HC Deb 31 October 2001 vol 373 cc885-906

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House—

  1. (i) approves the First Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 297); and
  2. (ii) accordingly suspends Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Member for Coventry North West, from the service of the House for three weeks.—[Mr. McNulty.]

[The Seventh Report from the Committee on Standards and Privileges, Session 2000–01, HC 465, on the Complaint against Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, is relevant.]

3.44 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I rise to support the motion but, for obvious reasons, I take no pleasure in so doing. I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) for his apology and acceptance of the recommendations of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges.

This is not the first occasion on which I have taken part in one of these debates, but it is the first time that I have done so as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. The present Committee has done no more than write the last sentence of the report produced on the eve of the general election by the Committee chaired by Lord Sheldon. I wish to pay Lord Sheldon a warm tribute: he was a good House of Commons man and a doughty fighter in the campaign to raise the esteem in which the House is held by the public at large. I believe that good progress was made in the course of the previous Parliament in restoring the House's reputation, and I hope that we will make further progress in the same direction during the current Parliament.

I should also like to express my thanks to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who held the previous Standards and Privileges Committee together with great skill when Lord Sheldon was absent through illness at a very difficult time, and who remains on the Committee as a powerful voice for good sense.

The Committee's findings are based on the investigation carried out by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Elizabeth Filkin. The report that she has produced on this highly complex and difficult complaint is of a very high standard, for which the whole House should be grateful. Whether we always agree with her conclusions or not, we should recognise the diligence, thoroughness and scrupulous fairness and objectivity she brings to the cases that she has to investigate.

The Standards and Privileges Committee has dealt with this case, as I am sure that it will deal with every other that comes before it, without any concern for the party affiliation of the Member concerned. We will do our best to be fair both to the House, which has asked us to safeguard its reputation, and to the Members who appear before us, to whom we will give a fair hearing. However, my ambition as Chairman of the Committee is not to have to take part in too many of these debates.

The main purpose of the system that we have created should not be the investigation of past offences but the prevention of future offences. We should all seek to ensure that our conduct does not give rise to well-founded complaints. We should be scrupulous in our adherence to the rules. Where there is any doubt in our minds, we should seek advice and give a full explanation of the circumstances in good faith, and then act on the advice that we are given. We cannot control what use other people may make of our complaints system, but we in this House should not use it to do down political opponents by making trivial or politically motivated complaints. Therefore, I ask for the support of the entire House in my attempt to work myself out of a job.

I shall outline the facts of the present case as concisely as I can.

Between 1988 and 1990, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was chairman of a company in the Maxwell group called Hollis Industries. According to the company's published accounts, the chairman was paid £200,000. In 1998, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) made a complaint to the then Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West had failed to register this as a remunerated directorship. The hon. Gentleman told Sir Gordon that his chairmanship of Hollis had been unpaid, that he had never received this money, that he had never expected to receive it, and that the published accounts of the company were in error. Evidence from two firms of accountants supported his assertion that no such payment had been made to him personally. Sir Gordon did not uphold the complaint, and the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges agreed with his conclusion.

Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend made a fresh complaint to the present Standards Commissioner on the basis of new evidence which had come to light. Her inquiries revealed that in 1990, while the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was chairman of Hollis, he had negotiated an agreement with the Maxwell interests for his own company, TransTec, to provide management services to a Hollis subsidiary called Lock, in return for a payment to TransTec. The agreement included the provision of the hon. Gentleman's own services as executive chairman of Lock. In October 1990, the hon. Gentleman sent Hollis an invoice from his home address requesting payment of a fee for management service provided to Hollis Industries plc as agreed in the sum of £200,000. Hollis's finance director wrote "Approved" on the invoice, which also carried a further note saying: Paid by PAGB: Recharge H Industries". "PAGB" is Pergamon AGB, another Maxwell company; "H Industries" is Hollis.

The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West subsequently made several further attempts to secure the agreed payment from the Maxwell interests. Early in December, the finance director's secretary attached a note to the invoice, recording a telephone call from the hon Gentleman. It stated: Geoffrey is not registered for VAT. Proposes make cheque payable to him personally. At about that time, a payment of £200,000 was made to someone by Pergamon AGB, which then sent Hollis an invoice for the amount. Exactly what happened to that payment is still hotly disputed; the House will have heard the hon. Gentleman's statement. The commissioner established that £200,000 went out of Pergamon's bank account, £200,000 went into the account of the hon. Gentleman's company, TransTec, and the debt owed to TransTec by another of the hon. Gentleman's companies was reduced by £200,000.

The commissioner concluded that the hon. Gentleman or his beneficial interests had received the payment. The hon. Gentleman has consistently and strenuously denied that he received the money. The Committee gave him three months to see whether he could find the Pergamon cheque, which would tell us who actually got the money, but unfortunately the cheque has not been found. Although this is a matter of the greatest importance to the hon. Gentleman, it was less important to the previous Committee. The present Committee takes no view on this one way or the other. Indeed, our report says: We do not assume that payment was made to, or benefited, Mr. Robinson or one of his companies. That does not mean, of course, that the Committee cleared him of receiving the payment. In the Committee's view, the payment was agreed, and the submission of the invoice indicated that the payment was expected. The interest was registrable whether the payment was received or not, and the hon. Gentleman failed to register it.

Much more serious than the failure to register the interest was the hon. Gentleman's failure to volunteer information to the 1998 inquiry. He was asked at that time whether he had received or had expected to receive any benefit in respect of his chairmanship of Hollis. He said no, but the reality is that Hollis and its subsidiary company, Lock, were the same thing, and TransTec and the hon. Gentleman were the same thing. However, the hon. Gentleman supplied no information to Sir Gordon Downey about the negotiations involving TransTec and Lock and no information about his efforts to secure the payment which had been agreed. He made available none of the documents, least of all the invoice he submitted. He said that he had forgotten about the arrangement when he was questioned about Hollis in 1998. If the Standards and Privileges Committee had been given the full story at that time, it might well have come to a very different conclusion.

We consider that our predecessors and the former commissioner were misled as a result of what the hon. Gentleman failed to tell them in 1998. Misleading the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges is a very serious matter. It is often far more serious than the offence on which the Committee is being misled.

The House is a forgiving place if a Member owns up and openly admits that he has made a mistake. I made that point in the last debate of this kind on 1 March last year. A Member who is not frank and open with the commissioner, the Committee and the House must expect a more serious penalty as a result.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does anybody on this Committee have any inkling of what it was like to deal with the byzantine affairs of the late Bob Maxwell? Just trying to deal with Bob Maxwell leads to difficulties.

Sir George Young

The previous Committee examined this matter at length and took all the circumstances into account, including the byzantine nature of the Maxwell empire.

The House will be aware that in the last Parliament the Committee upheld complaints that the hon. Gentleman had failed to register interests in July 1998, November 1998 and March 1999. In November 1998, the hon. Gentleman was required to apologise to the House by means of a personal statement.

The period of suspension that the Committee has recommended reflects, on the one hand, the seriousness of the offence and, on the other, the fact that the hon. Gentleman and his solicitor co-operated fully with the commissioner and the Committee in allowing the matter to be resolved without delay. I ask the House to approve the Committee's recommendation.

3.54 pm
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

I am delighted that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is now Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I very much hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will support his view that it is important to reduce the number of occasions when such matters come before the House.

I have read both the original and supplementary reports. Within the terms of reference of our inquiry and investigative system, they are undoubtedly persuasive, and I hope that the House will endorse them. However, it is fair to say that the anxiety about this case does not simply relate to the individual and his circumstances.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire rightly referred to the way in which the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges approaches its business. There are concerns in all parts of the House about the operation of our investigative system and, indeed, the practice of the Select Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

I draw the attention of the House and, in particular, that of the right hon. Gentleman, to the report produced by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege on which I think the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who has just left the Chamber, and certainly the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) served with me during the previous Parliament. In that document, we considered carefully a number of issues that related to the discipline of Members and the occasions when non-Members confront or affront the way in which the House operates. Those are matters of considerable importance, and not only in the context of privilege.

Now that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has taken command of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, I ask him to look at that report, in particular the section—chapter 6—that deals with disciplinary and penal powers and the part that deals with natural justice, whether that relates to our fellow citizens or to hon. Members. The section on procedural fairness contains matters of concern that have not been dealt with by the Select Committee or any other House authorities as far as I am aware. It is certainly raised in the annexe to the present report by the hon. Gentleman whose conduct is under examination. The procedures that have been followed are at least open to some question. I hope that referring to the work of the Joint Committee will mean that those issues of fairness can be dealt with properly.

I should have mentioned that the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), who was then Leader of the House, was also involved in the exercise. I think that she shares the experience of 18 months of studying these issues with great care and with the assistance of a number of legal authorities in the other place and much other legal expertise surrounding us.

I do not object to the conclusion or the recommendation of the present report, but it would be remiss of the House if we did not take this opportunity to record that there is some anxiety in the House and outside it about the way we discipline ourselves in these matters. I share the aspiration of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, the Chairman of the Committee, that progress should be made in restoring the reputation of the House. In that respect, I too share his ambition that we should at least reduce if not remove the need to come back to the House with reports of this sort.

3.58 pm
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I had not intended to speak, but I have been scribbling as I have been listening. I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), for his overgenerous remarks to me, which are much appreciated.

I must point out that throughout the previous Parliament every report that the Select Committee produced was unanimous. That is important as it demonstrates the way in which the House is determined to resolve any internal problems, in spite of what the press said about the Labour majority—under the rules of the House every Committee must reflect the numbers on the Floor of the House.

The present shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), was one member of the Select Committee, as was Martin Bell, our former colleague. The present Chairman, when he was shadow Leader of the House, said that if the Conservative Whips could not keep his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst under control, he found it hard to imagine how the Committee could do so. It was a great achievement to get through those four years without a single non-consensual report. I hope that that trend will continue under the present Chairman.

What triggered my speech was the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), the Father of the House. He referred to the byzantine Maxwell empire. That is an irrelevance. However byzantine the empire was, the invoice did not come from Maxwell: it was to Maxwell, and with it was a declaration of expectation. Where there is expectation, there is the danger of a conflict of interest. If there is an expectation of a benefit, it must be declared; that is clearly stated in the rules. As the Chairman of the Select Committee rightly said, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that, as far back as 1998, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), sadly, denied to Sir Gordon Downey that there was any expectation.

May I put a point to the Leader of the House? He knows well that during the last Parliament the Committee on Standards and Privileges tried to address some of the nonsense in the code of conduct. The code had been drawn up in a hurry; it was too detailed and extremely difficult for Members to understand. It is certainly difficult for Members to remember all the facets of the code, so we urgently need a debate so that Members have a clear idea early in this Parliament what is expected of them. May we have a debate on the report proposing changes to the current system issued by the former Committee?

Like the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), I also draw attention to the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, chaired so well by Lord Nicholls and of which I and many colleagues were members. Although Ministers have accepted that report, it has never been debated; apart from its initial reception, it has not been significantly addressed. The report contains important issues that need to be addressed in the context of the new human rights entitlement for everyone, including Members of Parliament.

4.2 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

These debates on disciplinary matters and the misdemeanours of hon. Members are somewhat doleful occasions—they are certainly not a time for celebration or glee. I bear no animosity towards the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), although I was the complainant who launched not only this inquiry but several previous ones. This is the fourth time that the hon. Gentleman has been reprimanded by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

My aim throughout has been to try to uphold and enforce the rules of the House—rules that the Labour party, especially in opposition, was anxious to strengthen and make stricter. During the past four years, the Labour Government have themselves become entangled in a number of disciplinary matters. I agree with the observations of right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about possible reforms and improvements to the disciplinary process. The rules on registration have become unnecessarily and even unworkably tight in several respects; they invite many trivial, vexatious and technical complaints that do little to raise the status or reputation of the House. That is perhaps a matter for debate on another occasion.

The matters covered in the Select Committee's report are certainly not technical or trivial; they are serious allegations and I am sure that the House was pleased to accept the apology of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West. Personally, I should also like an apology from the Labour and Government media manipulation units, which constantly rubbished my early efforts to get to the bottom of this complex matter, and in particular to expose the relationship between the late Robert Maxwell and the Labour party.

I am glad to say that the first report of the Standards and Privileges Committee of 2001–02, particularly when read in conjunction with the seventh report of the previous Session, published on 3 May, sheds considerable light on one aspect of that very complex web of undeclared payments between the Robert Maxwell empire and new Labour. To that extent, I feel vindicated.

As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the report is based on an investigation by Mrs. Filkin, the present Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It is a comprehensive and a fair report. The standard of proof required, at least by the Committee, goes some way beyond what has been required in the past. If I compare the way in which Neil Hamilton was treated by Sir Gordon Downey, who was really satisfied with a balance of probabilities rule of evidence, with the standards required by the present Committee, I find that the rules of evidence have been tightened, and rightly so.

In addition, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was given an additional three months to try to find an innocent explanation for the £200,000 payment. I actually believe that that had more to do with the impending election, and the Government's desire to get the matter pushed beyond the election date, than anything else. That was a mistake; if we had dealt with the matter in the summer, we could now be entering a new Parliament with a clean slate. As it is, this whole matter of what the public media call sleaze is already contaminating this Parliament, and that will do nothing for our reputation in the House—although that has never been much of a concern to the Government.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire outlined, this is the second investigation into the subject. The first was conducted by Sir Gordon Downey, the previous commissioner, in 1998. We can now see that that earlier investigation was somewhat superficial, and certainly incomplete. As regards the disputed £300,000 payment from the Maxwell companies to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West, that was in the audited accounts of the company concerned, and Sir Gordon found some additional evidence by way of inter-company invoices for the same amount.

However, at that time the hon. Gentleman was given the benefit of the doubt by the commissioner and by the Standards and Privileges Committee because no invoice was discovered. There was no piece of paper on which the hon. Gentleman had sought or demanded the £300,000, nor were the cash books recording the payment found. That was because the companies concerned—the Maxwell companies—had collapsed and were in administration and the books of records were held by Arthur Andersen, the administrators. The Committee at that time, for reasons that I do not fully understand, decided not to investigate those records, and when I made a request to do the work I was actually barred from looking at those records, also for reasons that I do not fully understand.

The crucial fact, which really should worry the House, is that those documents and that invoice were found the following year in an investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry, conducting its own inquiry. The real scandal of this whole episode is that that information has been covered up; I use that phrase accurately and in the knowledge of what I am alleging.

At the time, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. That DTI inquiry, which was started early in 1999, was undertaken in response to four letters that I had written the year before about the business affairs of that part of the Robert Maxwell empire. I pointed out glaring breaches of company law, pension fund irregularities, undeclared payments to directors and so on.

I specifically and in writing asked the DTI to undertake an inquiry under section 432 of the Companies Acts and to do so by means of an external, independent inquiry, with full publication of the results, precisely because there would otherwise be a clear conflict of interest—one Department would investigate the affairs of a serving Labour Minister. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was then the Paymaster General at the Treasury and therefore intimately involved in taxation and expenditure matters, as I was when I was Paymaster General some time before.

To avoid any suspicion that the Labour party was investigating its own affairs and might be tempted to cover up the matter, I asked for an investigation under a specific section of the Companies Acts, but the Secretary of State replied saying, among other things, that he would wish to be as open as possible on these matters. There is a certain irony in those words in the light of what happened afterwards, but I took that phrase to mean that he acceded to my request. I was wrong, as I shall shortly describe, but the important thing is that that inquiry found everything—in other words, it found all the evidence and documents that the Committee had not found.

The invoice was discovered by the investigators in the DTI, as well as the cashbook entries and so on, but no action was taken. Instead, on the day that the House rose for the Christmas recess at the end of 1999, the Secretary of State answered a planted parliamentary question, asked by a Labour Member, saying that no action would be taken. I was not even given the courtesy of being sent a copy of that reply; I discovered it during the Christmas recess. In other words, the DTI knew that that was the missing evidence, and it sat on it. Of course, the evidence was very embarrassing because it showed the Maxwell links to the Labour party and the misdemeanours of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West, who had just resigned as a Minister.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

The right hon. Gentleman has attempted to associate Robert Maxwell with new Labour or, recently, the Labour party, three times during his speech. Has he any evidence of Robert Maxwell's link in financial terms with new Labour or the Labour party, as opposed to Robert Maxwell's link to individual people in a private capacity?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I am using the term "Labour party" in a rather general sense. Certainly, many serving Labour Ministers, including the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, received money for their private offices from the hon. Gentleman, whose wealth derives from the links and business relationships that are the subject of the report. I suggest that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard) reads the two reports and all the appendices, and then he would discover what I am talking about.

The point that I am making is that the information in full is contained in that DTI inquiry report, which today sits in a safe at the DTI. That inquiry was launched in response to the points that I made in 1998. The information exists—and if there is an innocent explanation for the relationship and the flow of payments, let us hear it. Let the Government publish the inquiry or, at least, let us know what conclusion it reached.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want to mislead the House, but I am not aware of any evidence that the leader of the Labour party or the then shadow Chancellor ever received money from Robert Maxwell. [HON. MEMBERS: "He did not say that."] Well, I understood him to say that. However, does he accept that when a similar allegation was made in Private Eye about Neil Kinnock, a former leader of the Opposition, it was not only denied but Maxwell received damages?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

It is precisely to get to the bottom of the matter that I want the Government to publish the information that they have. We know that they carried out an inquiry, because that was confirmed to me, eventually. It is a modest request from me that the information be published.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

It would be of benefit to the House if Members remembered that the Prime Minister's press secretary, Mr. Alastair Campbell, was employed as political editor of The Mirror directly by Robert Maxwell and was clearly a very close associate of him. A member of the present Cabinet was also employed directly by Robert Maxwell and, if I remember rightly, a Member in the other place—

Mr. Speaker

Order. We drifting away from the report. We should confine our remarks to it.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

The late Robert Maxwell was the great Labour tycoon. That much is known. We need information to get to the bottom of the relationship.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

As my right hon. Friend knows, I was involved in the investigation with him and I made a complaint to the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I also made a complaint to the chairman of the Inland Revenue, asking him to investigate where the payment of £200,000 had gone. Does my right hon. Friend know whether the Committee on Standards and Privileges asked the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) to produce his tax return, which would show whether he had returned the £200,000 payment? If the hon. Gentleman did not receive the payment, would my right hon. Friend expect the Inland Revenue to investigate where it had gone?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Issues of taxation are rather wider than the responsibilities of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, but I will touch on tax law before I conclude.

The only reason that the second inquiry took place and the cover-up failed was that an investigative journalist, Mr. Tom Bower, obtained the invoice in question. I do not know from whom he obtained it or how he obtained it, but he did and the invoice was published in a national newspaper. The newspaper and Mr. Bower were both threatened with a libel action by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, although that was quite quickly dropped. It was clearly just bluff and bluster to try to silence the press, but the Secretary of State's libel action was undertaken at public expense. When I recently asked how much taxpayers had paid to help the Secretary of State to launch his abortive libel action, I was told that that information was not available. Perhaps another cover-up is in the making there.

After further letters from me, the disclosure of the invoice enabled Mrs. Filkin to reopen her inquiry. The invoice showed beyond any question that, even if one accepts that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West did not receive the money into his bank account, he certainly requested or solicited it. I have a copy of the invoice with me. It appears on his writing paper, is for management services worth £200,000 and is marked "paid". Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire alluded to that in his speech. There is solid evidence that some rules of the House have been broken.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Does my right hon. Friend think it worth remarking on the fact that when the journalist, Tom Bower, published the story that he had discovered the invoice and rang up the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), who had prepared it, to tell him that, the response was not one of surprise? Instead—if I remember the words correctly that have been repeatedly quoted in the press—he said something along the lines of, "You're not supposed to have that."

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

That is how it is recorded in the book about this event. I am reluctant to go beyond what I have witnessed or found in documents. That must remain someone else's version of events, but it does fit into a pattern.

The crucial factor was the discovery and publication of the additional facts, because that allowed the inquiry to be reopened. It became clear that the 1998 inquiry, which had effectively exonerated the hon. Gentleman, was incomplete. The reports by the Committee on Standards and Privileges constantly refer to the Department of Trade and Industry report. They confirm my suspicions about the Maxwell group and show that I was not simply trawling through a host of unsubstantiated allegations about Mr. Maxwell.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) mentioned taxation. No one disputes that the £300,000 payment was made, but the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West said that it was not paid into his bank account. However, if the payment was made for management services without tax or national insurance contributions being deducted, that contravened section 311 of the Companies Acts. If the payment was designed to go into a personal service company, value added tax should have been included, and it was not. The DTI did nothing about that. The Government say that they are against tax evasion. Why then, when one of their Departments had evidence that tax was being evaded, did they not pass the matter on to the tax authorities as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold?

Stock exchange regulations are another example. It is serious to breach them, but there is evidence in the voluminous appendices to the 3 May report that the prospectus issued to the shareholders of another Maxwell company, Central and Sheerwood plc, was misleading in a number of material respects.

I pointed that out in a letter to the DTI and asked what action it proposed to take, but it has done nothing. The Government are considering making it criminal for directors to be involved in anti-competitive behaviour, yet when they have evidence in their own report that a shareholders circular was misleading, they sit on it and do nothing. Indeed, a few days before Christmas they used a planted question to issue the statement that they did not propose to take further action. That is why I have no hesitation in calling this a scandal and a cover-up. They do not deny that the report contains that information. I have corresponded with the previous and present Secretaries of State and there has been no denial that the report covered that subject and that the information exists.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

To get the record straight, and as the right hon. Gentleman is hanging out this so-called dirty washing, can he clarify his entry in the register? Some of his hon. Friends who are engaged in moonlighting jobs and directorships include the amounts that they receive. As he is hounding almost everyone in the Labour party, how much has he received? Why has he not put that in the register?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)


Mr. Skinner

How much—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat when I am speaking. That intervention is wholly outside the scope of the report that we are debating. To the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), I have to say that, as Mr. Speaker ruled earlier, we are in danger of straying too far into the general from the particular matter that is before the House.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I would love to respond to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but you have a solemn and strict expression on your face, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so I shall return to the matter being debated.

The latest ploy by the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is to say that the whole affair is none of his responsibility—claiming that despite the fact that the Department of which he was Secretary of State was involved, everything was done by civil servants. Why, then, did he answer my letters on the subject? Why did he correspond with me? Why did he answer written parliamentary questions on the subject? It was his Department and he is constitutionally accountable to the House for what went on in his Department. Moreover, it was he—or, to be charitable, someone who reported to him—who decided to instigate an in-house inquiry, rather than the independent external one that I had requested precisely to avoid allegations of cover-up or conflict of interest.

Those are the clear facts. The House has got the report despite the Government's best efforts to suppress the information. To this day, all that information remains secret in the Department of Trade and Industry, which could quite easily launch a new investigation under another section of the Companies Act, with publication guaranteed if it so wished, to get to the bottom of the many issues connected with company law, taxation, pension funds and stock exchange regulations that I have highlighted and to which the reports before the House allude.

We have not got to the bottom of the links between the Maxwell empire and new Labour. That is why we need a full inquiry, a proper inquiry, an independent inquiry, with the results published. If we do not get that, the House will be in the unhappy position of being able to discipline individual Members of Parliament, but not the Government. That has to change.

4.27 pm
Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak)

I rise as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), I am a reluctant contributor to the debate, but, given the work that the Committee has been carrying out for the past few months, some of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) need to be either put into context or contradicted.

The Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), expressed the hope that in future politically motivated and trivial complaints would not be brought to the Committee. I do not suggest that that is true of the complaint that is the subject of our debate, but I find it a bit rich, as well as in poor taste, that the complainant should gloat about the outcome of a report for half an hour. Furthermore, in his speech today the right hon. Member for Wells went far beyond not only the Committee's report, but his original complaint.

Let me give an example. The right hon. Gentleman criticised the Committee for having given the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) a further three months to produce evidence about the cheque and whether he had received it. As has already been pointed out by two hon. Members, whether the hon. Gentleman received the cheque was not an issue for the Committee: the issuing of an invoice and the expectation of being paid was sufficient to warrant a declaration. Although the question of whether he had received the cheque was of great interest to the hon. Gentleman, the Committee did not consider it an issue and it agreed unanimously—with the support of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Independent members of the Committee—to allow the extra time for the hon. Gentleman to try to determine to his own satisfaction what had happened to that cheque.

The right hon. Member for Wells went on to draw parallels with the Hamilton case. Of course, in that case a large number of allegations were dismissed. Once again, the conclusion that the Committee reached four years ago—I was a Committee member then—did not depend on the receipt of the money. The expectation of receiving it was sufficient to merit a declaration.

My next point is brief and I make it for the sake of accuracy. Several times, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned a £300,000 cheque—[Interruption.] He has acknowledged his mistake; a £200,000 cheque was under discussion. However, that repeated exaggeration did not help his case.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asked about the Inland Revenue. The Committee did not raise the matter with the Inland Revenue to try to establish whether the cheque had been cashed and dealt with in the usual way. Again, that was for exactly the same reason; what happened to the cheque did not matter to us. There was an issue about the invoice and expectation of receipt, so a declaration was needed. Where the cheque ended up was not the most important thing for the Committee to investigate.

I am offended by the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Wells that somehow there was a cover-up to which the Committee was party. That is certainly not—

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I have never alleged that the Committee is in any way implicated in a cover-up; it is the Government who are in the dock. I was making the point that the Committee was denied information by the Government—specifically the DTI—which it could have used to come to a much earlier conclusion.

Mr. Levitt

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his clarification. The commissioner looked into his allegation, followed by the Committee. We felt that we had all the information that we needed to make a judgment on the allegation which, to use a word employed earlier, did not go into the byzantine connections that may, or may not, have existed between the Maxwell empire and politicians, whether individually or in general. That was not the allegation that the right hon. Gentleman submitted to the Committee; we did not carry out an investigation into it, and it was not part of our conclusion. Whatever the issues around Maxwell's pro quo for the quid, they were certainly not on our agenda for discussion.

I shall take my Committee hat off for a moment. Towards the end of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman talked about the Government's best efforts to suppress the issues. That has not been tested; it remains his allegation. The Committee had no brief to look into the matter, whether it involved arrangements between individuals or influence that anyone may have tried to exert on a political party. Indeed, throughout our investigations, we found no evidence of any suggestion of political manipulation alongside any financial transaction whatsoever.

The right hon. Gentleman has used our debate to raise an issue that goes well beyond the scope of the Committee's report which, I hope, will be accepted for what it is. I hope that people will look at the allegations that we received and the investigation that we carried out. Under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who has already established himself and taken to his new role like a duck to water, I hope that we will be able to continue our deliberations in future. I trust that we will be able look at issues objectively when there are reasonable grounds for investigation, and that our offices and those of the commissioner will not be used for pursuing party political issues.

4.34 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

That was a most unfortunate contribution from the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), which well illustrates why a member of the Government payroll should not be sitting on the Standards and Privileges Committee. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be aware that the hon. Gentleman is a Parliamentary Private Secretary. That was clear from the tone of his speech. It is most unfortunate that a member of the payroll, clearly speaking for the Government as a PPS, should serve on that Committee.

The House owes a great debt of gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). If it were not for him, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) would not have been in the House today, accepting the conclusions of the report and agreeing that he should be suspended for three weeks. That should be clearly recognised.

Mr. Alan Williams

In fairness, the right hon. Gentleman does my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) a grave injustice by saying that he is on the payroll. He is a Parliamentary Private Secretary. PPSs are not paid. He is an ordinary Back Bencher, like any other Back Bencher—[Interruption.] That is a matter of importance when we are discussing interests and the Standards and Privileges Committee. My hon. Friend is not on the payroll.

Mr. MacKay

The right hon. Gentleman was first elected to the House in 1964. That is 27 years ago. He is a distinguished and experienced Member of the House, and he knows that anyone who was a PPS in any of those years was said to be on the payroll when it came to votes and speaking in the House. The right hon. Gentleman knows that full well. He is trying to muddy the water, which is a pity. I should have thought more of him. [Interruption.]

The Leader of the House says that I am muddying the water. I will tell him who was muddying the water a moment ago. He was colluding with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to try to muddy the water by questioning the integrity of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House knows full well why there was no answer. The question was out of order, as the Deputy Speaker ruled, and my right hon. Friend would not have been able to give the answer. It is rather sad that the Leader of the House, who is supposed to defend the interests of the House, seems to be colluding in a partisan way in an extremely serious case.

Make no mistake, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is one of the most serious cases of its type that the House has had to debate. We all know that the late Robert Maxwell was one of the biggest crooks and fraudsters who ever entered the House as a Member of Parliament. We also know that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West has a bit of form. This is the fourth time that he has been reported to the Committee, and the fourth time that he has been reprimanded. On this occasion, the recommendation is that he be suspended for three weeks, so this is no trivial matter.

Whereas I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Bolsover is treating the matter frivolously and checking my entry in the Register of Members' Interests—he will find nothing of significance—I should have thought that the Leader of the House would know better and would remember what his position is.

Mr. Skinner

All that happened between me and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was that I asked him for the register, as I do not have one here. I got the register from the Front Bench, read it and found out that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) had entered his remunerated directorships, but had not put the money in. I thought that as we had agreed that the money should be entered in bands, and as the right hon. Gentleman was engaged in the business of hounding, he himself should be lily-white. It turned out that he was not. I wanted to know how much money he had made as a Back Bencher moonlighting. I ask the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), too, how much he has made.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman seems to have got in through the back door, when I thought that I had bolted the front door. However, he had some encouragement from the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay). This is a serious occasion for the House, and it is better for us to stick tightly to the report.

Mr. MacKay

I am happy to stick to the report, Mr. Deputy Speaker and I shall, naturally, abide by what you say.

Let us consider the key point in the report: did the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West receive a cheque or not? I think that it is beyond any reasonable doubt that he did so. We have seen the invoice on his own private notepaper. We have seen clearly that it was receipted and paid. In those circumstances, it is a little surprising that the Committee did not follow Elizabeth Filkin's recommendations. If it had done so, we would be talking about a suspension not of three weeks, but a lot longer.

You will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that, unfortunately and regrettably, we have had debates similar to this one in recent years. Previously, hon. Members who have erred have rightly been punished, often by suspension. However, the mere three weeks' suspension in this case is in no way proportionate to the hon. Gentleman's misdemeanour, which has been confirmed by Elizabeth Filkin, Tom Bower and, most important, Mr. Aldous, the completely independent inspector whom the then Department of Trade and Industry asked to look into the affairs of Hollis Industries, the then Paymaster General and the companies of the late Robert Maxwell.

There are serious lessons to be learned. In future, the Committee must take a tougher stance when it is dealing with serious offences. I entirely endorse what has been said by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) about the need to throw out frivolous cases. I also support what the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said about the need for the guidelines to be reviewed. We are, however, considering an immensely serious case. My constituents and most people outside the House will think that our procedures are something of a closed shop and that we have joined together, patted the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West on the head, said "Dear, dear, you made a modest, rather rambling apology; at least it was a little longer than the statement that you made at the Dispatch Box last time" and then suspended him for a mere three weeks. That approach brings the House into disrepute and we will live to regret this day.

What has been said by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire about the report and the role of the Department of Trade and Industry and its then Secretary of State needs to be explained with greater clarity. I should like the Leader of the House to pay a little attention to these remarks, as what happens on the Floor of the House is his responsibility. We need a statement and then a debate. It is intolerable that the independent inspector's report has not been published. It raises questions about the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that can be properly resolved, in his interests, only when we see the report and have confirmation from officials about why they did not let him know about its seriousness in respect of the tax allegations and related matters. I accepted his assurance that he knew absolutely nothing about the detail of the report, even up to the time of the planted written question that appeared when the House adjourned for the Christmas recess in 1999.

Mr. Clifton-Brown

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the report should be made public, not least because, until the matter of the £200,000 payment is cleared up, the pensioners and minority shareholders in the companies that were involved—A. M. Lock Ltd. and Hollis Industries plc—cannot be certain of their true position?

Mr. MacKay

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Indeed, I commend him for the role that he has played in bringing some of this information to light.

I am very cross because, like my hon. Friend, I can remember entering my constituency office and finding Maxwell pensioners in tears. Many had never met or worked for the crook Maxwell, but their companies had been taken over by him after they retired, and they suddenly found that they had no pension to live on. That was a disgraceful state of affairs. That is the sort of man we are talking about; never forget that he was the most evil crook and it is a great pity that he was ever elected to this House for one Parliament.

I ask my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee and the Committee members to reflect further on whether they genuinely think that this sentence is long enough. The Committee should reflect on what the hon. Member for North Cornwall said about a debate on and a review of the guidelines, because I entirely agree. In the interests of his Cabinet colleague, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, I ask the Leader of the House to ensure that there is a proper debate on the DTI report and that that report is published so that it clears the air.

Mr. Levitt

To put some of the right hon. Gentleman's earlier comments into context, will he acknowledge that the sentence is the second heaviest that the Committee has recommended since it was set up in 1997?

Mr. MacKay

I would respond by saying that we have seen nothing like this before. In my 20 years of experience, this is the most serious case that I have seen.

Several hon. Members


Mr. MacKay

No, I will not give way. I shall conclude now, as others want to speak.

I do not believe for one moment that we have seen the end of the matter. The fact that the sentence is only the second most serious that the Committee has recommended confirms to me that it is totally inadequate.

4.46 pm
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I rise to support the findings of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and the able speech of its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). We have also heard a fulsome apology from the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) for the two findings of the Committee against him. That would normally be an end of the matter. This House has a certain dignity in handling such problems. Where an hon. Member has been found wanting, accepts the findings of the House and apologises, we move on and trust that all of us have learned and are wiser as a result.

Today we are faced with a rather bigger conundrum, which is deeply unsatisfactory for the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West and for the rest of the House. We heard the hon. Gentleman state categorically, as he did when he appeared before the Committee on several occasions, that he did not receive the payment. We read in the Committee report that it cannot rule out the fact that he might have received the payment, but that it did not have the overwhelming weight of evidence that it would have liked to be able to determine the matter one way or the other.

That means, unfortunately, that this debate today, and whatever may ensue, does not draw a line under all of the issues that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have been voicing. For the sake of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West and the rest of us, the Government owe us a fuller statement on all the circumstances surrounding the Hollis company and the Maxwell group of companies with which it had a working relationship so that we can get to the bottom of the issue.

It is possible that the answer is already known to the Department of Trade and Industry. It would be normal, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) said with considerable force and eloquence, for the DTI to sanction a full inquiry under section 432 of the Companies Acts. I remember when I was a Minister responsible for such matters in the DTI, when I had to make difficult judgments, and advise the Secretary of State accordingly, as to whether we should go for a full public inquiry into a set of problems or one of the private inquiries available under another section of the legislation. The overwhelming case against section 432 was always and only that it could damage a live trading company which might not be guilty of the charges that were being investigated, but could suffer severe commercial damage if it were widely known publicly that it was being investigated.

Clearly that does not apply in this case. We are talking about investigating companies and events from some time ago and things have moved on, so that these companies' reputations or trading could not be damaged further by knowledge of a full public inquiry.

I urge Ministers, for the sake of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West and of the rest of us, to publish what they know already, especially if it answers the $100,000 or £200,000 question at the heart of this debate, or to order a full public inquiry, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells has urged more than once, with the express intention of getting to the bottom of this issue and the many others that remain on the table in relation to the pensioners, the other trading companies in the Maxwell group and the various rights and wrongs.

Many people think that wrongs were committed, but there are no wrongdoers. That is very unsatisfactory. A proper Government inquiry could establish with acceptable certainty whether wrongs were done, and then go on to say who was responsible, so that other action could be taken if necessary. It is certainly important for the hon. Member at the heart of this debate that the DTI should assist us in answering the £200,000 question: whether the money was receipted into an account operated by him or one of his companies.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells said, the case would be much more serious were it to be established that the hon. Gentleman had misled the House over a payment, in addition to the two charges that he has accepted today. I am prepared to accept his word, in the spirit adopted by the Committee, but I understand that the Committee was unclear about the exact nature of the payment and where it went. We need to clear that up to lift a shadow from someone or some company and attribute the blame where it belongs.

It would not be wise, following this problem, for the Government to ask Elizabeth Filkin to step aside and to find someone else to take on her role. She has established a reputation in—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is outside the scope of the debate.

Mr. Redwood

I stand suitably chastened, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The House needs to establish its reputation for probity by the way in which it handles such issues, which it must do with continuity, fairness and firmness. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells was right to warn us of the danger of too much trivia, with too many unimportant cases cluttering up the system and giving the impression that many Members are not as honourable as they should be, which is untrue. With a serious case such as this, we need the help of the DTI to crack it, so that the public can see that we really have got to the bottom of the issue.

Sleaze was a weapon fashioned by Labour in opposition. It is in danger of becoming a boomerang, causing them endless problems as allegations surround Ministers and former Ministers. I urge the Government to clear up those allegations through a full inquiry into the former Maxwell operations, because many of them stem from that awful web of connections between the late Robert Maxwell, his business empire and Ministers past and present.

4.53 pm
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who made a very seductive and persuasive argument for further inquiries into the Maxwell empire and how it might be linked to the Government or to Ministers. While he did not want to speak too dishonourably of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), he said that the question of the cheque and the proceeds had not been cleared up.

To my recollection, the Department of Trade and Industry spent 10 years investigating the Maxwell empire, and published a report. I cannot see how more reports could possibly be helpful. I have read Tom Bower's books. I declare an interest, because Mr. Maxwell went to his grave owing me £500. I will not detain the House on how that came about. I may have been luckier than many.

From personal knowledge of Maxwell, I know that if ever someone was capable of writing a cheque on the Friday and letting it bounce on the Monday, it was he. He reputedly funded the Commonwealth games in Edinburgh, but the cheques were never paid. He also did a deal in the City of London on the Friday, when the law firm—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should address himself to the report, not the history.

Mr. Bell

I was aware of that, Mr. Deputy Speaker; I took my eye off you for a minute, and then realised that I was wandering somewhat.

To go back to the point that is relevant to the debate, the fact that a cheque was written out is no proof that it was ever endorsed or cashed. I ask the House to take my hon. Friend's apology in good faith, and to accept in good faith that he did not receive the money. As for the report before the House, I accept that such debates are important for the House and its reputation, but I would not advise the Government to order more investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry.

Mr. Redwood

I was drawing attention to the fact that the Committee could not wholeheartedly resolve the issue; that is why it needs clearing up. If things are as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we have to explain why the accounts seem to imply otherwise—and we need to know what other items in those accounts are misleading.

Mr. Bell

Again, questions about the accounts go wider, because we are talking about the activities of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West, and the particular question before the Committee on Standards and Privileges. How the auditors did their work is something different. All that I am telling the House is that Mr. Maxwell had a reputation for issuing cheques on a Friday that bounced on a Monday. Therefore the House should accept my hon. Friend's apology and statement in good faith, accept the Select Committee's report, and leave the matter where it is.

4.56 pm
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I should declare an interest at the outset, in that I was at one time Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the distinguished Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I salute him for the work that he has done, and I am delighted that he has taken over that role. I was not paid by him—or by anybody else, sadly—when I was his PPS, but I must tell the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) that a very strong convention applied when we were in government, that a PPS was part of the payroll, even if not actually on it, and did not participate in House of Commons matters except formally. I am surprised to see that the hon. Gentleman is still serving on the Committee.

I shall now take up a point first made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and then taken up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). We run a risk of allowing trivial cases, however defined, to gain currency outside the House and give the impression that this House is made up of a great number of people who are venal and do not take their parliamentary responsibilities seriously.

Rightly or wrongly, there has emerged the idea—and in some people's view the debate may reflect it—that we are engaged in party political point-scoring over reports from the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I have said to Labour Members, some of whom hold high office in this Government and some of whom are no longer in the House, that in my view the Committee has in the past been partisan in favour of the Labour party, and that if we are to have a Committee that works, and does not merely feed stories to the newspapers with which to undermine public confidence in this place, they will have to act responsibly and resist the opportunity to make partisan accusations.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye)


Mr. Howarth

I will give way in a moment.

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) is not now in his place, but I merely wish to say that, as he knows, in the last Parliament I complained that he had complained to Mrs. Filkin about John Major and said that the former Prime Minister had received remuneration for undertaking speaking tours in the United States. I make that point because the report raises issues of comparative treatment. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire mentioned general points that arise from the report, and I hope therefore that what I am saying bears on those remarks.

The House must resist the temptation to be partisan in these matters, because the only institution that will be damaged is Parliament and the only beneficiary will be the media, which like to write salacious stories about our activities. They write no salacious stories about their activities and their private lives would not stand the scrutiny of a candle, let alone a searchlight.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster


Mr. Howarth

I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is going way outside the scope of this debate by making those remarks. I hope that he will come back to the point after the intervention.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster

Members of the Committee may be offended by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that they are partisan in their quasi-judicial role, especially those who are members of the legal profession. They would be most offended if it were suggested that they were not capable of fairness in their decision-making. How can the decisions be partisan when they are unanimous? Or does the hon. Gentleman wish to suggest that Conservative Members on the Committee are so timid that they cannot stand up for themselves?

Mr. Howarth

The idea that lawyers are uniquely virginal in such matters will strike the public as somewhat curious. Any of us who have had any experience of lawyers will know that they are very much part of this world, although some of us may wish that they were part of the next world.

You have rightly suggested, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I should address my remarks specifically to the report and I happily do so. I have a great deal of time for the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) and I share his religious convictions as a Christian gentleman. He suggested that we should in good faith accept the word of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), in so far as he did not receive the £200,000. The hon. Gentleman, in his personal statement today, made it clear that he still protests his innocence of the charge of receiving those funds. My problem with that is that—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) has just pointed out—the Hollis accounts, which were signed by the hon. Gentleman himself as chairman of Hollis, showed the payment of £200,000 to him. Taken together with the invoice that Mr. Tom Bower has uncovered, the evidence appears to be overwhelming, and certainly more than the balance of probabilities, that the hon. Gentleman received the money or that TransTec received the money on his behalf. That is the difficulty.

I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will permit me to contrast and compare the treatment of one hon. Member against that of another, because I believe that that is a legitimate approach in a debate on such a report. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) is indignant at my suggestion that the Committee is partisan, but I hope that he will accept the following points. In the last Parliament, the Committee did not show the good faith and indulgence that the hon. Gentleman thinks should be shown to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West to my former hon. Friend, Mr. Neil Hamilton. Few hon. Members will be surprised that I mention that name, because the House knows that he is one of my very closest friends. He was served a grave injustice by the Committee, on which several current hon. Members served in the last Parliament.

Evidence was provided for the payment of £200,000 to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West—the company accounts and the invoice—but the Committee failed to find any such evidence relating to Mr. Hamilton. The Committee could not determine how much he had received, or how or when he had received it. It effectively convicted that man on the basis of no empirical evidence whatsoever.

Such was the overwhelming case that Neil Hamilton made that the Inland Revenue has accepted entirely his accountants' claim for signing off on his accounts. In other words, there was no money from Fayed. Everyone knows that Fayed had an axe to grind because Hamilton would not do his bidding. That is why he went after Hamilton. It is as simple as that.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

No, because I do not want to stretch your courtesy to me too far, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

It is astonishing that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West has been given a rap over the knuckles and three weeks gardening leave from the House, when Mr. Hamilton and others—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) was about to say—have suffered a disparity of treatment that is acutely evident to the House.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

Not to the hon. Lady, on any account.

It is unfortunate that the Committee has not accepted Mrs. Filkin's findings in total. The House will know that I hold no brief for the lady, but she was painstaking in this investigation. It is not a good omen for the future, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, must prove his Committee's robust independence in these matters. He must ensure that hon. Members brought before the Committee receive parity of treatment.

However, I want to end on a note of agreement. I hope that under the stewardship of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire the Committee will be much more robust in sweeping aside complaints that are of a partisan nature and which do not involve serious misdemeanours with regard to the House. Such complaints merely serve to undermine the House's status in public confidence.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved That this House—

  1. (i) approves the First Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 297); and
  2. (ii) accordingly suspends Mr. Geoffrey Robinson, Member for Coventry North West, from the service of the House for three weeks.