice against having a Law Lord in the Chair. However, I became convinced that it was the right decision, not only because of the Chairman's intrinsic quality but because of the qualities that he was able to bring to the chairmanship. Although we dealt with the matter in a wholly bipartisan, non-party political manner, he was so removed from the field that it was a positive help to us all in Committee. Although I understand why the right hon. Gentleman takes the line that he does, I suspect that, had he been on the Committee, he would have been likewise persuaded.

Mr. Sheldon

I would have preferred the hon. Gentleman to be the Chairman. This is not a lawyers' do but a parliamentary one, and we should have had parliamentary people in charge. By all means, let us get as much expertise as we can, but I urge my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, if we have ever again have to deal with such matters—in which case these debates may be examined—to ensure that parliamentary representation is predominant.

Mr. Alan Williams

The Chairman was not in charge and nor were the lawyers. The Committee was in charge and did the voting.

Mr. Sheldon

I am very much aware of that. I understand my right hon. Friend's point of view, but to have a Chairman from the legal side when it is a parliamentary matter is wrong. I felt that I should say so because my view is shared by those from whom I heard in Western Australia.

My next point concerns the interpretation of privilege by the courts. The courts have undoubtedly been encroaching on privilege for a long time. That is mentioned in paragraph 381. I want it stopped or, if anything, reversed. We have run our own affairs very well for hundreds of years. I see no particular advantage in the courts involving themselves more than is absolutely necessary. I understand that some of the report's points are valuable, but I shall not refer to them all.

Mr. Forth

My hon. Friend for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) said that we cannot turn back the clock. Surely we could do precisely that if it were the will of the House. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that if we thought that on any of these matters the courts had got it wrong, had encroached on or diminished in any way what we thought correctly and appropriately a matter of privilege, it is the right and obligation of the House to take the appropriate legislative action to correct what the courts may have done in error?

Mr. Sheldon

The right hon. Gentleman has always had much praise from me for being the one reactionary to whom I listen with respect, but I am not prepared to follow him in many of the matters that he raises. Clearly, we have gone too far. It is time to take account of that in any changes that we make.

I shall deal briefly with the internet. I put the matter to Lord Nicholls personally. The House must excuse me for pursuing my hobby horse, but it is one that many people will be able to ride. The reports and activities of Select Committees must find a suitable place on the internet. For example, this morning I searched the internet to find out what the Home Secretary had said to a Select Committee. His evidence was not there. That matter is enormously important to the House. One could normally look up such evidence on the internet in a matter of seconds instead of going to read it in the Library, which may not even have it. That evidence could have been a matter for discussion or it could have come up in Prime Minister's Question Time, but it was not on the internet and Lord Nicholls's Committee did not want it there.

I have been able to persuade the House of Commons Commission of my case, at least in part. It has accepted that a Select Committee may put certain evidence on the internet, but only in the case of ministerial interviews. That would have applied to the Home Secretary's evidence. From the beginning of the next Session, we will be able, on the morning after a Committee sitting, to look up on the internet ministerial statements and answers if the Select Committee so decides.

I want that provision to be extended, but the Joint Committee did not want that. It said, comparing such evidence to Hansard: Corrections to the 'Daily Part' are few … In one respect immediate publication of committee transcripts would conflict with the Joint Committee's report. Earlier in this report we stressed the importance of fairness to witnesses. It is undoubtedly right that we must be fair to witnesses. However, there is nothing to stop any journalist writing down what is being said in the Committee and putting it in the following morning's paper. Despite that, we cannot get that evidence on the internet.

One of our advantages is that we can put the evidence on the internet, state clearly that it is only uncorrected evidence and that the final evidence will contain any correction. Making that evidence available would not, therefore, affect the final outcome of the investigation, and that would be clear. The sooner we realise that we are living at the end of the 20th century, the sooner we can make that information available at a level that is commensurate with the need for it.

Sir Peter Emery

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. It is naughty of me to intervene when I have just spoken, but I want to reinforce his point. The proceedings of many of those Select Committees are taped and are therefore available for any television station in the country to broadcast within hours of their taking place, so why should they be prevented from being published on the internet? That seems nonsensical.

Mr. Sheldon

I fully agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The Nicholls Committee did not accept that proposal because it thought that it would be unfair to witnesses who might have second thoughts about what they had said. I find that unacceptable. On the internet, it would be made clear that the publication was a provisional account of the Select Committee's proceedings, which would be published fully as soon as corrections could be made. That would not affect the Committee's final decisions. The right hon. Gentleman is right to draw further attention to the matter.

Sir Patrick Cormack

The right hon. Gentleman has a good point. The Joint Committee was concerned that witnesses who are not Ministers and who are not experienced in appearing before Select Committees feel awe when they do so and are therefore vulnerable. That was why we came to the conclusion that we did. However, it is important that the right hon. Gentleman has made his points, and he has certainly given us something to think about.

Mr. Sheldon

The point made by the right hon. Member for East Devon is still correct. Those proceedings can be on the radio and in the following morning's newspapers, but they cannot be suitably presented to Members of Parliament, and that is wrong. The concession on Ministers' evidence was made by the House of Commons Commission and I expect it to be extended in due course.

Mr. Bill Michie

We were concerned about the extent to which reports published in newspapers or on the internet are the authoritative voice of the House. My right hon. Friend is suggesting that we could try to deal with that by saying that the publication is only a report and may be changed, and that what is being published on the internet is not the official organ of the House.

Mr. Sheldon

It would be quite clear that the publication was provisional. Publication has been accepted not only for Ministers' statements but for close questioning of Ministers, during which important matters may arise. It would be nonsense if that provision were not extended in due course.

I turn now to Pepper v. Hart, which is very important. I have not been following that matter closely, but I will be surprised if Ministers are not much more guarded in their replies to questions, particularly in Standing Committees considering legislation, simply because of that case. That would be a great pity because we need greater understanding in Standing Committees of the complicated parts of legislation, and few pieces of legislation are more complicated than a Finance Bill.

Ministers have to sit with their towels round their heads in the early hours of the morning preparing for proceedings on their Bill, knowing full well that many questions may be asked and that they would never have dreamed of some of the questions. They must understand their legislation and advise the Committee to the best of their ability, which means going beyond the words in the Bill, as they must do if they are to be of any use to their Committee in explaining the Bill. I worry that Ministers may be far too cautious in answering crucial questions that could elucidate the legislation.

Mr. Grieve

The courts, in reading what Ministers have said so that they can make a judicial interpretation of a statute, are for the most part trying only to go through the same process of elucidation that the right hon. Gentleman advocates for Committees. Is it not better for a Minister who realises that there may be consequences from the judicial interpretation of his words to be cautious in Committee rather than to express himself in gobbledegook?

Mr. Sheldon

The hon. Gentleman has far too rosy a view of Ministers' understanding of all possible consequences of legislation. All Ministers can do is give an explanation, to the best of their ability, of what the legislation is intended to achieve. A good Minister can make that explanation come to life, so that people better understand the intentions and the likely outcome of the legislation. The Minister's words are no guarantee— the guarantee is in the words of the legislation—but without an understanding of that legislation, the Committee will be much the poorer.

Mr. Forth

Perhaps I can put a slightly more positive gloss on what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Many of us feared that televising the House would alter Members' behaviour, and I think that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that it did not. Very quickly, Members got used to the new ambience, and our behaviour reverted to its previous form. My experience is that, in the same way, Ministers who spend a lot of time in Standing Committees do not have Pepper v. Hart at the front of their minds. They behave naturally and are either effusively explanatory to the Committee or evasively secretive, and Pepper v. Hart does not inhibit their behaviour in long Committee proceedings.

Mr. Sheldon

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is right. He should look at the Standing Committee that deals with the Finance Bill, where those matters come more to the fore. There are two different views of how our attitudes have changed since the coming of television, but I will not go into that.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way as he was the subject of Pepper v. Hart. It was his midnight words in June 1976, if I remember rightly, when he was answering 90 questions put to him by a Committee that contained 12 future Cabinet Ministers and two future Chancellors, that were given so much weight in that interesting case. Does he agree that the courts have fortunately learned to be pretty cautious about using Pepper v. Hart too much? If that is their approach, I believe that they are wise.

Mr. Sheldon

I fully agree. I intervened before the right hon. and learned Gentleman came into the Chamber to explain the background to that case. They were clearly the most talented Opposition to have dealt with any Finance Bill. I was pursued in question after question. I could have ignored those questions, but I tried to be helpful. I was asked, "If that happens, what then?", "If that happens, what now?" I answered to the best of my ability.

When I heard about Pepper v. Hart, I turned to what I had said and, to my pleasure, I found that it was not bad. I could substantiate what I had said, but it could have been otherwise. It might have been a matter on which I had not worked too hard. There are dangers and it is as well for the House to understand that.

Clearly, the report deals with other valuable matters, but I wished to speak briefly to deal with those points.

5.32 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I start with a confession. When the appointment of the Joint Committee was first mooted, in my capacity as Chief Whip I had to select someone to serve on it. As a new Chief Whip, I did not have anyone on whom I wanted to impose a great penalty, so I had to put myself on the Committee—and it has been an interesting experience.

I take issue with the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), as the experience was interesting not least because of the impeccable chairmanship of the noble Lord Nicholls. I agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) that the best sort of chairman is someone who can rise above the discussion around the table. Lord Nicholls did so with great distinction and effect.

The draftsmanship of the report, which is uniquely well formed and educational for those of us who are not familiar with many of the topics, is very much due to Lord Nicholls and to the two Clerks. I put it on record that serving on the Committee was an instructive exercise.

We were appointed in July 1998 and we reported in March 1999, yet I think that I am right in saying that not one member left the Committee in that time, which is a tribute to the extent of people's commitment to its work. The business was complicated, but we did not get bored by its subtleties and complexities; that, too, is a tribute to the Chairman.

There were times when Members of this House, who worried that the pace of our business seemed to get slower, felt that the presence of so many lawyers, who tend to weigh the minutes in terms of guineas, slowed up the proceedings somewhat. However, the product that we produced is one of which both Houses should be proud.

I put on record the thanks of all members of the Committee—and I hope all Members of this House—to the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who is now the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury. I was disappointed this afternoon not because the President of the Council and Leader of the House was to introduce the debate, but because I did not see her right hon. Friend here. I had thought that this might be a unique political and parliamentary occasion if, for the first time in living memory, the Government Chief Whip could be allowed to dispel the illusion that he or she is speechless. It would have been a useful opportunity to break with that convention.

The fact that we went back to the Bill of Rights of 1689 has been mentioned. We dealt with three centuries of piecemeal attempts to tackle this difficult subject. Dead wood has been referred to in the debate and it was our job to adopt some sophisticated and comprehensive tree surgery to a complex and difficult bit of growth.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West referred to a mishmash. Yes, there is a mishmash and I hope that, by bringing it all out into the open comprehensively, we have made it possible for Parliament to review the situation.

I do not accept the view of the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that this is an opportunity to turn back the clock—far from it. Now is the opportunity to ensure that we drag this aspect of parliamentary procedures into the 21st century. If we do not do it now, those in the other place will perhaps have to do it for us—it looks as though they will be reformed before this House.

Privilege is a misnomer, as has been said. We are really talking about responsibility, immunity and freedom of speech, and what can be more central to the way in which Parliament serves the nation? Incidentally, when the Bill is introduced that will put these proposals into effect, I hope that we will call it not the parliamentary privilege Bill but something better. Even if the long title is more explicit, such a name is a switch-off and it gives the wrong impression to the world.

The Committee's proceedings were dominated by careful assessment of balance. We had to consider independence from the Executive, which is why the Bill of Rights was written—to ensure that never again would Parliament be unduly susceptible to pressure from the Crown. I hope that lawyers will agree that now, as then, Parliament should not be subject to judiciary appointed by the Crown, which was an issue then.

If it were not for the fact that time is getting on, I might be diverted into an analysis of how the Bill of Rights came to be and how my ancestor, Bishop Jonathan Trelawny—one of seven bishops—was arraigned in Westminster Hall and eventually, due to the good sense of a British jury, was let off. The judges were, of course, appointed by the Crown and it was a direct result of that case and the threat of the Cornish to march on London that we got the Bill.

The other balance that is extremely important is that between the individuals in this place and the citizens we represent. Their interests and protection are part of the reason for our protection, because we are representing them. We are defending the privilege of citizens of the British Isles to know that their representative in this place can speak up on their behalf, not the privilege of individual Members of Parliament.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Does he agree that it is when the going gets rough and one aspect of opinion that is very unpopular needs to be mentioned, that these so-called privileges and immunities that grant real freedom of speech are at their most important?

Mr. Tyler

I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman and now that he is on the Opposition rather than the Government Benches I am delighted to hear him say that. As a member of, hopefully, a not too permanent minority, I am more used to that experience perhaps than he. He is right to say that every Member of Parliament should be well aware that the minority view must be given its opportunity. We are representing not ourselves, but minorities in the country and that is a principle to which we must attach enormous importance.

The Committee tried to grapple with the difficult problem of natural justice and the normal rights of the individual, be it the individual Member of Parliament—he or she has rights, too—or the citizen. Members of this House and those in the other place, whatever they are going to call themselves—senators, peers of the realm, lords of Parliament, or whatever—have rights in terms of natural justice. It is extremely important that we have what the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) referred to, I think, as equity. We should not be treated differently and nor should citizens be treated less carefully when it comes to concerns about their rights.

That is why it is so important that we introduce as fast as possible comprehensive legislation on corruption. We cannot continue with a situation in which there appears to be one law for the legislators, and another law for the ordinary citizen. The sooner such legislation is enacted, the better.

As has been pointed out, there is a draft corruption Bill in our report, brought to us by the Home Secretary. If it is now kicked into touch or put on the back burner, the House has a right to know why that delay is taking place.

The Committee tried to recognise the facts of 21st century life. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne referred to the internet. As I recall the discussion, it was not so much about whether parliamentary proceedings should or should not be publicised in that way, as about what their status would be if they were. It was not the responsibility of a Joint Committee on privilege to decide what should or should not be published, but we were concerned to ensure the appropriate level of protection for that publication. For both the electronic media and the broadcast media, we wanted to ensure that there were practical answers to practical questions.

Outside the House, it may be thought that the Committee's work on corruption and the extent to which the House disciplines itself was a knee-jerk reaction to a set of particular cases. That was decidedly not so. A discussion lasting 15 or 16 months is hardly a knee-jerk reaction. In any event, we were not obsessed by particular cases.

However, it has been pointed out by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, who was much more involved than I, that there was widespread unease about the way in which a number of cases had to be dealt with. It was felt that the machinery in the House was fragile, inadequate and not up to the job. There was concern that had it not been for the fact that in at least one case, the person concerned admitted a number of charges and only one charge gave rise to dissension, we might have been in an extremely difficult situation in the House, or we might have been challenged outside.

As the report makes clear, the Committee was not happy with the way in which the previous arrangements had worked, and we wanted to create a more robust mechanism for the future. Were it not for the admission of various charges in those cases, we might have ended up with a parliamentary impasse, which would have been gravely damaging. Reference is made to section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996. That reflects the recognition that there were fault lines in the system. We never anticipated such difficulties. In the report, we have managed to take a more sensible overview of the problems and the opportunities for improvement.

Reference has been made to the significance of Pepper v. Hart. Never having heard of Pepper v. Hart before joining the Committee, as I frankly confess, I found the discussion in the Committee and in the House this evening illuminating. It is important that we see that that judgment is being treated with wise caution by the courts, and rightly so.

As I understand it, the court may take account of what is said by a Minister in the circumstances described only if doubt exists. Where else is the court to turn? All too often in the past, because the court was prevented from taking note of what was said in the House in those circumstances, courts were left to make invidious decisions. It is surely better that if there is doubt, the court should be able to refer to the explanation of Ministers.

We heard exchanges earlier between former Ministers about the extent to which the arrival of the Pepper v. Hart judgment changed their attitude when answering questions in Committee. On balance, I would prefer Ministers to be cautious, rather than generously expansive, and to say, "I do not know the answer to that."

Sir Nicholas Lyell

indicated assent.

Mr. Tyler

I see a distinguished former Minister nodding. I would prefer Ministers to say, "I will let the hon. Gentleman know at the next sitting", or to find some other way of providing information, rather than shooting from the hip and possibly getting into trouble with the courts. There is no harm in such caution.

I shall not refer in detail to all the other recommendations, which I support. The issue of the sub poena is realistically assessed in the report, and I hope that the courts will exercise their usual discretion in deciding whether an attempt to subpoena a Minister or a Member is vexatious or merely political. I hope that the courts will be sane and sensible in such circumstances.

Sir Nicholas Lyell


Mr. Tyler

I hope that I am not about to be discouraged from that thought.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Does the hon. Gentleman share my caution that Ministers who have been subpoenaed improperly, as has been mentioned in the debate, have frequently had to send lawyers, at considerable public expense, to prevent them being brought unjustifiably to court? Ought there to be some system whereby the House would assist or find some public means of assisting its Members who were unjustifiably subpoenaed, so that the courts could consider the arguments with proper representation?

Mr. Tyler

I was coming to that point, and I am extremely grateful for support from such a distinguished source. If a Minister is subpoenaed, the mechanisms are in place to deal with the matter, but an ordinary Member, or a Minister in the capacity of a constituency Member, could be put to considerable expense. I know that there have been such cases recently. I hope that the Minister will deal with the matter in his response, or that the Leader of the House will consider it urgently through the usual channels. The point could well be pursued, to the benefit of individual Members and of the House.

Regardless of whether we get a Bill soon and what it is called, a major exercise of education and information is necessary. One or two of the Committee's recommendations refer to that. For example, we state: The rules and conventions concerning standards of conduct are in readily accessible form capable of being understood outside Parliament, as well as within". That is relevant to witnesses who come before Select Committees, for example. It is of supreme importance that the law is seen to be observed, so people must understand how the issue is addressed in the two Houses.

Perhaps that exercise in education could extend to the media, which seem to find it increasingly difficult to understand our proceedings. I heard the exchange between the right hon. Member for East Devon and other hon. Members about the summons to the Bar of the House. I suspect that some reporters would think that a summons to the Bar of the House meant that they would be offered a drink. It is important for us to explain what is meant by such expressions.

I have some experience of that. When I was a Member in 1974, I had occasion to make a complaint about privilege, and my union, the National Union of Journalists, was to be summoned to the Bar of the House and was looking forward to it. The union was only dissuaded from that, and persuaded to apologise to the Chair, when it was realised that matters might go further and involve other penalties that were much less fun.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In 1967 I was summoned to the Bar of the House. The reaction of Mr. Callaghan, for example, was that he did not take part in blood rituals. That encapsulated the problem.

Mr. Tyler

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but my point stands that the summons is not as effective as the penalties that we suggest in the report.

My main point is that we are discussing not the privileges of individual Members of the House of Commons or of the other place, but those of Parliament—an institution—and our responsibility to ensure that we are able freely to conduct our business, represent our constituents and look after the nation's interests. That is why "privilege" is such a misnomer.

Finally, I have some points to put to the Minister. We must know this evening what the Government's intentions are, in broad terms. The Queen's Speech may give us more detail about the corruption Bill, but the whole House will be extremely concerned if it is being put on the back burner. The sooner we are told about that, the better.

No concerns about the broad thrust of the whole range of recommendations have been expressed this evening or during Committee proceedings. Although the Leader of the House said that they were tentative, I hope that the Government will express their major misgivings should they have any.

I can say on behalf of my party—I think that this is true of all parties—that we regard this matter as a parliamentary concern, not a question of party politics. Therefore, I hope that there will be a free vote across the House on it. Such a Bill is an absolutely excellent candidate for the procedure that we have adopted, on the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee, for pre-legislative scrutiny. Precisely such a Bill could be introduced rapidly as a draft measure and given the consideration it surely deserves.

5.51 pm
Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley)

Having been put on the Committee, I was a little apprehensive about exactly what form it would take, but I found our proceedings, which lasted 15 months and produced 39 recommendations, absolutely stimulating to say the least. I recall boring my family to death by discussing every Saturday night what had happened the previous Tuesday morning when we spent four hours discussing the first paragraph of a draft report. Our discussions went on and on, but they were important and not at all boring.

The attendance tonight is not too bad, although there are not too many Members in the Chamber. That is the bad news. The good news is that, knowing the pecking order in this place, I would still be waiting to speak if many more Members of greater seniority were present. That is another matter which the Standards and Privileges Committee ought to consider on occasion.

Our proceedings were not dry in any shape or form, although there was plenty of dry humour, and I take the point about the Chairman of the Committee, who was very helpful. I have nothing but profound respect and gratitude for the way in which he conducted proceedings and, along with the other Lords and Members, helped the Committee. The Clerks in particular did a tremendous job for us. That appreciation should go on record. I do not think that the lawyers were on top, but it took a little bit longer to get our own way, which is always the case when lawyers are involved in any sort of discipline. I found their expertise very much to our advantage. I learned a lot as a member of the Committee, and I am sure that a lot of lords, including Lord Nicholls, did so as well.

A review of this nature is painstaking and it is obviously important not to throw the baby out with the bath water. I had some preconceived ideas about what I wanted to happen, but when I considered the way in which our procedures work and how they came about I learned day by day that the question of privilege is not a simple one to answer. There is no doubt that it is fascinating to discuss amending or codifying an unwritten constitution. The mind boggles because the constitution is not written down, but here we are discussing changing and modifying it. That was the job the Committee was given and I think that we did a good job, although that may sound like self-praise.

It is 30 years since the previous fundamental review of these matters and many circumstances have changed. I believe that the attitude of the people of this nation towards Parliament has changed. It was necessary to look at the way in which we run this place in any case, because the perception of it held by people outside is totally different from ours. In the light of events, we needed to consider changes and modification to achieve much more open and accountable Houses of Parliament while allowing Members to carry out their duties fully without fear or favour. That was one of the main planks of our discussions.

Chapter 1 of the review refers to Parliamentary privilege: its nature and origins and states: Parliamentary privilege consists of the rights and immunities which the two Houses of Parliament and their members and officers possess to enable them to carry out their parliamentary functions effectively. Without this protection members would be handicapped in performing their parliamentary duties, and the authority of Parliament itself in confronting the executive and as a forum for expressing the anxieties of citizens would be correspondingly diminished. I fully believe that to be the case. Getting the right balance may have taken a long time, but we have arrived at it.

Members know from their own experience that people outside the House perceive us as members of a club, although we discipline some Members and interview them on certain occasions. From the outside, the House is seen as a club with privileges—an old boy network in which we all look after ourselves. The public were becoming more and more critical and that was damaging the image of this place, so when we debate privileges we must make sure that we do not give the impression that we are self-serving. The media pick up on that impression—quite wrongly, on many occasions—and splash it about that we are looking after Members, but not looking after democracy and doing the job that we are supposed to do.

Nevertheless, we have to grasp the nettle. There is no doubt that we have to use our privileges—which are not personal privileges, but privileges of the House—to best effect to do our job properly on behalf of not only the country, but our constituents. The Joint Committee took all those points into account and we asked whether the law and practice of parliamentary privilege meet present and future needs? Do the existing procedures satisfy contemporary standards of fairness and public accountability? A modern code for parliamentary privilege should be principled and coherent. Those matters were obviously discussed at great length because the public's perception was not always fair to us or to our constituents. The right to free speech, as provided for in article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, must not be misused or abused. We all understand that and have our own commitments and responsibilities.

I am glad that the Leader of the House has accepted the second option in the Home Office consultation paper, which is: To subject members of Parliament to the same corruption statutes as other people. However, if there is to be a draft privileges Bill, I hope that some of the points of concern that were raised in Committee will be considered, for example the problem of who consents to the prosecution. I note that she said that that matter is likely to rest with the Attorney-General. I bored the Committee to death discussing when he would make such a decision—late, early or what? If we are not careful—and if, having weighed up the evidence, he thought that a case should be considered by the courts for prosecution—that very decision could prejudice the case for the defendant. I do not know a way round that. I suppose that we must hope that he does not have any more influence with the jury than does the Crown Prosecution Service when it makes such a decision.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I am listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech. However, I do not think that he need worry about that aspect of the matter. The Attorney-General gives consent in very many cases—even in very high-profile ones, such as war crimes cases—but no one realises it. The fact that the Attorney-General has given consent will not weigh with the jury when it comes to consider the case.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that to make hon. Members subject to corruption and bribery charges, as they may already be held to be in common law, does not mean that what is said and done in the Chamber or in Committee necessarily has to be made admissible in evidence? Does he agree that the two issues are distinct? Whatever his view on the matter, does he recognise that there are very real dangers for the immunities of the House if we go down the second route?

Mr. Michie

Yes, I do accept that there are dangers in taking the second route—which is why, time and again, the dilemma posed by the second route raised its head in Committee. However, I think that the position of hon. Members is slightly different, as it is a high-profile one, and one of our most senior peers has made a judgment that the courts should play a role in the matter. Nevertheless, I do not particularly disagree with the Committee's recommendation, and am happy that the Attorney-General will decide on prosecutions.

Section 13 of the Defamation Act 1996 has already been well rehearsed in the debate. I am happy that it will be replaced by a more general waiver, given by the Speaker, with the advice of a small Committee of senior Members. The Act was passed in a blaze of publicity, and for reasons that might have been good at the time, but the House and the Committee have made it quite clear that we have come to regret it.

I support the report's proposals, and hope that hon. Members will endorse them in today's debate. I also hope that we shall soon have a Bill that will not only clarify for hon. Members what they may and may not do—the Register of Members' Interests is certainly a step in the right direction—but give the public a better idea of how this place is run.

6.3 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate. I should like to apologise now if I am not able to be in the Chamber to hear the closing speeches, but I have an unavoidable engagement.

I found reading the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege extremely interesting, and have no reason but to endorse heartily the vast bulk of the proposals. The clarification that seems to be inherent in the way in which the Committee has approached the matter is very desirable. It is undoubtedly a tribute to the Chairman, and perhaps to a little bit of legal incisiveness that has been introduced into quite a murky area, that, in many respects, what emerges seems to be so clear. However, with that in mind, I hope that I may be forgiven if I flag up one or two potential problems.

A moment ago, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) touched on the difficulties in making corruption, in terms of what might be said in Parliament, a criminal offence. To make the position clear, all hon. Members are subject to the bribery provisions at common law, and we shall continue to be so if a statute is introduced.

The key issue that the House will have to decide is the extent to which it is prepared to waive its current privilege in what may be said or done in the House, if it were to transpire that that might be material evidence in bringing a prosecution for bribery or corruption against a Member of Parliament. Although I am quite prepared and open to persuasion on the issue, I have anxieties about how that waiver would work in practice.

A central principle of our privilege in the House is that we are given liberty to express our views as we like. As we know from some previous debates, it is often suggested—albeit not in a way, I hope, that would offend against the Speaker's or a Deputy Speaker's ruling—that some policy decisions or Executive decisions may have ulterior motives, serving other than the public benefit. It is a problem which the Minister and his colleagues face daily. It is also a problem that, less usually, individuals may face.

Dealing with the problem is, of course, one of the reasons why the House has introduced the Register of Members' Interests. It is also one of the reasons why a very serious breach of the procedures of the House—effectively a contempt of the House—is committed if an hon. Member seeks to argue a case without making absolutely crystal clear what personal interest he or she might have in it. If someone were offering such an hon. Member a financial inducement, no more personal interest could possibly be found.

I am content with that system. If we start departing from it and saying that, when an allegation of corruption is made against a Member of Parliament, what he says in the House could be used upon a waiver of privilege, we shall be going down quite a dangerous road. I believe that it would lead to the risk that that device might be used against an hon. Member for improper purposes, and that it could give rise to a great deal of political discussion on the motives behind the bringing of the prosecution.

We have to face up to realities in all this. In the presence of the previous Attorney-General, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, let me say that I have never had the slightest doubt about the impartiality of his office. However, it remains the case that we have always accepted in the United Kingdom that the marriage of politics and the system of justice could not be neatly cut in two, as there will always be pressures with which to contend, even if an Attorney-General were not a Member of this place.

The further one goes down the road of trying to dissect the issue of parliamentary privilege and a Member of Parliament's role—to cut off various aspects of that role and to say, "In that respect, you shall no longer have that protection"—the more difficult the situation will become. The truth—as has been noted to be the case in not only the past, but the recent past—is that, if an hon. Member transgresses, he exposes himself to enormous opprobrium, and probably to the ruin of his career. That seems to be the suitable verdict upon someone who falls foul of the House's very clear rules on how we should conduct ourselves.

We shall raise very serious issues by carrying the matter further and saying that, in a trial for bribery or corruption, what is done in the House should be open to analysis in the courts. Although I should be happy to pursue the issue further if it is raised again, all I wish to do now is to flag up my anxieties about it.

I should like to deal with two other matters. There is a very important section in the report on the waiver of privilege. I had certain anxieties about the route that was taken in 1996, and believe that some of the problems—which are linked to what we have been talking about—stemmed from that hurried legislation. Therefore, on that basis, I should be very happy to consider alternatives.

When reading the report, however, I had some anxiety about the proposed alternative. As cases that may involve a waiver may well be the subject of considerable political polemic and contention, leaving to the House the power to decide whether a Member of Parliament may be able to avail himself of the right to waive privilege raises many anxieties about what might happen if a waiver were not granted.

Clearly, if the rules of the House were sufficiently tightly drawn in the way suggested in the report, so that the waiver would be granted except in cases in which the integrity and credibility of the House would be in some way in danger if it were, I see no great difficulty. However, my second anxiety is that unless that is the case there would be a real risk that a Member of Parliament seeking to bring a libel action might find himself unable to obtain the waiver because there was a majority in the House against it. That would be an undesirable politicisation of the issue. Unless the rules are clear, I would rather go back to the situation before 1996. It was unsatisfactory in some ways and did injustices to some, but at least it had the merit of clarity. Unless we are certain on the issue, we should not embark on change.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

We cannot go back to the situation before 1996, but were we to do so it would mean going back to a situation before a newspaper made the claim that a Member of Parliament was barred. That was a novel idea brought forward by the newspaper.

With respect and delicacy, there is another revision of the law that might be useful. A year or two ago, the House authorities—which I do not define—made applications or representations in a court that Members of Parliament had not known about. That difficulty is well worth avoiding in future.

Mr. Grieve

I heartily agree with my hon. Friend's second point. That struck me as an extraordinary state of affairs. I also agree that the situation is evolving. There is no point in simply looking at historical precedent. We have to accept that the way in which the newspapers and the media operate and the problems that arise may change. I also accept that the situation in 1996 was novel. I am mindful of the problems and possible injustices that the 1996 legislation has caused. I am merely saying that if we are to take a further step on the issue, it had better be a step in the right direction and not one that we subsequently have cause to regret. The Committee's suggestions might work, but the rules will have to be tightly drawn so that only in exceptional circumstances would a waiver of privilege be denied to a Member of Parliament; otherwise we shall be in very difficult territory.

I concur with the view of the Committee on subpoenas. When I read the report, I was interested in the origins of the protection of a Member of Parliament from answering a subpoena. It is not to protect the Member from embarrassment, but to allow him to perform his services to the House. However, I suspect that if the provision has been used at all, it has tended to be used for the former rather than the latter reason. I do not know why Members of Parliament should have a greater protection than that afforded to the average citizen in this country from having to attend court on a subpoena.

Of course, subpoenas are grossly abused at times. As a barrister, I have seen it being done in court. That often puts a person to inconvenience. However, the court tends to take a dim view of litigants who subpoena witnesses unnecessarily. That undoubtedly provides considerable protection for anyone who receives a subpoena, including a Member of Parliament. If we add to that the requirement to explain and justify to a judge beforehand why the subpoena is required, there is ample protection.

If we want to go further, the solution might be to say that no Member of Parliament shall be subpoenaed or required to attend court during the sitting hours of the House. That would still allow plenty of time during the week for him to attend. In that way, nobody would be disadvantaged by being unable to attend in this Chamber, which is apparently the reason for the privilege.

I broadly welcome the report. It is useful when a Committee that puts itself so diligently to its task casts light on areas that are normally obscure. We are undoubtedly the beneficiaries, but it may well be worth reflecting a little before diving into legislation on all the recommendations.

6.15 pm
Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire)

I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), whose last remarks were very wise. I endorse the majority of the report and pay tribute to those who served long and hard on the Committee, but I have one grave reservation. It comes back to the fundamental facet—privilege is in some ways an outdated word—of our membership of this place: freedom of speech. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) that freedom of speech is inviolable. Unfortunately, the report invites a dangerous attack on freedom of speech in relation to bribery and corruption.

I have no hesitation in saying that it is entirely right that Members of Parliament should be subject to the ordinary law of the land in relation to offences of bribery and corruption. If Members of Parliament allow themselves to be bribed, they should be able to be prosecuted. If they act corruptly, they should and can be prosecuted. However, that is not the issue. It is whether words spoken in the Chamber and in Committee and actions such as voting or the tabling of questions can be called in evidence, contrary to article 9 of the Bill of Rights.

Having been a Law Officer for a decade, I have given my fiat in a significant number of corruption cases. Corruption cases involving Members of Parliament are very rare and I doubt whether they would turn on what was said or done in Parliament. There is not likely to be any grave inhibition on the proper prosecution of Members of Parliament if, contrary to the recommendations in paragraph 168 of the report, the House determines—as it would be wise to do—that we should not waive our privileges in that regard.

We have the unfettered privilege of freedom of speech. In a sense, our privileges are those of the House, but more fundamentally than that they are the privileges of every citizen of this country. We have that privilege in order that the citizens of the United Kingdom—and, indeed, the world—may know that any Member of Parliament can speak his or her mind in the Chamber of the House of Commons or in Committee and can vote or ask a question without the slightest fear that what they say or do in the House may put them at risk of legal proceedings, either civil or criminal. It is not just a protection for Members of Parliament, but one of the fundamental safeguards of the liberties of every citizen. It is therefore unlikely that it will be waived, and, in so far as it is under attack in the report, albeit in the most courteous sense and with the most careful reasoning, it must be defended. Of course it is under attack in relation to bribery and corruption, and I have already made it clear that I have no hesitation in saying that Members of Parliament should be capable, as they are today, of being prosecuted for bribery. It is a common law offence.

In the only case in recent years, where our former colleague was rightly acquitted, Mr. Justice Buckley none the less held at an early stage that the offence of bribery applied to Members of Parliament. I have never had the slightest doubt about that, but we are having to balance one public interest against another—the public interest in our absolute right of freedom of speech against the public interest in enabling a Member of Parliament to be prosecuted. It is very important to appreciate that clearly because a prosecution can certainly proceed without reference to what is said or done in the House if it is likely to be a remotely strong case.

Let us consider for a moment the kind of cases that lead to prosecution for bribery or corruption. They tend to happen because somebody who is in a position to grant an advantage to somebody else—such as the chairman or an influential member of a planning committee—takes money quite improperly and corruptly in order to give an opinion or persuade colleagues to a ruling. That is pretty much the essence of an offence of corruption.

I have great sympathy with what was said earlier in the debate about our former colleague, the noble Lord Merlyn-Rees, who asked what he had ever said in the House that was of advantage to anybody. I do not think that he quite said that, but the humorous way in which I put it encapsulates the essence of what he had in mind. If people had to rely on what had been said in the House, I could see it being laughed about a good deal in court, in the way in which things get laughed out of court.

Paragraph 168 of the report argues that there will be very few prosecutions for corruption. It is also argued that it will be very rare that what is said or done in Parliament will have any relevance and that, therefore, the proposal is a minimal encroachment on our liberties. I beg strongly to disagree. The danger is that it is not the cases that do happen which encroach on our liberties; it is the cases that might happen. During my years as a Law Officer I saw a good deal of that.

Before turning to personal insights, we know perfectly well that the very business of politics is a matter of people seeking advantage, usually for totally proper reasons, of Government or of a Member of Parliament to try to persuade Government, and thus seeking and conferring advantage. That seeking and conferring of advantage is of the very essence of the proposed Bill. In preparing my thoughts, I wrote down some quotations.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

Drawing the House's attention to paragraph 168 was really useful. My right hon. and learned Friend is right to concentrate on the minor encroachment that it covers. Does he agree that if the Government intend to act on it, they should remember that Members of Parliament accused of taking some consideration for something they do in the House have broken the advocacy rule and probably others, so it will not be a question of letting them off? They can be exposed to a full investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, as right hon. and hon. Members, we can certainly look at what goes on in the House.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In a moment I shall make the same point in my own way.

I was searching for the very definition of corruption that is set out in the draft Bill prepared by the Law Commission which is to be found at annexe D on page 103 of the report. One has only to read that definition to see how many ingredients of the offence, without being in the least corrupt in themselves, are an essential part of political life every day. They include conferring advantages, soliciting advantages and doing something that one has a right to do in consequence of another's request, primarily in return for the conferring of an advantage. I am reminded again of the old joke where one person says that there is no such thing as gratitude in politics and somebody else replies, "Yes there is. Gratitude in politics is the confident expectation of favours in the future". Of course, that is the whole business of soliciting and conferring an advantage. It is a vital but, in some senses, a very quick jump between the perfectly honest and indeed noble activities in which we seek to engage ourselves in public life and the allegedly dishonest and corrupt abuse of those activities. Consequently, we are extremely vulnerable. Indeed, there will not be one of us who has not been accused of acting corruptly during his period here.

I was about to draw on my experience as a Law Officer. The Law Officer's Department receives reams of letters almost daily containing widespread allegations of corruption, usually of a totally footling and foolish sort, which are sincerely made by citizens who are disgruntled in one sense or another. There are reams of letters and every one of us will have received copies of them. I do not wish to trivialise this, but the ones to which one pays least attention start by being addressed to the Queen, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, then the Prime Minister and copied to ourselves as Members of Parliament.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Underlined in green ink.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

As my hon. Friend rightly says, they are underlined in green and red ink. However, a number of those letters, although they are deeply saddening, are from people who have suffered the misfortunes of life which they believe are the result of corruption.

In the tough interplay of politics, people say and begin to believe that things which are done at least not corruptly are corrupt. I shall not mention them because I do not wish to give the slightest indication of corruption, but if right hon. and hon. Members present in the Chamber think back over a certain number of matters in the past two years where substantial sums of money have been paid by one person to another for one reason or another, it is not too difficult to suggest, quite wrongly, that there was an element of corruption in them. Where is this leading to in my speech? We should be confident that such accusations of corruption, which are frequently made, can never in themselves lead us into courts—either civil or criminal—in respect of anything which we say or do in this Chamber. If we do anything corrupt outside the Chamber, we can be brought to justice.

Sadly, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) has had to leave the Chamber just as I have got to his point. New rules of the House have properly been put in place in the past four or five years. If we transgress them, perhaps by failing to declare a consultancy—I have never held a consultancy, although I do not regard the practice as dishonourable, provided that it is properly declared—a financial interest or a foreign trip, we are likely to be either lightly reprimanded or severely censured and put on the rack through the procedures of the House. That is an advance under the modernisation of our procedures that I totally applaud.

We come back to the fundamentals. We should be liable to prosecution for bribery or corruption if there is a case to answer, and I agree that we need the filter of the Attorney-General. I entirely agree with my successor, the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), who said to the Committee that the decision could be very difficult, especially if it relates to someone of one's own party, because there is always the great danger of leaning over backwards, and the proper stance is not to lean either forwards or backwards but to remain completely upright, but it is certainly necessary to require the Attorney-General's consent before a proceeding for corruption can be brought against a Member of Parliament.

It has always been the law that any proceeding for corruption must have the Attorney-General's fiat. That should continue. There is no need to draw a distinction between Members of Parliament and other citizens in that respect, but we are not as other citizens in the privileges that we enjoy and the duty that we have to speak up on difficult and controversial issues.

It is when the going gets rough and there is a witch hunt, and ideas of treachery, corruption or collusion are most rife, that the need to speak up bravely, and the dangers of doing so, are most pertinent. It is our duty to protect the integrity of the House against any diminution of our freedoms. Consequently, although I commend so much of the report, I ask that we think very carefully again on that aspect.

6.33 pm
Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

I want to raise some matters of privilege that perhaps the Committee has not dealt with fully. I have been in and out of the Chamber today, as I have had other duties, including attending a Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation. I have not read the full report, but I have read the summaries and had conversations with colleagues over the past few months. I was surprised by the radical nature of some of the conclusions.

We should consider the process of dealing with privilege for an individual Member of Parliament and the way in which the Standards and Privileges Committee investigates issues of privilege and contempt. The present system is not working as it should. In 1981, I brought a complaint against the chairman of British Steel as I believed that there had been a breach of privilege. The Speaker, if he or she is so disposed, gives the individual Member the right to table a motion that is given precedence on the Floor of the House—it is taken straight after questions—to seek the approval of the House to refer the matter to the Committee.

That procedure is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong for the Speaker to have to decide whether the issue warrants being given that priority over the rest of the day's business. The Speaker is placed in a very difficult position. The decision cannot readily be deferred because it has to be taken on receipt of the complaint, which has to be made as soon as it is possible to report the breach to the Speaker. The Joint Committee might have considered a different procedure whereby the matter could be referred, if not directly by the Member to the Committee, at least by a truncated process. The Speaker, sitting in his or her quarters, might take the decision on behalf of the House.

The Social Security Committee—or was it the Liaison Committee?—referred a complaint to the Standards and Privileges Committee about the leaking of documents, so a Committee can refer a complaint and thereby route round the Speaker. I want an individual Member to have a fast route for application to have a complaint considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Mr. Sheldon

To clarify the point, the complaint came from the Social Security Committee to the Liaison Committee and eventually came before the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I am also concerned about what happens when the complaint gets to the Standards and Privileges Committee. I have served on the Members' Interests Committee and its successor post-Nolan from 1983, although I missed a couple of years. The mechanisms whereby we deal with privilege are wrong. The commissioner for standards and privileges—not the Commissioner for Standards—should be given the power to carry out the investigation in precisely the same way as she currently carries out investigations on matters of standards.

I argue that for precisely the same reason for which I argued for the new structure long before it was introduced: I believe that there is a danger that the Committee can be politicised during the process of considering a complaint against a Member in the period before a general election. My experience is that that is precisely what has happened. To be honest, that is always likely to happen. There will always be members of the Standards and Privileges Committee who have an element of political consideration in mind when considering such matters.

Under the standards procedure, that is no longer possible, because the commissioner—acting independently, and as an Officer of this House—assumes responsibility for the investigation. The investigation should be carried out by the commissioner under another procedure, who would report to the Standards and Privileges Committee in exactly the same way as she does now on standards. The result would be a more neutral consideration of the important issues.

I do not wish to refer to individual complaints, but I can think of one where I am convinced that consideration of the matter under the heading of privilege was being distorted before the general election.

I wish to refer to privilege as it relates to the protection of Members of Parliament in the carrying out of their public duties. "Erskine May" refers to harassment and molestation of a Member of the House of Commons, and defines the circumstances in which a Member might feel in a position to bring a complaint. I wish to give an example of Members not being given sufficient protection.

Last year, I was harassed at home by a Manchester business man. He rang me repeatedly and harassed me and my family. I reported the matter to Cumbria police, and the man got the message and stopped before the police had to intervene. Had I been prepared to identify the person, and had I referred the matter to Madam Speaker, she would—if I had provided evidence—probably have given it precedence. The matter would have stood referred to the Committee, which would have had to reach a judgment.

If my understanding of the system is correct, the person involved would have been brought before the House of Commons. However, the system does not necessarily deal with someone who is harassing a Member of Parliament. The person can be brought before the Privileges Committee of the House in so far as he is interfering with my rights as an individual Member of Parliament and preventing me from carrying out my public duties without fear of intimidation. In reality, we have no right to impose any penalty.

Equally, we could say that the matter could be referred to the police. However, because of all kinds of issues—I keep hearing one in particular: that it is "not in the public interest"—I am not convinced that there would be a prosecution. Parliament should be able to say to the authorities and the police that we require that the person involved in the intimidation be arraigned before the courts and prosecuted. That is what Members need to protect them from harassment by someone outside.

The harassment of me last year arose when I was investigating the background of the prosecution of Mr. Owen Oyston for rape. I had interviewed some 60 people in Lancashire over a couple of recesses and during the parliamentary term. I was carrying out the interviews with another person, a journalist named Andrew Rosthorne. He, it could be argued, has been acting as my agent. On 11 October, Mr. Rosthorne received 89 phone calls on his mobile phone from the same person who was harassing me. The calls were traced through Cellnet.

Mr. Rosthorne is writing a book about the matter, and we converse all the time about the case, and about another case that is coming before Preston Crown court concerning a Preston councillor, in which we feel equally under pressure from people who do not want us to get close to the truth. In so far as he is acting partly as my agent, Mr. Rosthorne needs some protection, but he has no protection whatever.

Mr. Rosthorne received 89 calls on one day and was harassed over three weeks. He was harassed last week on the telephone, and he can do very little about it. He has been to Blackburn police station to report the incidents, and he has referred the matter to Cellnet. However, he is being intimidated and harassed, and I am directly connected with him. For all I know, two or three of the strange phone calls that we received last week—one of which we managed to tape—were attempts to harass me as well. However, I have been unable to trace the calls.

This person is harassing a Member of Parliament and people outside involved in gathering information for that Member of Parliament. We are being impeded in our public duties. No process provides me with any sense of protection, and I believe that these matters should be considered not by the Joint Committee but by the powers-that-be when they consider legislation. Such legislation could go further than bribery and corruption. It might have to go into other areas where Members feel that they need protection.

I am worried about the legal position of the Intelligence and Security Committee, of which I am a member. As far as I am concerned, we are not a Committee of Parliament—to which I take strong exception. I believe strongly that our Committee should be a Committee of Parliament, enjoying all the privileges of Parliament, but it does not have those privileges. That will have to be discussed. The Committee might have looked at it—perhaps it is my fault for not drawing it to its attention. Perhaps the Government will consider what I am saying this evening.

Under present arrangements, the Standards and Privileges Committee cannot compel Members from the other place to appear before a Committee of the Commons. We can ask them, and they can agree to do it.

Mr. Alan Williams

That matter is referred to specifically in the report, which recommends that the Committee should be free to call such Members.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Absolutely—I read that recommendation. However, the recommendation is that we would have the right to bring before any Committee of the Commons a Member of the other place. That is my interpretation of the recommendation.

I wish to refer to an inquiry by the Standards and Privileges Committee into the case of a complaint against Lord Steel, who is now the Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament. The complaint was that, in 1997, he failed to supply an employment agreement in relation to £93,700 that he had received from the Countryside Movement. The complaint was upheld by the Committee. In other words, he was found to be in error.

The Committee's investigation took place after the general election. Lord Steel failed to make the declaration and submit the agreement before the election. If he had done so, it would have been an issue in the election, as a Liberal Democrat would have been identified with that contribution when we debated hunting. We could have asked him to appear before us, but we did not. Why not? The answer is simple: we could do nothing about it. Lord Steel had gone. He had flown off to the other place. We could not punish him by suspending him. In fact, we could do nothing to him. That is why the Committee could have gone a little further in its recommendations. We should have the right to require members of the other place to attend, but we should also have the right to impose a penalty on them for transgressions while they were Members of this House.

The Committee report on the Steel case states: We agree with the Commissioner on the failure to deposit an employment agreement. Had Lord Steel still been a Member of the House of Commons, we would have called on him to deposit a record of the relevant information, even though the period of employment had ceased. However, he managed to avoid justice in the House of Commons because he had left to go to the House of Lords. Perhaps the Committee should have considered that issue, and perhaps I was remiss in failing to draw it to its attention, but I am sure that the Government will wish to consider the matter when they conduct their general review of arrangements.

6.51 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest)

It is always a pleasure to listen to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). I do not often agree with him, but—as many people have said before me—I defend for ever his right to say it. That is what we are talking about this evening and I am sorry that so few hon. Members are present when we are considering an important and fundamental issue of democracy. Perhaps their absence is a measure of the trust that they have in those of us who are present to defend their rights.

I will immediately contradict myself, because we are talking about not the rights of Members of Parliament as individuals, but their rights as representatives of the electorate. In that respect, I am pleased to agree with the Leader of the House today when she said that the two key issues are freedom of speech and the right of Parliament to conduct its own affairs. We can all agree with that.

It has been an education to hear the wealth of wisdom and experience from right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken today, many of whom have taken part in the thorough determinations of the Committee. I am glad that we all agree that the report is a good basis for future action. My hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) set out the position of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends with his usual eloquence and clarity. I am sure that the House will agree with his point that this debate is essential to democracy, and that his statement that it is important to build on what is tried and tested will prove to be correct.

I also share the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend about the development of judicial review and the effect of the judgment in Pepper v. Hart. Some of my hon. Friends have suggested that that was a bad judgment and other hon. Members have suggested that it was a good judgment. However, we are all agreed that it was an important judgment in taking forward the relationship between the workings of Parliament, the judiciary, the court system and Ministers and Back Benchers. The case certainly deserves consideration. It might well be a good thing to encourage Ministers to be more careful and more accurate in their answers in Standing Committees that are considering Bills.

One concern that has emerged from today's debate is the potential conflict between Parliament and the courts. We were privileged—in the ordinary sense—to have the benefit of the experience and wisdom of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams). I understand his point about the importance of penalties, but I do not understand the suggestion that a certain sum might have more value to Labour Members than to Conservative Members. As far as I am aware, all Members of Parliament who do not hold ministerial office have the same salary. Deprivation of a certain sum would have the same effect on everyone, in or out of Parliament.

Mr. Alan Williams

It was the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) who said that a certain sum would be worth different amounts to different Members of Parliament. It was not my observation: I merely responded to it.

Mrs. Laing

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for elucidating that point. Perhaps I would agree with it if I won the lottery tonight and was, therefore, less concerned about how far my parliamentary salary would go next month.

I was pleased to hear the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who, as usual, brought wisdom and experience to our debate. I wholeheartedly agree with him about the vital and fundamental importance of freedom of speech. It might be our right now as parliamentarians, but it is our right only because it has been fought for over centuries on our behalf. Therefore, it is our duty to protect it. I hesitate to say this, because I have never found myself in disagreement with my right hon. Friend before and I am happy to take his advice on many matters, but I cannot quite agree with him on his proposal that the sub judice rule should be more flexible. That is another issue that calls into question the potential conflict between Parliament and the courts.

I was also interested to hear what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon had to say about privilege at press conferences that happened to take place under the roof of this building. I disagree with my right hon. Friend on that point. People at press conferences in this building should not be subject to privilege in the same way as those who participate in proceedings in this Chamber, and other proceedings in Committees that are reported to this Chamber. That issue highlights another point of great importance that my right hon. Friend did not mention as such. When important matters are being announced, they should not be announced to press conferences in other Rooms in this building. Ministers should be questioned and held to account not by journalists in press conferences in front of television cameras, but by the representatives of the electors here in this Chamber. This is where matters Ministers should bring matters to the attention of the House or of the public. It is almost as important as freedom of speech itself that hon. Members should be able to question Ministers and hold them to account here in the Chamber.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon made a fourth good point on the same theme. Would the supposed bravado of journalists, to which some Labour Members referred, be so evident if they were to be brought to the Bar of the House to answer questions?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

They would love it.

Mrs. Laing

The hon. Member for Workington says that they would love it, but, although they might want to feed off the publicity, would they love it in fact? My right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon distinguished between journalists and editors, and newspaper proprietors. If proprietors or editors wanted to publish a leaked report, it is possible that the threat of being brought before the Bar of the House would deter them. They are used to saying, "Publish and be damned", but I wonder how they would feel about being held to account themselves.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

The villain of the piece is not the journalist, but the Member of Parliament who leaks the document, and that is who should be held to account. The House has never been prepared to consider the possibility that leak inquiries should be carried out on oath. That is how we should tackle the leaking of documents. We should not penalise the people in the Press Gallery. There is no one there now, as is usual with the great and important occasions in this House, but that is another matter. We must avoid conflict with the press at all costs. Journalists are totally free.

Mrs. Laing

Once again, I find myself in disagreement with the hon. Gentleman. If someone takes the responsibility of using a document—or any other item—that he or she has procured by false means, that person must take the risk of being held to account. The hon. Gentleman and I should perhaps leave this dispute to another day, but I agree with him about the importance of defending the freedom of the press.

Mr. Bercow

I fear that my hon. Friend was finding the arguments of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) a little trying, but would she agree that it would be a matter of the utmost seriousness if the practice of journalistic freedom were to endanger people's lives—for example, the lives of witnesses to a criminal trial? Should we not deprecate such conduct?

Mrs. Laing

I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. I hope that we can continue this important discussion on another occasion.

It was also a pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). I can understand his unease about having a lawyer as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. I am a lawyer—or was once—although I was never as distinguished as Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead. However, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that peers remain parliamentarians, even after last night's sad events.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Laing

The Minister appears to question my use of the word "sad". Our history was changed in another place last night, and I believe that that was a sad sight. My point is merely that noble Lords are parliamentarians even when they are lawyers too, like many hon. Members.

Mr. Bill Michie

Don't call me a lawyer.

Mrs. Laing

I would not dream of insulting the hon. Gentleman in that way.

It was fascinating to hear the account of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne of the birth of the controversial Pepper v. Hart decision. I understand his reservations about the effect of that decision, but surely the process of interpretation by the courts is similar to the process of interpretation of the law in Committee. The Committee has a duty to look in great detail at the law while it is being made. That is the duty of all of us who are legislators. The court has a duty to examine the precise words of the law as they are to be applied. However, the same standards should apply, as the meaning and complexity of the words do not change.

I agree that Finance Bills are often extremely complex. If the Pepper v. Hart judgment encourages Ministers to be more careful and precise in their answers to questions in Committee, surely that is a good thing.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I have two brief points to make about Pepper v. Hart. First, it has had the good effect of causing Ministers to be careful in explaining the purport of a Bill, and certainly the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) did a magnificent job at the time of the case in 1976.

Secondly, it shows proper openness towards our debates. It is entirely right that the world at large should be able to read what is said and done in Parliament, and that the courts should be able to draw comfort from that, and assistance where that is available. However, courts have to be careful in the sense that it is often difficult to construe by a Minister's particular words—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention is far too long.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

I shall cut myself short.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has finished.

Mrs. Laing

It is always a pleasure to give way to my right hon. and learned Friend, as he understands these matters extremely well. Perhaps I can return to this matter in a moment, and he can finish his point if I give way to him again.

Another point occurred to me as I listened to the description from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne about what happened in the Committee that gave rise to the Pepper v. Hart judgment. Surely the courts will consider the weight or significance of any fact, witness or evidence put before them. I venture to suggest that the explanations given by some Ministers—for example, by the right hon. Gentleman or by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell)—would carry more weight or significance than the explanations given by others whose grasp of detail may not be so sure. As ever, it is up to the courts to decide whether the evidence given under the Pepper v. Hart rule is good evidence, or not.

Sir Nicholas Lyell

Does my hon. Friend agree that Pepper v. Hart is benign because it enables a clearer interpretation of statutes by Parliament, although it should be used with caution? Does she also agree that it is benign because it offers no threat to proceedings in the House, in comparison with my previous point about what is said and done in the House being used against an hon. Member in subsequent civil or criminal proceedings?

Mrs. Laing

Yes, I agree. I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend has had the chance to finish making his point.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) introduced an element of political correctness. He does not like the use of the word "privilege". I must disagree strongly with him. To speak in Parliament is a privilege that we exercise on behalf of the electorate. There is nothing politically incorrect about the word.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Parliament must be free from interference. In the 17th century, that interference came from the Crown, and that is why the Bill of Rights of 1689 was necessary. Other influences today may attempt to interfere with Parliament. One of the clearest examples from today's debate is the potential for conflict between Parliament and the judiciary, and the effects on our legislative and democratic processes of the development of judicial review. I dare to suggest that certain senior judicial appointments should in future be considered by Parliament. Some judges should not merely be appointed, but be subject to scrutiny beforehand. That would be an important safeguard of the separation of powers, one of the most important conventions of our constitution and safeguards of our freedom.

Mr. Bercow

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Laing

I am told that I have taken rather a long time, so I ask my hon. Friend to forgive me for not giving way. Hon. Members are anxious to conclude the debate, and reasonably so.

A future committee might be appointed to consider scrutiny of judicial appointments. If freedom of speech for Members extends to the Chamber, should it not also extend to certain written correspondence between Members and Ministers?

Mr. Bercow

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Laing

Of course I will.

Mr. Bercow

I am exceptionally grateful to my hon. Friend. It is dangerous of me to disobey the instructions of the Whips, but I do so in extremis. Does my hon. Friend agree that parliamentary scrutiny of future judicial appointments would be less necessary were it not for an exponential increase in judicial review and the recent passage of the Human Rights Act 1998?

Mrs. Laing

I agree entirely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I am sorry that he was not here earlier to make a full speech. Judicial appointments are extremely important and entirely relevant to the points before us.

It seems logical that if the words spoken in the House and questions answered by Ministers in the House are privileged, correspondence between Members and Ministers on matters before the House should also be privileged.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

To some extent.

Mrs. Laing

That is fair enough. As the Joint Committee clearly enjoyed deliberating on the report before us, it may wish to consider the points that I have raised. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) suggested earlier—he has disappeared from his place, but I can see him—that he very much enjoyed the Committee's proceedings. We have enjoyed hearing his account of them. However, these matters are not merely matters of enjoyment, but matters of the historic development of our democracy.

As ever, it was a pleasure to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who has already apologised for being unable to be here now. He, like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, is a learned Member, whether or not he is entitled formally to the accolade. He makes extremely good points from his position as a practising lawyer. I understand his anxiety about the waiver of privilege proposed in the report, and about the consequent possible introduction of a party political aspect to these matters. However, I sincerely hope that he is wrong, and that those fears are unfounded. The House should continue to put the working of democracy and the dignity of the House above party politics.

The same applies to some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Workington. I hope that his concerns will also prove unfounded, but it would be bad for the House and for democracy if he and my hon. Friend were not wrong to believe that the proceedings of the House and matters of judgment of privilege will become party political footballs. I hope that both hon. Members are wrong.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire concluded with distinction that when we are considering amendment of such a fundamental piece of the democratic structure as the Bill of Rights—one of the foundations of our democracy and of the many democracies around the world that are based on ours—we must not become carried away. We must realise that the rights that had to be protected in 1689 were considerably different from those of 1999. It is a question of balance. The most important part of the Committee's report is on page 2 of the executive summary, which states: The Joint Committee concluded that corruption, a serious and insidious offence, can only be dealt with effectively by using the police and the courts. [Interruption.] No, it appears that whoever is missing cannot be found at all.

Change is a question of balance. In commending the report, we are giving up a little—

Mr. Bercow

Would my hon. Friend allow me to intervene?

Mrs. Laing

No, I must disappoint my hon. Friend. It really is time that I concluded. It is a question of balance and, in commending this report, we are relinquishing some of the freedoms that were granted by the Bill of Rights many centuries ago.

Sir Nicholas Lyell


Mrs. Laing

I cannot give way even to my right hon. and learned Friend.

We are gaining a balanced privilege that is more relevant to the present day. There will be few prosecutions for bribery and other insidious offences through the courts. As the report says, the occasions when a court will be called upon to question a parliamentary proceeding will be rare. Therefore, I conclude that it is a question of balance and that the report should be commended.

Although this is an Adjournment debate, it is also a take-note debate and I hope that Parliament as a whole will have the opportunity to reflect on the many valuable points raised today.

7.21 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping)

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing) has wound up the debate so comprehensively that there is little left for me to add. I noticed that she received a great deal of advice during her speech. In fact, I thought at one stage that she was going to talk about grammar schools in Boston and Skegness—but I have a feeling that the House may have missed the opportunity to discuss that subject tonight.

Like other hon. Members, I thank Lord Nicholls and the Joint Committee for their hard work. The report is extremely well written and easy to understand and I know that it has been well received, not only in this place but across the Commonwealth.

I was struck by Committee members' references to creative tension. Some Committee members were pressed men—such as my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) and, I suspect, my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams)—and others, such as the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), volunteered to serve. The subject clearly suited the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who made an important contribution to the debate.

It was clear from the speeches of those hon. Members who served on the Committee that they believe that the work is valuable. They are excited about this rather dry subject and their thinking has developed. Their enthusiasm spread to other hon. Members during the debate. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire said that the report has not received much attention, but I have a feeling—I will put it no stronger than that—that the report will develop a head of steam. This is the beginning of a very important debate.

The Committee report addresses Parliament, and Parliament must consider the issues and decide how to proceed. This debate has provided an important opportunity to listen to different views, of which many have been expressed. Some of my hon. Friends sought to extend the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) was keen to add things to the Committee report, and we have noted his comments.

In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made it clear that the Government generally support the report. She put down only two markers on matters about which she required some advice. She flagged first the issue of relinquishing the power to imprison and introducing a fine instead. She asked candidly for different views on the subject, and that is what she got—there was no consensus in the House. We must take stock of the discussion and decide how to proceed.

There was also some argument about breaches and the early publication of Select Committee reports. We all accept that the person who leaks a report is liable to severe punishment, but I am not as convinced as some hon. Members that dragging journalists and even proprietors to the Bar of the House will have much value. I think that it will tend to pour petrol on the fire rather than extinguish it. Nevertheless, we sought views about this issue at the beginning of the debate and we must reflect upon the comments that have been made.

Mr. Bercow

I note the tender mercy that the Minister displays towards the journalistic profession—a tendency with which many hon. Members on both sides of the House would concur. Will he comment specifically on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs. Laing)? She said that Ministers suspected of leaking Government or other documents should be obliged to respond to questioning and to do so under oath. If Ministers are not guilty, they will have nothing to fear from such investigations.

Mr. Tipping

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself for 24 hours, he will receive the benefit of the advice that the Prime Minister intends to issue to Ministers. This is a trailer of coming attractions—it is a leak. The best is yet to come, and I urge the hon. Gentleman to watch the screen tomorrow.

Mr. Bercow


Mr. Tipping

I must make some progress.

There has been much discussion of Pepper v. Hart, but no one mentioned judicial review except in passing. I believe that it is more corruptive and pervasive than the Pepper v. Hart judgment and I believe that we should reflect carefully upon the whole matter of judicial review. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who has much experience in this area, asked whether Pepper v. Hart had changed the behaviour of Ministers in Committee. It is a question of balance: the Minister responding to questions must try to be open while providing correct and factual answers. It is important to strike the right balance.

Mrs. Laing

I agree with the Minister's comments about judicial review. As a consequence of judicial review, the judiciary is becoming more powerful and getting involved in legislating. Therefore, does the Minister agree that the judiciary should be subject to scrutiny before appointment?

Mr. Tipping

We can look at organisation in different ways. The current mood of the House is that Select Committees, for example, should have a greater say in judicial appointments, and the matter deserves careful consideration over a long period. If the hon. Lady is seeking a personal opinion, I believe that we should have that debate; there is a lot to be said for reviewing our procedures. That is what we are doing today.

To return to Pepper v. Hart, we must recognise that Government lawyers, more than anyone else, like and rely on that judgment. Therefore, the Government have no intention of changing that convention, whatever the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) might think. He did not like something so he wanted to turn back the clock. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne referred to turning the clock backwards or forwards in relation to the internet. He has conducted a long and strong campaign to make Select Committee proceedings available on the internet the following day and he is clearly making progress with Ministers' evidence. I believe that technology will drive change—it is sometimes irresistible. As we move through the information age, we will have to change our practices.

Other Members, including the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) and the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), referred to the difficulties that arise. These are complex matters. There is an understanding in the Chamber that we need clarity and certainty. People often tell me that they do not mind what rules there are, provided that they know for certain what they are. Those Members who talked about the need for clarity, certainty and transparency—for a clear and rational understanding that is not driven by political considerations—made some of the most important points of the debate.

It is essential to discuss the way forward. In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House made it clear that there was a general welcome for the proposals—the vast majority of the 39 proposals are acceptable. There are problems with some of them, but, with thought and discussion, those problems can be resolved. After the debate in this House, our colleagues in the House of Lords will want a similar debate. The point was made that these matters also affect that House. It will not be long before their lordships also discuss the report, although that is a matter for them.

Throughout the debate, reference has been made to the Law Commission's draft report on corruption. There is clearly a desire among hon. Members that it should not be kicked into the long grass, as one hon. Member put it. I assure hon. Members that that is not the case. The Home Office is actively working on the draft Bill, but it is still holding consultations. At this time of the parliamentary year, it would be most unwise—especially with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House sitting beside me—for me to give any indication of when legislation will be introduced. However, the matter has certainly not been put on the back burner.

Mr. Tyler

As the Leader of the House is sitting on the Treasury Bench, will the Minister tell us whether such a Bill might be a candidate for the pre-scrutiny review that we found so useful in a number of other non-contentious cases?

Mr. Tipping

If the hon. Gentleman reads the record, he will see that when my right hon. Friend opened the debate, she pointed out that the matter was a clear candidate for pre-legislative scrutiny. I hope that it may be possible to produce a Bill in the not too distant future and to put it out for consultation, because although the issues are complex, it would be fairly easy to make progress on them.

The hon. Member for South Staffordshire rightly pointed out that we could take some action now; he mentioned the laws on sub judice, although I think that that is one of the more difficult examples. My impression is that whatever action we took, matters would remain more or less the same, in that the Speaker currently has great powers of discretion. As everyone is aware, these are extremely difficult issues. The hon. Gentleman said that we could also make progress on giving advice to witnesses who appear before Select Committees. I think that we could make some progress in that respect.

However, the real way to make progress is to go ahead on the recommendations of the Joint Committee report—to task it either to the Modernisation Committee or to the Procedure Committee. The Procedure Committee is already following up some comments on parliamentary papers. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is minded to ask those Committees to explore those matters so that we can develop and implement good practice before introducing a new Bill—whatever it is called. It might be called the Parliamentary Privileges Bill, or it might have a more modern title if people would prefer that. However, we shall need more legislation.

Some Members pointed out that we last considered this subject in 1967, and that little progress has been made since that time. However, the Government set up the Joint Committee and asked it to undertake its work. We have accepted most of its recommendations; we are keen to make progress. It is important to modernise, but we should draw on our traditions. We must ensure that Parliament as a body takes seriously its rights and responsibilities. The Joint Committee report is a cornerstone on which we can build.

Sir Peter Emery

I thank the hon. Gentleman. Will he give—

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Sir Peter Emery

By leave of the House—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister has finished.

Sir Peter Emery

By leave of the House—

Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Is it the House's pleasure that the motion be withdrawn?

Sir Peter Emery

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am putting a Question to the House. Is it the House's pleasure that the motion be withdrawn?

Hon. Members


Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

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