HC Deb 11 November 2003 vol 413 cc188-9 1.31 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am concerned about a letter that I received from an editor of a major newspaper following queries that I had raised about sexual harassment and bullying at News International. The letter was a thinly disguised attempt to warn me off.

I recently received an unsolicited copy of a letter to News International's lawyers from a firm representing a victim of serious sexual harassment. The allegations had been made against Stuart Higgins, one-time editor of The Sun. I understand that the eventual settlement involved a payment of about half a million pounds, with a condition of silence imposed on the victim. As far as I am aware, no proper disciplinary hearings took place and other senior staff appear to have colluded with what was by any standard extremely offensive and destructive behaviour.

The police were not called when hate mail was being sent to the victim on News International stationery. I do not know whether either the offence or the settlement was reported to Rupert Murdoch, although I think that that would have been likely. There was no attempt to deal with the underlying problem of sexual harassment and bullying, and my contacts tell me that it was not an isolated case. The solicitors' letter tends to confirm that.

I must raise this matter with you, Mr. Speaker, because after I had written to Les Hinton, the chief executive of News International, I received a letter from Rebekah Wade, editor of The Sun. The letter asked me how many complaints of sexual harassment had been made to me, while chairman of the parliamentary Labour party, by my staff—the parliamentary Labour party staff—and by MPs' staff. In fact, I had received none. It is impossible to see the letter as anything other than a threat, as I had not approached any editors—I had approached only the chief executive's office.

It must be a matter of serious public concern when a major multinational media group uses its editors to threaten a Member of Parliament who is carrying out a legitimate inquiry into that group's employment practices. As I am asking other employees who also suffered abuse to contact me or their lawyers, it is important that editors and management understand that this House will not tolerate explicit or implicit threats against its Members when carrying out their proper duties. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to make it clear that Members of Parliament have those duties, and that they should be allowed to pursue them without threats or warnings of any type. I am a strong defender of legitimate investigative journalism, but the press cannot and should not expose others while covering up their own problems.

Mr. Speaker

In order to help the hon. Gentleman, the best thing that I can do is fully to investigate this matter. If he will allow me, I will do so.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. You did a great job in allowing dozens of Members of Parliament to speak in response to the statement, but a large number—perhaps a dozen—were unfortunately not able to make their points. May I ask you again, as the guardian of Back Benchers' rights, to ensure that Front Benchers do not take more than half the time allocated for the statement? May I please ask you to consider that matter again, as I know that you have done previously?

Mr. Speaker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter. I do not think that the Front-Bench statements today were unduly long, but there have been occasions when some Ministers and Opposition spokesmen have taken an undue length of time with their statements, and I will bear that in mind.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek your guidance on the announcement by the new shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), whom I informed of my intention to make this point of order, that he intends to retain his remunerated directorship with the investment banking arm of N. M. Rothschild and Sons Ltd. Could not such an arrangement be misinterpreted as lobbying for reward or consideration, even when such lobbying was inadvertent and arose out of the normal duties of the shadow Chancellor? What is your advice in relation to such potential conflicts of interest?

Mr. Speaker

My advice to the hon. Gentleman is not to raise such a matter on the Floor of the House. It is not a matter for me.