HC Deb 04 May 2004 vol 420 cc1310-20

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

9.55 pm
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con)

May I start with the happy task of congratulating the Minister most sincerely on his recent engagement to be married, and wish him and his fiancée every happiness for the future?

Before I come to the specific issue relating to data protection and the Information Commissioner Mr. Richard Thomas's advice on how that affects all hon. Members, I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your kind and sympathetic advice about how these issues, and what led up to them, could best be presented to the House. In particular, I thank very many of my right hon. and hon. Friends for their friendship, help and support. I will not, however, take any interventions, as I have quite a lot of ground to cover.

I have perhaps made some errors of judgment—to which I shall return—as we all do being human, but I have not made any mistakes about my parliamentary friends. I thank in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), and for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis)—I have worked directly for all of them on the Front Bench in recent years—for all their strong support. I also thank in particular my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (David Maclean), our Chief Whip, and other Whips, some of whom are here tonight, and most particularly, of course, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), the Leader of the Opposition, whom I am proud to serve as a shadow Minister, both for keeping me in that position and for helping me to rebut some of the outrageous slurs, smears and character assassination that some of my local opponents have seen fit to put in the national and local press.

I have been accused, among other things, of racism, despite all the many speeches I have made and the work that I have done in the House over the past 12 and a bit years, and for many years before that with many groups representing ethnic minorities as varied as the Ahmadiyya Muslims—one of whose UK leaders is one of my lifelong friends—as well as with Greek Cypriots, and Taiwanese and Caribbean groups. I am glad to say that many hon. Members on both sides of the House have made it clear to me that they never accepted for one moment that allegation. I have also been accused of not being a team player That is almost just as hurtful to someone such as me who has been so passionate about team sports all my life.

The very good news for my party and its leadership is that, in future, a lot of matters will change and the huge surge in support and in fund raising that has come about, particularly recent times since my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe became leader of my party, will mean that there will be no need for any reliance to be placed on some of the disreputable matters and dubious people whom I will mention later. I should also stress that I firmly believe that, if only my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden had been able to remain chairman of my party for just a little while longer, he would have continued the remedial work that he had already begun, and what has recently happened to me could not then have occurred.

Throughout the recent process in my constituency party, I was advised—I am sure correctly—by some of the leading media experts in my party to concentrate entirely on the positive aspects of what I have sought to do in my 12 and a bit years so far in the House: my work for constituents and for my party. That of course includes dealing with such issues as data protection, the subject of the debate. I did that and I replied as little as possible to the smears and allegations that were peddled against me.

In a Parliament of more than 650 Members, there are perhaps only 10 or so on each side of the House who will ever become household names among the general public, and known outside their own area or outside the circle of political aficionados. Of the other 630 or so, even if, like me, they have been shadow Ministers for a number of years, all the rest are in the category of those memorably described—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the House do now adjourn.—[Vernon Coaker].

Mr. Hawkins

All the rest are in the category of those memorably described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border—our Chief Whip—as doing the unglamorous, unpublicised but vitally necessary hard grind of taking important Bills through Committees, debating and scrutinising important legislation word by word, line by line and clause by clause, as well as doing the work that Members on both sides of the House seek to do for constituents. It is not the kind of work that will often get one in the news headlines or top billing on the political programmes, but it is the lifeblood of Parliament's central and crucial role in this United Kingdom, and something in which I have always passionately believed.

The kind of shadow Front-Bench jobs that I have done, such as shadow Solicitor-General, do not get one into the news very often, but they are important. They do not enable one to become a celebrity MP, but they are vital. Many Members, including senior ones from both sides of the House—cross-party friends, as well as other parliamentary colleagues—have kindly come to me in the last two or three weeks to say things such as, "There but for the grace of God go any of us" and, "Decisions must be taken by all parties to ensure that things like this cannot happen in future to those known to be diligent and hard working." Also, I feel that I owe it to the many constituents who regarded me as having been a good MP for them in the constituency, who have contacted me by phone, letter, fax or e-mail, or who have been in touch with local newspapers and radio to say, "What is the real story here? We don't understand", to put some of the real facts on the record.

As I have never been a Member who has sought to become a celebrity, this may only be a footnote to history, but in contrast to all the negative rubbish that some of my local opponents have peddled to the press, I should like to see it in Hansard as an accurate footnote. I also want to be quite clear that none of this is after-the-event sour grapes. As my hon. Friends who are present—and many others who could not be here tonight—know, I have been trying to deal with some of these issues for years.

Journalists, as we know, are busy people, and many, wanting a brief report on a controversy involving a non-celebrity MP, simply looked up their cuttings file, found that they had a story about my divorce and remarriage from several years ago and recycled that, as if it were the reason for recent events. I was disappointed by that, since it was obviously upsetting for my wife, my former wife, my children and stepchildren. Fortunately, four of the five children are now grown up. The facts are that recent events were not related to that at all. It was not even mentioned at the meeting where a majority—led by the local cronies to whom I will come later—voted to deselect me.

The lack of relevance of that matter to recent events is confirmed by the fact that, since my separation, divorce and remarriage, I have been both reselected and re-elected. I have been remarried nearly three years, so that was not the real issue. The real issues, as so often, revolve around power and money and the ambitions, jealousy and greed of a tiny handful of people who set out to persuade many others whom they kept in the dark about the real history. Some of it, but only some, began to be reported in one of the national newspapers last weekend. I believe that there will be further investigations.

I was first elected to this House—contrary to media and pollster predictions—to represent the old Blackpool, South constituency at the 1992 election, against the swing and with a small majority in a seat that was very marginal on its old boundaries. Hon. Members will remember that boundary alterations in the middle of the 1992 to 1997 Parliament produced many major changes—not least that the revised version of my constituency became, on all the figures and predictions, a safe Labour seat, even before the landslide swing to Labour in 1997. I, like many other MPs—not only Conservatives, contrary to some mythology—had to seek to move if I wished to remain in the House. I adopted a self-denying ordinance in that I decided to apply only to seats where there was an open selection: where no sitting Conservative Member had a prior claim because the new seat had been part of his or her constituency. In practice, I was considering applying only for those seats where colleagues were retiring.

My current constituency was a new creation. There had never been a constituency called Surrey Heath before; it was carved out of parts of three pre-existing seats, and all three sitting Conservative Members were retiring. Two of those had been highly respected Ministers and both—my noble Friend Lord Howell of Guildford, now in another place, and the late and much lamented Cranley Onslow, who was latterly and for tragically too short a time Lord Onslow of Woking—were active and diligent constituency MPs.

The third retiring Member, also now deceased, was Sir Michael Grylls. I have discovered subsequently that pretty well all the problems that I have had were caused by the fact that all the administration and almost all the leading figures in the constituency association, who were running everything, were inherited from his old North-West Surrey constituency. While we were colleagues for just a short time before I became his successor in part of his old seat, I never had any reason to fall out personally with Mickey Grylls, as he was known. However, he has been described, even by some of his closest friends and protégés in this place, in less than flattering terms. Of course, that matter, too, was covered in the national press at the weekend. I would not want to speak ill of the dead, but anyone who is interested in the history might want to revisit the three volumes published by the Committee of this House that looked into the Downey report produced by Sir Gordon Downey and published just after the 1997 election.

The concern that I soon came to have was that, throughout the time that Sir Michael was pursuing his parliamentary and his linked business activities, which Sir Gordon Downey and others investigated and reported on so thoroughly, he had left the administration of the constituency in the hands of the people who have more recently caused me a great deal of trouble. Since that time—since reports such as that to which I have just referred—parliamentary rules have tightened up considerably, but the views, beliefs, activities and attitudes of the party agent Mr. Alan Cleverly and his closest crony Barry Price, who boasts of having been a senior officer of the association continuously since 1986, have not changed at all.

The very fact that in one of the safest Conservative seats in the country, which has no shortage of active members, someone can be elected and re-elected continuously for a period of some 18 years as a senior officer of the association must in itself cause a question mark, I would suggest. So far as Mr. Cleverly is concerned, he will have been thinking until the reports in last weekend's press that he has lived up to his name and is now even more powerful because he has managed to get rid of an MP without his name ever appearing—until now.

Of course, that is not the end of the story. I stress that there are some among those who run the association with whom I get on well and who have behaved perfectly properly, so I am not making blanket accusations about everyone involved, but there are some individuals who have been in power, in my view, all too long. Their view is that they should control both the activities and the financial arrangements of a Member of Parliament in their entirety. My refusal to bow to their demands is what they really mean by saying that I am not a team player. If I am not a team player, as those people allege, I ask rhetorically how it has come about that I have been chosen for the teams of all of the past four Conservative leaders? In both government and opposition, I have been chosen to join the team. All the past three Opposition leaders have both appointed and promoted me in their teams.

I express my grateful thanks, also, to Officers of the House, including in particular Archie Cameron, the director of operations at the Fees Office, who has regularly produced helpful letters to the officers of my association, seeking to explain in great detail the rules as they apply to Members of Parliament. They have simply refused to believe his and others' letters.

For the whole of my eight years representing this constituency, I have faced constant pressure to hand over money from either my own taxed earnings or, more seriously, Commons allowances—and this to a constituency party that constantly boasts of being the wealthiest in the country and raising the most money. As I have been conscious at all times of how tight the rules for hon. Members are, I have refused to provide any more than I have felt can be properly justified by my limited use of the party's facilities locally.

Recently, the local party said to me that because it provides me with an office it will measure the floorspace of the whole association building and charge me for the proportion that my office occupies, whereas one should really consider the cost on the open market of my use of the room, which has been restricted to regular surgeries. I stick to my judgment of what is an appropriate claim on the taxpayer, as I should, and I know that I have been supported in that stand not only by the director of the Fees Office but by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and senior members of my party.

An extraordinary document emanating from the multi-faceted business empire built up by Mr. Cleverly—it has been referred to in the national press—is the invoice that I received during the last Parliament, headed "Cleverly Consultants". One would not expect a Member of Parliament to receive such a document from an employee of the party who is supposed to be its agent for the area.

Furthermore, let us consider how the agent has perhaps not worked in the best interests of my party. He has been involved in producing two newspapers issued from the constituency offices that bear pictures promoting Labour Ministers. I am not asking the Minister to comment on that, as he is probably very pleased about it, but imagine whether, if the roles were reversed, a Labour party agent would remain long in post if he published something from his constituency office that had Conservative spokesmen on the front page.

To stress that I have no difficulty with the vast bulk of my party's supporters and volunteers, let me say that I joined the party as a Young Conservative, aged 16, in Bideford, I was an active student Conservative at Oxford and I was subsequently heavily involved in the voluntary side of my party. I have held pretty well all the offices in the various constituencies that I have lived in, up to and including deputy constituency chairman for the former Rochford Member, my great friend Dr. Michael Clark. I also chaired one of our main think tanks, the Bow Group. I know how valuable the work of ordinary volunteers normally is. There are many dedicated volunteers whom I have worked hard with over the past eight or nine years in Surrey Heath, and many of them voted for me to stay on.

When I was a volunteer and a constituency officer, I was always loyal to the MP I was working for, but there is another category of people who hold office in parties: those who want to use their position to do others down or replace them or to benefit financially or politically. They are the inner circle of cronies in the cosy cartel built up over the years by Mr. Cleverly.

In the run-up to my selection as the Conservative candidate for Surrey Heath in 1996, the document that featured in the national press at the weekend was published: the so-called guidelines saying that anybody who wished to be considered for selection had to fax it back and say that, if chosen, they would be prepared to provide £10,000 or thereabouts. Even since, despite all the rule changes and letters from the director of the Fees Office, those involved have sought to treat that as a binding contract. In my view, that was probably contrary to the rules even in 1996— it has certainly not happened in any other constituency that I am aware of.

Also, I discovered shortly after my selection that I was not supposed to win. The agent, a professional employee who would have to work with whomever was chosen, was not only allowed to vote—a most extraordinary thing in itself—but had in effect been organising the campaign for a local lady whom he wanted to succeed Mickey Grylls. I narrowly defeated her in the final, and was taken that same evening to a function that seemed to have a very odd atmosphere. It was not all that surprising that the atmosphere was odd: I discovered subsequently that it was supposed to be the victory party for the local lady. However, the agent felt that, because I had narrowly won, he had to take rue to it anyway. It does not help matters that Mr. Cleverly is from the Europhile wing of the party, whereas I have always been known as a Eurosceptic.

Immediately after the 1997 election, my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who was Parliamentary Private Secretary to our then party leader, having become MP for that constituency, approached me in the Lobby and said that at a meeting held here in the Palace of Westminster to which his attention had been drawn, the party agent—an employee of the party—had attacked the new leader, saying that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) should have been chosen instead.

Ever since then, Mr. Cleverly has sought to undermine me and if possible to get rid of me—to the fury and despair of other senior party agents who live in my constituency—because he saw me as a threat to the money-making activities that he has built up on the back of his position as a party agent, all of which are run from the constituency headquarters. He has built a little empire, to which I was a threat. It is perhaps no coincidence that in the few days before the vote was taken by the constituency executive to deselect me, a decision was taken by some of my hon. Friends to remove a substantial part of the business income that Mr. Cleverly had previously earned from some of his activities.

As I have said, it has been a matter of great concern that "Small Business News" and many of the other publications do not seem to be working in the interests of my party. I believe that the agent has been fixing things for 20 years to boost his business income, but one has to look at what he has done in terms of the job that he is supposed to do, which is to help our party. When Surrey Heath borough council was first created, every single elected member of it was a Conservative. While the agent has been in office, the situation has changed. Now, we hold the council by only one seat, and a couple of seats were held by only one vote. So in his time, he seems to have concentrated on money-making activities rather than politics, which is the wrong way round. Most of my party's members have no idea about this business empire or what has been going on.

What about the other cronies who have managed to get on to the list of candidates for my party? In the past, two of them—Mr. Robinson, who is now the president, and Mr. Harper, who is now the chairman—have sought my help. Indeed, I have in my hand a couple of files that illustrate how they sought my help. Mr. Robinson asked for my help in 2002 in order to join our party's list of candidates. I have mentioned errors of judgment; perhaps it was an error of judgment on my part to support his candidacy. I have a letter that he wrote to me in the summer of 2002, thanking me for my support in his application to join the candidates list. I also have letters thanking me for supporting his efforts to get one of his employees—a young lady called Gurana Granov—into the UK. I do not know why he was so interested in getting her into the country, but I helped him and got a thank you letter for doing so.

Mr. Harper is on our candidates list, and it has been reported that he wishes to succeed me. Shakespeare once said that those who wield the dagger rarely wear the crown. Even if these people have failed to succeed in stabbing me in the back, they have sought to stab me in the front. I am sure that it will be remembered by other constituency associations when I say that when colleagues have been in the process of retiring, I have spent a lot of time recommending Mr. Harper—when I thought that he was a good man—for consideration as a candidate. I have even invited him to dinner here with retiring colleagues, spending my own money entertaining him, so that he could find out about other constituencies. I have no doubt that the way in which he has repaid that support will be noted by the other constituencies to which either of the two gentlemen in question might apply.

All those people believe and openly say that the Surrey Heath constituency raises so much money that, and I quote, we are entitled to have a Cabinet Minister or shadow Cabinet Minister as our MP". The most extraordinary aspect of the whole saga is that they now believe, having deselected me, that they can return to having normal meetings as if nothing has happened.

Finally, I turn to the effect—

Mr. Speaker

I am interested to hear the hon. Gentleman mention the word "finally", because I must give the Minister an opportunity to reply.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab)

It is not the Minister's fault—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. As the hon. Member says, it is not the Minister's fault. I should also say that I have given the hon. Gentleman a great deal of latitude and he may wish to know that the Minister can reply only on certain matters that he has raised.

Mr. Hawkins

As I say, Mr. Speaker, I turn finally to the data protection issues, which I have discussed with the Minister outside the House, so I can be brief.

The Information Commissioner has helpfully stated how Members of all political parties can avoid the problem in the future. He said, and the Minister has seen the letter: How the Data Protection Act applies to political parties is dependent on how the parties are organised. If … local constituency parties are considered at law to be separate unincorporated associations … this means that, for data protection purposes, each local constituency party will need to address its own data protection responsibilities. It is … important to be clear about the nature of the relationship between individual local constituency parties and the party's 'central office' … It is important to be clear whether members sign up to join a 'national' party and do so by applying direct to the central office and/or by applying to their local party, or whether members, by whichever route they apply for membership, are in fact members of the local constituency party in which they live. Whatever the position, this should be made clear to members when they join. Further it should be made clear to members who will have access to their membership details. For example … Will details be made available to any member of their local constituency party? Will they be available to the constituency MP? Will they only be made available to the local branch officials to use for party administration? That is crucial, Mr. Speaker, because you and the Minister will appreciate that if, in future, any MP of whatever party is able, with the protection of that advice, to gain access to the full list of members, the local party apparatchiks would not be able to spread rumour and innuendo. The MP would be able to talk to directly to members and perhaps the 50 per cent. of my local party members who did not vote in the reselection ballot might then have voted. I am concerned to ensure that what happened to me does not happen to other hon. Members in future. The Information Commissioner has provided the way out of the problem.

Those who know me well know that I am a film buff. Some will have heard me say that I was inspired both to read for the Bar and subsequently to go into politics by the performance of the great actor, Robert Donat, in the film of the Terence Rattigan play, "The Winslow Boy". The crucial phrase said by the actor is, "Let right be done". To add a more contemporary political reference, the present Governor of California's most famous character says, "I'll be back". I have not gone yet, Mr. Speaker, but let right be done and I'll be back.

10.23 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie)

The fact that it is not the Government's fault is one of the first things that needs to be put on the record—[Interruption.]

I start by thanking the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) for his kind comments at the outset. Clearly, the House will note with great interest and considerable concern many of the illuminating comments that he made this evening. There are wider issues, in respect not only of the rules governing the dissemination of political party membership lists, but of the circumstances that he encountered in the course of the selection and reselection process by the local Conservative association.

Before I address some of those wider issues, I should like to put on the record my own observations about the hon. Gentleman. He has been my opposite number during the past year while I have been Under-Secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. I have always held him in high regard and with great respect. Although we disagree fundamentally on policy and party positions, he has always been very courteous, thorough and assiduous in his duties. I find that the hon. Gentleman is effective in making his party's case, raising pertinent questions and holding the Government to account. I know that he feels, deeply, that that is part of his duty. I am sorry that he is now less likely to continue in that role in the next Parliament.

I shall deal only in the briefest sense with some of the issues that have been raised in connection with the guidance from the Information Commissioner on the application of data protection legislation. The Commissioner operates independently of Government. Except for the courts, only he can give an authoritative interpretation of the Data Protection Act 1998. That Act sets the rules with which all organisations using personal data must comply, and also creates rights for individuals in respect of their personal data.

The 1998 Act sets out a general framework of eight good handling rules known as the data protection principles, which regulate the processing of personal information. The rules are not prescriptive: they are not "dos and don'ts", and organisations must use their judgment when applying the principles.

The first data protection principle is of particular importance in the context of membership details of political parties or other organisations, whether at a national or a local level. Among other things, the first principle requires personal data to be processed fairly. That means being open with the people from whom one collects information about how one intends to use that information.

Specifically, the first principle requires organisations—known in the legislation as "data controllers"—to make clear to people, when their data are collected, the identity of the data controller or his nominated representative, the purposes for which the data are intended to be processed, and any further information that is necessary in the specific circumstances to enable the processing to be fair.

However, as the Information Commissioner pointed out in his letter to the hon. Member for Surrey Heath, the 1998 Act does not dictate who, within any membership organisation, should have access to membership details. Instead, the position is that the organisation should clearly establish who will have access to the membership details concerned and then ensure that that is made clear to members when they join.

Finally, it should be noted that the 1998 Act does not require the disclosure of personal information if an organisation does not wish to disclose it. That is not part of the Act's remit.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath made a variety of comments about allegations about payments to local associations being required as a condition of selection, and so on. I do not want to go into those too much, although the stories are worrying. They suggest that candidates were sometimes viewed as valuable commodities in more ways than one.

As we all know, if hon. Members wish to donate sums of money from their private salaries to their local parties, that is their business. The report in the Mail on Sunday raised the spectre that some hon. Members might have their freedom fettered by demands for payment as a condition for selection or reselection. However, there is also a separate issue about the use of public funds.

If hon. Members use their personal allowances to purchase services from political parties or others, there are basic obligations that must be observed. Mr. Cameron, head of operations in the Department of Finance and Administration, wrote to all hon. Members a year or two ago to say that in such cases hon. Members must lodge with the Fees Office copies of their service agreements and/or rental agreements, and that they must also satisfy themselves that any sums paid to party organisations in this way are for services actually provided, and that they must represent value for money for the taxpayer. Those are pretty fundamental matters.

As I said, at this stage it is probably best that I do not comment on any individual cases, although the points made by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath are now on the record. Any specific questions about the use of parliamentary allowances would not be for me or the Government to answer, but for the relevant House authorities.

In the meantime, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath has clearly exercised his right to put his case on the record, and that is now available for his constituents to read and to hear.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.