|That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the conduct and activities of Members of this House in connection with the affairs of Mr. J. G. L. Poulson; to consider whether any such conduct or activities amounted to a contempt of the House or was inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its|
|5||Members; and to report:|
|That the Committee do consist of ten Members:|
|That Miss Harvie Anderson, Mr. Peter Blaker, Mr. Leon Brittan, Mr. Emlyn Hooson, Mr. Max Madden, Mr.William Ross, Mr. Donald Stewart, Mr. Michael Stewart, Mr. Jeffrey Thomas, and Mr. Peter Thomas be members of the Committee.|
|10||That Five be the Quorum of the Committee:|
|That the Committee have power to send for persons, papers and records; and to sit notwithstanding any Adjournment of the House:|
|15||That the Committee shall lay before the House all such oral and documentary evidence as upon consideration by them shall appear to be relevant and such as may fairly be taken into account:|
|That Mr. Attorney General shall attend the Committee so far as the Committee may require to present evidence relevant to the subject matter of the inquiry; and may give such further assistance to the Committee as may be appropriate:|
|20||That the Committee have power to appoint persons to carry out such work relating to the Committee's order of reference as the Committee may determine:|
|That the Committee have leave to hear Counsel to such extent as they shall see fit:|
|That no person not being a member of the Committee shall be present during any of the proceedings of the Committee unless required by the Committee to be present for the purposes of their inquiry:|
|25||That these Orders be Standing Orders of the House until the end of this Parliament.|
The motion arises from the statement made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General on Tuesday 19th October about the Poulson case. He then said:
There are not sufficient grounds to merit the commencement of any further prosecutions or continued inquiry into the possibility of obtaining further evidence of criminal offences. I have accordingly agreed that the investigation should now be brought to an end."—[Official Report, 19th October, 1976; Vol. 917, c. 361.]
In 1972 the decision was taken that police investigations and prosecutions should have precedence over other investigations into the Poulson affair. The names of some hon. Members have been made public in connection with the bankruptcy proceedings of Mr. Poulson, but their alleged connections were but one facet of a complex matter. The view was taken in 1972 that to have referred these matters to Parliament could have pre-empted decisions by the then Attorney-General, or later by his successor, with regard to prosecutions. The present Government reaffirmed that decision when they came to power in 1974, and although it was reviewed from time to time, the decision was adhered to.
With the ending of the prospect of further prosecutions, referred to by the Attorney-General on 19th October, the time has come for the House to consider the matter again, and in my statement of 21st October I said that the Government would have early discussions with other parties in the House about the composition, terms of reference and powers of a Select Committee to make a full and thorough investigation into the allegations made against hon. Members acting in their parliamentary capacity in connection with Mr. Poulson's affairs. In the absence of the Lord President, these consultations have been carried out by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, to whom I am very grateful, and the Government's proposals are contained in the motion now before the House.
There is no dispute about the need for a thorough inquiry by the House. The good name of individual Members has been questioned, and that involves the standing of Parliament itself. Hon. Members individually and collectively will be vindicated only by a thorough investigation in which justice is done to all those concerned. That requires not only full investigation of those who may have failed to live up to the standards which this House expects of its Members but also fair treatment of all those whose names have been used, whether they have been involved in the matter or not.
An inquiry can take various forms. Some might prefer a tribunal of inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act of 1921. Those of us who recall the Lynskey Tribunal will well remember the volume of criticism which those proceedings attracted. There was no universal approbation at the end of its deliberations. The Government have also taken into account some of the observations of the Royal Commission under Lord Salmon's chairmanship, which reported in 1966. I do not refer to the latest report.
That Commission noted that the exceptional inquisitorial powers conferred on a tribunal under the Act would necessarily expose the ordinary citizen to have aspects of his private life uncovered and to the risk of having baseless allegations made against him. The Government do not consider that the allegations which have been made so far constitute anything in the nature of a nation-wide crisis of confidence and we have therefore come down against a tribunal.
As regards Select Committees, there are precedents for such appointments in comparable circumstances, although fortunately those have been rare. The allegations which we have read about relate to Members making speeches or otherwise acting in their parliamentary capacity. Those actions therefore enjoy the protection of parliamentary privilege and are not matters within the jurisdiction of the courts. They are matters for the House, and the House has ample power to investigate them and to apply its own considerable sanctions if those are warranted.
There are important differences between the proceedings of the courts and those of a Select Committee. In the courts, there are specified charges, known to defendants beforehand. The evidence brought forward has to be relevant to those charges. In this case there are no specified charges, nor is the identity known of all those against whom allegations might be made. There are no rules of the House which say that this or that evidence is inadmissible.
The order of reference for the Select Committee in the motion is drawn up with those differences in mind. It will enable a thorough-going inquiry to be held and all the facts germane to it will be laid bare. The motion provides that the inquiry, free, as I have said, from the restrictions and rules of proceedings in courts of law, shall be conducted in such a manner as to safeguard the rights of hon. Members to be treated fairly. The scope of the inquiry fully covers the range of allegations to which publicity has been given.
With the other parties in the House, the Government have carefully considered the composition of the Committee. I said in the House on 20th October that I shared the view then expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) that the Committee of Privileges was not an appropriate body to consider the matters raised. That is partly a question of composition. The membership proposed for the Select Committee now numbers 10. It has been drawn from four of the parties in the House and it includes six hon. Members who are not members of the Privy Council. All of them are colleagues who are respected by us and who bring to the Committee a wealth of experience and relevant abilities. We can have full confidence in them.
The Attorney-General, who is a member of the Committee of Privileges, will not be a member of the Select Committee, but the order of reference provides that he shall attend the Committee as the Committee may require to present evidence and that he may give further assistance to the Committee as appropriate. I believe that to be the best arrangement. That is what I envisaged in my statement on 21st October.
I have no doubt that the Committee will exercise that discretion wisely, avoiding the formality of court proceedings. That is the intention of that paragraph in the order of reference. It is necessary to express it as a power in order to avoid the imposition of the formality of full court procedures, but our intention is that, in the sense which I have described, the Committee will regard it as a requirement. I believe that that can be left to the good sense of the Committee.
I now come to the question of publication of oral and documentary evidence. The Government considered this matter carefully, and the order of reference does not merely empower but requires the Committee to lay before the House
… all such … evidence as upon consideration by them shall appear to be relevant, and such as may fairly be taken into account".
I particularly ask the House to look at that in conjunction with the other requirement on which I know the attention of hon. Members will be concentrated:
That no person not being a member of the Committee shall be present during any of the proceedings of the Committee unless required by the Committee to be present for the purposes of their inquiry".
As hon. Members know, any Committee of the House has power to exclude the public from its proceedings. Hon. Members who are not members of the Committee are generally prepared to withdraw from the Committee's deliberations when required to do so. In practice, in no proceedings before the Committee of Privileges has either a Member of the House or a member of the public attended during any part of the proceedings, save as a witness.
We are not dealing here with the general run of Select Committee business. We are dealing with an inquiry of a very unusual nature. It is, I believe, unprecedented in its generality and lack of restriction as to both the names and the allegations which may fall to be considered within the terms of reference. The point of having such an inquiry is that it shall pursue the truth and be clearly seen to have done so. That is what the order of reference provides.
It is our view that, if the Committee sat in public, evidence, whatever its basis—whether it was groundless or not—would be subject to daily public sifting. A lie can be half-way around the world before truth has got his boots on. We should have instant judgments on allegations before the Committee had been able to weigh them, before the reputations at stake could be properly upheld or cast down, which might do unnecessary harm not only to the individuals concerned but also to the standing of this House. This is what has happened sometimes in the past in cases before tribunals of inquiry where the evidence was heard in public.
The House has a duty to protect the innocent, as we have a responsibility to punish a misdemeanour. Those in public life, as we are, are especially vulnerable to slander and false allegations, and, if such persons offer themselves as candidates for election, such baseless smears can lead not only to a loss of faith in the individual but also to the undermining of belief in the standing of hon. Members generally.
I understand that it could be, though I suppose that it depends on the specific case.
My right hon. Friend has made a strong case for having the Committee's proceedings generally in private and for not having the Press there. But there have been cases where a Select Committee has considered that a subject may be quite a tricky one and the Press has not been allowed to attend, but, when witnesses have appeared, hon. Members have been permitted to come along to hear the cross-examination and to follow the proceedings. What reason is there on this occasion for banning hon. Members from attending the Committee when witnesses are before the Committee and cross-examination is taking place, while excluding the Press?
I leave my right hon. Friend to consider the matter himself. But, as in the case of the Committee of Privileges, in practice no hon. Member has attended such a Committee during its proceedings. It seems proper that we should follow that precedent in what is happening here, and I think that that will appeal to most hon. Members in the House when they think about the matter.
My right hon. Friend referred, in his arguments about having this Committee meeting in secret, to the fact that we as Members of Parliament are subject to having our names in the Press on countless other issues and that to some extent we would be likely to suffer more if we were involved. Will he also accept that councillors, too, are in public life and that, therefore, to that extent the argument carries with them just as it does with Members of Parliament, especially if those councillors are well-known public names? Will my right hon. Friend also comment on the fact that yesterday it was announced that 16 workers at the British Steel Corporation are to be charged with corruption? Will not they, their families and their relatives be subject to the same problems as any Member of Parliament who represents these ordinary people who are subjected to the constraints of the court?
I think that the answer to that is "No". I am not a lawyer but, as I understand the rules of evidence—and I said so earlier today—they are very carefully drawn in terms of what may be advanced in court and what may be admitted in court. This is not the case with a Select Committee of this kind. I am willing to give way to any hon. Member who knows the law better than I do. But it is oven to anyone to come to the Select Committee if he wishes to do so and it is sitting in public and to make accusations of the most scurrilous nature—all of us have had such accusations made against us—without any protection at all. We have already had such an example in connection with this case. I see no reason why those who are apparently guiltless of any offence should, either for reasons of malice or in any other way, have their names broadcast in the Press before the Committee has had a chance to consider the answer and then to publish the full facts. Then the House and the country will have the full position before them. That seems to be the right way to handle this matter.
I do not think that we should be debating this matter. I doubt whether there is much more information that I can give to the House. Indeed, I have already reached the end of my speech. I dare say that those who disagree will want to advance different arguments. However, I will give way to the Leader of the Liberal Party, as he has tabled an amendment.
Will the Prime Minister explain why he takes a different view when it comes to publication of the evidence? He has rightly given the Committee discretion so that it may delete that which is malicious, trivial or without substance. Ought not he to give the Committee the same discretion whether to investigate in private first and to meet in public later?
Obviously the Committee could have such a power. We considered this matter, too. On balance, we thought that it was as well to give the Committee a direction from the House that it should sit in private, provided that it published all the relevant evidence at the end, rather than that it should decide one day to sit in private and another day to sit in public. We think that it is better to do it in this way all the way through. I do not think that there is a great issue of principle here about the Committee's deciding whether it wishes to sit in public or not. But, on balance, we think it better that there should be one coherent approach to it throughout the whole of the Committee's deliberations.
It is our desire that the Committee should receive and consider its evidence frankly and without any inhibition. Let it remain private until the Committee has completed its work, and then let all the evidence, oral and documentary, which is relevant to the inquiry be openly published for all to see. By this method, in our view, the House and the country will be able to form a complete, impartial and fair judgment on this unhappy affair, and justice will be done to those who have improperly involved themselves, but, just as important, justice will also be done to those whose names have been or may be baselessly and scurrilously bandied about.
When the Prime Minister announced his provisional decision to set up a Select Committee to consider this matter, he undertook to consult the other parties in the House. He has done so, and I am very grateful to him for it. I should now like to explain in my own words why, in general, although this is a House of Commons matter, the Opposition support a great deal of what he says and his broad conclusions.
It has involved a great deal of study, because a small amount of conclusion often involves a great deal of preceding study. There are many other cases to consider, and many more matters such as the blue-covered Salmon Report of 1966 as well as the red-covered Salmon Report of 1976 to be taken into account.
The purpose of the inquiry is, of course, to ensure that the high standards which are expected of a Member of Parliament are upheld and that thereby we retain public confidence in Parliament as a whole. This means that, from time to time, we have the distasteful task of inquiring into cases about which there is some public disquiet. We have this task in common with other members of other professions, and we have to find the best way of carrying it out.
I agree with the Prime Minister in his choice of a Select Committee as a proper vehicle for this inquiry. He quoted from the blue-covered Salmon Report that we should not set up a tribunal of inquiry except where there was very grave public disquiet and public lack of confidence. I do not believe that that is so in this case.
The right hon. Gentleman has chosen, I believe rightly, very wide terms of reference for this Select Committee. I have been through as many of the other Select Committee Reports as I could manage to read during the weekend, and I can find none comparable in the breadth of its terms of reference with this one. Most of them have referred to single specific instances which have been thoroughly investigated by the Committee concerned. But they have been specific. They have referred to existing Members of the House. I understand that this resolution may go wider and take into account those who were previously Members of this House. This is the only resolution that I have been able to find which is so wide in its terms of reference, and it means that it takes on some of the character of an inquisitorial proceeding in the same way as a tribunal of inquiry is an inquisitorial proceeding. That means that we have to take special care to protect those who are innocent, because by its nature an inquisitorial proceeding is rather alien to our laws of justice in this country.
The blue-covered Salmon Report pointed out that it is a quite different procedure from any in a court, in regard to which there have been previous inquiries, and where specific allegations are put down in writing. The person accused knows exactly what the allegations are, and depositions are taken from witnesses. There are two sides, with either prosecutor and defendant or plaintiff and defendant.
There is nothing of this kind in a tribunal or in a Select Committee proceeding. It is an inquisitorial proceeding in which allegations emerge as the inquiry goes on. This renders it specially liable to hurt the innocent person—and in particular, if there is a long time elapsing between the allegation and the conclusion, the reputation of the innocent person may never recover. I believe that this puts a very special duty on us to ensure that, while all the relevant evidence is published, no one is subjected needlessly to injustice.
This brings me immediately to the point about the publication of evidence, and to the particular motion on the Order Paper, which is in rather strange wording and not easy to understand. I believe that the best way to achieve these two aims—namely, to bring out all the relevant evidence but to protect the person who is innocent—is to see that every single bit of evidence is published at the time the finding is made by the Select Committee. If by any chance there is then some evidence which goes against a person who is innocent, at least there is the immediate antidote of the finding of the Select Committee.
It is not possible always to have 100 per cent. protection for the innocent in carrying out an inquiry of this kind, but we must make the protection as absolute as possible. This has been done in many past cases. I have been through the Allighan case and all through the Boothby case. Those were single cases. The evidence in the Boothby case ran to some 290 pages. Every single bit was published. The evidence in the Allighan case ran to 122 pages. Every single bit was published. There has been no question about the publication of all relevant facts.
There may from time to time have been discussions about what the House did concerning those relevants facts, but on the whole there has been no criticism that the relevant facts have ever been withheld. Every single thing has been published. How can there be a cover-up when every single bit is published? It is all published and it is all available for the House to consider when it comes to debate the matter, and it is the House that decides. It is not a Select Committee.
I now turn to what I believe is a misunderstanding which has arisen from the wording in the Order Paper concerning publication. What I think the words mean, and are intended to mean, is that all oral and documentary evidence shall be published in as much as it is proper evidence. Most of us would not wish to consider improper or irrelevant evidence, because it could only be prejudicial.
May I just finish? I recognise that the hon. Gentleman feels very strongly about this. So do I. If we look at the reports, we find that all the evidence has been published. I remember only one case where an hon. Member has moved concerning suppression of evidence. That case was taken to the Committee of Privileges. It was a very long time ago. That is why I think it is important to have all the evidence published. For my part, I should be very happy to stand by the normal rules relating to Select Committees.
I notice that the Prime Minister said that the word "inadmissible" is not understood in a parliamentary sense. I believe, with respect, that that is not quite right. I believe that it is understood. I spent some time over the weekend learning a great deal from "Erskine May".
I appreciate the right hon. Lady's point, but does she understand that the crucial point here is not that we must satisfy hon. Members? The people we have to satisfy are the millions who elect us and put us into this place. Indeed, we also have to satisfy those who have been involved in Select Committees dealing with other matters.
Does the right hon. Lady know, for instance, that Alan Grimshaw, one of the people partly responsible for the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries making an investigation of the National Coal Board's buying of roof supports and so on, is extremely aggrieved at the result of that investigation? The Select Committee did not publish all the evidence which he believed—as distinct from the Committee's view—should have been published. That is the point at issue. Although the House may be happy that all its Members have been safeguarded, the real question is whether a Select Committee in this form, if it decides not to publish all the evidence, can then satisfy all the people outside.
I understand that the direction here relates to all "relevant" evidence, that is to say, all evidence that is relevant. I believe that the next words on the Order Paper,
and such as may fairly be taken into account
really mean all evidence that is admissible. But in deciding what those words mean, I believe that the proper authority is "Erskine May" other than the Officers of the House. May I read out the rules relating to the publication of minutes of evidence of Select Committees? On page 650 "Erskine May" goes into what is proper and also deals with what is "inadmissible". That is why I think it is a term understood in the House. It says:
If a question, which, on being objected to, is decided to be improper or inadmissible, has already been inserted in the minutes, the question is expunged.
It is, therefore, expunged in terms of existing practice if it is improper or inadmissible—and people do not want improper or inadmissible details to be in the evidence. "Erskine May" then goes on to say:
Other matters which have been expunged by the order of the committee have included answers which, properly speaking, were not evidence and ought not to have been received as such; part of, or certain words in, a witness's evidence; questions and answers relating to a case, of which the witness subsequently admitted he had no personal knowledge"—
and so on. In other words, all evidence which is proper and relevant has to be published, I understand, according to the motion before the House. If that is not so, then most of us would be prepared to say that, provided it is published absolutely at the end, when the findings come out, all evidence should be published if any case is to be raised concerning the
suppression of evidence. I believe that it is more important to get it all out—but to have none of it coming out until the findings are made—than it is to risk any question about suppression of evidence. But I understand the wording on the Order Paper to mean—and I hope that the advice we shall get is that it means that the Select Committee will take it to mean—all evidence which is relevant and admissible—
—and that if it is not admissible it ought to be stopped. It sometimes is—as the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon), who is a lawyer, well knows—but it is not always easy to stop it before it has come out and some damage has been done.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. I think, with respect, that there is a difference between what "Erskine May" calls inadmissible and the wording used in the motion, which is
upon consideration … shall appear to be relevant".
What is inadmissible may be, for example, abuse which may not be regarded as orderly in the House and which would be similarly inadmissible in a Select Committee. But it may be that a Select Committee would think that a false allegation against an innocent Member of the House is irrelevant to its general consideration whether some people were guilty of contempt of the House. The Select Committee may think that it would be better in the circumstances not to have such evidence at all. In the one case it would fall within the terms of the motion and would be strictly admissible according to the "Erskine May" test.
I agree with the right hon. Lady's general approach to the problem, and would be anxious to follow her line in dealing with the evidence. I think it is very important, therefore, that we should get it right here and now and not leave it to the Select Committee to decide according to its own test.
I do not believe that false allegations against hon. Members which are irrelevant should be published. It is far better to have them published at the end of the day than have the proceedings in public or published in the Press all along. I believe that this means what I believe it to mean and I hope it will be made clear to the Select Committee what the House means. All the evidence put forward, if inadmissible in the ordinary usage of the term, should be stopped at the point given or expunged from the record. As we have inquisitorial proceedings here, we can do that.
I believe that the right attitude to take is that all the evidence should be published at the time of the findings, so that there is no great gap between the allegations being made and the findings being given. Then there is no question of a cover-up of any kind. If that is done, I believe that we shall have the full facts put before the House and it is the House, not the Select Committee, which decides what is to be done on the findings.
The right hon. Lady has referred to the blue-covered book of Lord Salmon, but only in passing to the red-covered book. In the latter, Lord Salmon, who is fully seized of the facts to come before the Select Committee, and certainly of the evidence which has precipitated this debate today, came to the conclusion, for reasons he has given, including problems about inadmissibility of evidence, that the Select Committee was an unsuitable vehicle. He recommended that every hon. Member should be placed in the same position as a member of the public before the law in a criminal trial. Why has the right hon. Lady not referred to the recommendation specifically made by Lord Salmon that a Select Committee of this kind is highly unsuitable to deal with these matters which we are trying to lay upon them?
With due respect to the hon. Gentleman—and I recognise that he is a distinguished lawyer—only a Select Committee can inquire into matters of contempt of this House. No tribunal or other body can do it. The other matter into which the Select Committee is to inquire is whether the standards of conduct fall below those expected of hon. Members. This cannot be a trial, or a criminal trial, and the Prime Minister referred to this matter early on. My understanding is that either before or after the Select Committee has reported, the matter referred to in Lord Salmon's red-covered Report, whether there should be a change of law, must be put through this House in the proper way with proper consideration. That is quite separate from what we are doing now. We do no service to anyone to confuse these two issues.
I shall address a few words to an amendment which I think will be moved later about whether the Select Committee should have the right to go in and out of public proceedings. I do not think the Select Committee should be given that discretion at this moment. There will be, at the beginning, quite a number of allegations which come before the Select Committee, and some evidence will be heard. If the Select Committee is given the power to go into public proceedings at its own discretion, one thing will be certain—the public will not have all the evidence at the same time. It will have some evidence and it will not have other evidence, and therefore it cannot have the means of judging the whole thing. Immediately there are two sorts of evidence created—one sort which is published at the end with the findings and one sort which is published at the time the allegation is put and the hearing conducted. That would lead to confusion, and would create suspicion, not allay it. It would be quite wrong to give such discretion at this time.
On the ordinary procedure of Select Committees, followed in the Boothby case, if the Committee wants extra powers it can come back to the House and ask for them. In the Boothby case, Lord Boothby was given the right to appear or be represented by counsel and the Select Committee was given the right to hear counsel. The Committee had thought that its powers were not enough, so it came back to the House, put its case and got the powers it needed.
None of use knows, apart from the Attorney-General, what is contained in the right hon. and learned Gentleman's files, and none of us knows the allegations which will come before the Committee. But if, after several weeks, the Committee wishes or thinks it proper that some of the proceedings should be held in public, the correct and appropriate thing to do is for the Committee to make such a resolution, come back to the House and seek further powers. Then the decision whether some of the evidence should be in public and some in private rests with the House. There is nothing in the Committee proedures to preclude that from happening, and it is the right way to go about it.
In her desire to protect every Member of this House, the right hon. Lady spoke of consideration being given for six or seven weeks or more. But has she thought that no one can prevent hon. Members or the Press from waiting in the corridors outside the Committee Room to see who goes in and out? Inevitably there will be some conjecture about who goes in and for what purpose. If the Committee cannot call for factual evidence from one hon. Member to clear his name, there is a danger that anyone called to the Committee will have the stigma, or at least the suspicion, attaching to his or her name. If the Committee could hear this evidence in public his name would be cleared.
That is quite different from any allegation being published. I am not certain about the parliamentary law relating to reporting comings and goings in corridors of the House. There have been privilege cases about reporting what goes on in parts of the House which are not the Chamber, and other cases may be referred to the Committee of Privileges. I believe that the mode of operating which the Minister has put forward is, indeed, the best one.
But is there not a practical difficulty if, as the right hon. Lady has suggested, the Select Committee comes back to the House and asks for discretion to sit in public? It would have to disclose to the House the reasons why it wished to sit in public and that would raise all kinds of problems. If it had the discretion from the start it could exercise that discretion.
It is not right to give a discretion to the Select Committee to hear part of the evidence in public and part in private. That ensures that there are two different sorts of evidence and I think that would create suspicion at the outset.
The procedure which we followed in the Boothby and Allighan cases was that the hearings were in private, but the public knew everything at the end because everything was published. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) cannot say that there is any cover-up when every word of the evidence is published, because there is no cover-up at all.
I have given my views on what it means, what I believe it should mean, could mean and will be intended to mean. It is far better that we should proceed in this way than by the only alternative, which is for allegations to be published one by one with a very long time between the allegations being made and the findings being published. This is the worst of all possible worlds.
There are three categories of evidence and they diminish in significance. First, there is "all the evidence", which my right hon. Friend says she favours publishing—and I agree with her. Secondly, there is "all the admissible evidence" covered by the definition in "Eskine May" which my right hon. Friend read out. Thirdly, there is a still smaller category, which the Prime Minister mentioned, which is "all the relevant evidence"—which means the evidence considered relevant by the subjective tests of the Committee. Which of these groups of evidence does my right hon. Friend favour publishing?
The only evidence is evidence which is related to the case. All the rest is not evidence; it is just scurrilous gossip and rumour. The only evidence, by the nature of the word, is evidence relating to the matter which is before the Select Committee. I hope that there will never be any question of using the Select Committee as a means of propounding gossip or scurrilous rumour, if that is what it is, or as a means of seeing that such gossip is published and uttered beyond the House.
If one has any confidence in a Select Committee surely one can trust it to publish all the evidence that truly is evidence and to make an objective assessment. If we do not have that confidence there is no point in setting up the Select Committee.
I am sorry that I have taken longer than the Prime Minister, but at least I have been supporting him this time. I believe that what he proposes is the right way to go about this matter, and I hope that the Select Committee will be speeded on its way and will get down to what is for it a very difficult task.
Since my hon. Friends disagree with the view taken by both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in one particular matter, I should like to set out first what I think the Select Committee should do, or how it should proceed.
A great deal has been said on both sides today by both right hon. Members to indicate that one of their chief concerns, if not their chief concern, is to protect the innocent. Of course, it is a matter of fine balance as to how that is to be achieved and how it is to be set against the other factor which must surely weigh equally heavily with them, and that is that the public should see that justice has been achieved.
Justice achieved in secret is very rarely seen to be justice. Our courts meet in public. Many of the arguments used by the Prime Minister today were a justification for courts sitting in secret and publishing all their evidence and their findings later because then the nasty allegations can be published together with the findings.
No. that is quite wrong. We are dealing with an entirely different matter. A court presumably gives its own findings and its own verdict. I do not know whether the Select Committee will produce findings. It is entitled to do so if it wishes, but the verdict on these issues will be made in this House, in public, after we have read the allegations and the answers. There is nothing here to cover up.
In the proposed terms of reference the Prime Minister has asked the Committee to make recommendations—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"] It is to report to the House and presumably that will include making representations.
It is important for this matter to be developed further. When the British Medical Association considers allegations against doctors, once the original evidence has been sifted, the allegations are heard in public. That is a very serious matter for a doctor, but because the matter is handled in public the public are reassured.
Let me set out what we think is the right procedure for the Committee to adopt. As Lord Salmon said in his red-covered Report, there are serious deficiencies in the procedure, whatever the procedure we use. Lord Salmon said:
With the most genuine respect to the Committee of Privileges and the Select Committee on Members' Interests, we do not consider that they provide an investigative machinery comparable to that of a police investigation. We have had frequent occasion to comment on the complexity of investigations into serious corruption, and the special expertise that is necessary for this type of inquiry … Since the bribery of a Member of Parliament acting in his parliamentary capacity does not constitute an offence known to the criminal law, it appears to us that the very locus of the police in respect of such matters must he in doubt.
Let me suggest, therefore, what should be the proper procedure for the Committee.
First, it has to investigate the matter. No doubt it will invite evidence in written statements to be made to the Committee. Maybe oral statements will be made to it. At that stage I agree with the Prime Minister. Individual Members of the House and any outside witnesses should be protected, and at that stage I think the proceedings of the Committee should be entirely in private.
Surely the equivalent of this is the police investigation or the original inquiry of the Director of Public Prosecutions. The DPP has much evidence presented to him which is never revealed to the public because he discards it, perhaps because he regards it as unreliable. The same applies with the early investigation of any disciplinary tribunal in any profession.
However, the Committee having gone through that matter, and having sifted all the evidence, I and my right hon. and hon. Friends believe that if there is a substantial case against any Member of the House the Committee should have discretion to have the hearing thereafter in public. The Select Committee would, as it should, apply very strict rules to what is admissible and relevant. It would be concerned to ensure that scurrilous rumours and that kind of thing were not made the foundation of charges. There must be more substance to them than that.
But let us suppose that the Committee finds the substance is there. Surely at that stage it should be entitled to do what is done in a Board of Trade inquiry into a public company and reduce what is found to be a substantive case into writing, to make a précis, which is presented to whoever is involved. Then, if it wishes, I think the Committee could hear that evidence in public. The Member should be entitled to give and should give evidence in public in rebuttal of that.
The hon. and learned Member is worrying me in the light of the discussions that took place last week. Surely in his statement of 19th October the Attorney-General made it abundantly clear that he had reached the conclusion, with which the Solicitor-General and I concur, that for persons within the jurisdiction of the court there are not sufficient grounds to merit the commencement of any further prosecutions or continued inquiry into the possibility of obtaining further evidence of criminal offences.
The hon. and learned Member has talked about building up a case. We are not talking about that. We are talking about whether in this instance there is contempt of the House, or whether there was conduct which was inconsistent with the standard that the House is entitled to expect from its Members. It does an ill service to this House in the eyes of persons outside to suggest that there is a cover-up, because otherwise hon. Members would go before the courts on criminal charges. That has not happened.
I think that the Home Secretary has misunderstood me. Of course there are two issues into which the Committee must inquire. The first is whether the conduct or activities amounted to contempt of the House, and the second is whether the activities of any Members of Parliament were inconsistent with the standards which the House was entitled to expect of them. These are the matters into which the House must inquire.
I am most grateful to the hon. and learned Member for giving way. He is speaking of an inquiry into the conduct and activities of hon. Members which should consider whether any such conduct or activities amounted to a contempt of the House or was inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members. Is he aware that this inquiry is confined to matters in connection with the affairs of Mr. J. G. L. Poulson?
As the hon. and learned Member speaks for the Liberal Party, will he tell the House publicly and openly why in his view this motion should exclude the activities of the previous leader of his party who was condemned by an inquiry conducted by an inspector of the Department of Trade and Industry?
The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) has just recommended to the House that there should be a general inquiry. He has not recommended the deletion from the motion of the words:
in connection with the affairs of Mr. J. G. L. Poulson".
I am entitled to ask him why he does not carry his recommendation to its logical conclusion.
I shall leave the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) to answer that, but I must draw attention to the fact that Mr. Speaker ruled earlier that it is in order for hon. Members to refer to the circumstances attending the inquiry, but that it would not be in order to make allegations against individual Members. This would prejudge the Committee's findings and recommendations.
I have not made any allegation against any hon. Member. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery has just recommended that the House should conduct an investigation into the conduct and activities of Members of this House to consider whether such conduct or activities amounted to a contempt of the House or was inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members—this is not confined to criminal activities—and I am asking why he thinks it right that such an investigation should be so constricted that it excludes the ex-leader of his party. I think that I am entitled to a reply to that question.
Order. I must draw the attention of the House to the first paragraph of the motion, which refers specifically to activities
in connection with the affairs of Mr. J. G. L. Poulson".
The exchange we have just heard illustrates exactly the point which was very much in our minds. Trial by newspaper took place—the consequences are not of concern to us—and I am most anxious to see that no innocent hon. Members suffer the same fate.
It is obvious that I should be confident that under the procedure I propose the public would regard the evidence of the hon. Member for Tiverton as worthless.
I wish to outline the important reasons why my right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that the inquiry into these matters should be held partly in public. The reason we are having this procedure is that hon. Members are not subject to the criminal law in regard to certain aspects of their behaviour. I remind the House of the article in the Bill of Rights which says that the freedom of speech in debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament. We have here a privilege applied to hon.
Members in the fulfilment of their functions as hon. Members.
I hope that the hon. and learned Member will clear up doubts which he may have created by what he has just said. I understood him to say that there were some sections of the criminal law to which hon. Members were not amenable. If he did say that, to which sections was he referring?
The Prevention of Corruption Act, for example, makes it an offence for officials, councillors and others to do certain things which are not offences as far as hon. Members fulfilling their parliamentary functions are concerned.
Will the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) please educate the media? The whole business of the immunity conferred by the Bill of Rights is a red herring since the Prevention of Corruption Act does not apply to Parliament or to the administration of any of our activities in any event. Even if the Bill had never been passed, no hon. Member could have been prosecuted for any offence under the Prevention of Corruption Act appertaining to his parliamentary or any other duties.
We are concerned with the protection of hon. Members and the privilege of an hon. Member in carrying out his functions in Parliament. Hon. Members hold this privilege on behalf of the people they represent. That is why we have freedom of speech in the House. It is not a personal privilege in the true sense. We hold it in a fiduciary capacity and it is there to ensure that there is no restriction on an hon. Member's ability to speak out in the House and in any proceedings of Parliament. It is a principle conceived of our constitutional law. It is the principle that an hon. Member should be able to utter without restraint and be safeguarded by means of privilege. What is safeguarded by this privilege is the public interest. The purpose of our privilege is to preserve and enlarge the freedom within the House to speak without restraint. I ask, therefore, why it is proposed to have an entirely private inquiry in this case.
Let us assume that an hon. Member had received sums of money which would, were he not an hon. Member, be regarded as a bribe. As an hon. Member he would not have to face criminal charges, but if he were not an hon. Member there would be a charge and the trial would be held in public in the courts.
Parliament heeded the criticism that the police should not be allowed to deal in private with complaints made against them. The House has introduced a new procedure to deal with this. There is a great danger of the public thinking that double standards are being applied by the House.
I agree that the investigatory phase of the Committee's work should be entirely in private. If there is a prima facie case of a contempt of the House or of conduct which is inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect, surely it would be in the interests of justice for the individual involved, and in the public interest, for the matter to be discussed in public.
Surely, it will come out in the House when the Committee reports. If there is a case to answer, the House will have an opportunity to study the evidence and read the report. No one will be protected. There will be no cover-up of any heinous crime. If anybody has done anything wrong, it will come out. But if a man is to have all the Committee sittings listened to in public, and perhaps reported in the Press, the case may well be prejudged and, when the House finally comes to look at it, we shall be in a difficult position.
I have not suggested that every Committee sitting should be in public. I said that the first function of the Committee should be to sift the evidence and decide whether there is any substance in it, and, of course, that evidence must be admissible and relevant. But it is in the interests of any hon. Member against whom a prima facie case is made and who has an answer to it, that at that stage he should be able to give his answer in public.
Is the hon. and learned Member saying that he would like the Committee to sift all the evidence, presumably having heard it, and then go back to the beginning again to see what constitutes a prima facie case? How does he expect any progress to be made?
The procedure of sifting evidence is gone through in many places in our country at present. The Director of Public Prosecutions does it to find out whether there is a prima facie case.
It is important to consider the practical implications of the course which the Government have decided upon here. The Press, for example, already has a great deal of evidence. The transcripts of the public hearings in the bankruptcy proceedings must already be in the hands of a great number of newspapers.
The Press could refer to any piece of that evidence at any time when the Committee was sitting. If newspapers knew that a person who had given evidence in the bankruptcy proceedings was called before the Select Committee, they could say what he had said in the bankruptcy proceedings without risk of any action. Also, there are the transcripts of evidence given by various witnesses in the different trials which involved Poulson. They could be referred to at any time.
Therefore, by their proposal that the sittings of the Committee should be entirely in private the Government are risking publication by the Press at various times of extracts of evidence already given.
Would the hon. and learned Gentleman give the House an assurance that if, as is proposed, he becomes a member of the Select Committee, he will ensure in the debate which follows the report that nothing which ought to be brought to the attention of the House in the way of evidence, written or oral, will fail to be brought to the attention of the House?
I assure the Attorney-General that if I were to become a member of the Select Committee it would be my hope that the Committee would come to a unanimous conclusion and that each member of the Committee would put before the House what the Committee agreed should be put before the House.
We are in danger here of failing to appreciate the atmosphere of mounting public suspicion of the House.
Let us consider the history of the matter. In 1972—the Prime Minister has already adverted to this—certain events took place which, I assume, will be placed before the Committee, and these were known to some hon. Members and to members of the Government at that time. The matter became public with allegations during the Poulson bankruptcy proceedings. Let it be remembered that those proceedings were held in public, or at least part of them were. Had allegations not been made, would these investigations ever have taken place?
It is right to observe in passing that a distinguished member of the Bar, Mr. Muir Hunter, was called before the Bar Council when he was actually engaged in the middle of the case to answer for his own conduct in those bankruptcy proceedings. He was totally exonerated, but that event caused extreme disquiet among members of the Bar, and, so far as I am aware, Mr. Muir Hunter is the only counsel ever to be called to answer for his conduct while he was still conducting a case.
It is four years now from the time when the letters referred to were found. There has been no action yet on the Salmon Commission's revelations and the loopholes in our law and procedures. Should we be having this debate today and would a Select Committee be set up were it not for the fact that the Observer published its articles?
With respect, that question should be answered at once, and the answer is "Yes, we should". The Attorney-General had the information—naturally, he kept the information, because there is a distinction between the Government and the Attorney-General—but it was made clear by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), when he was Prime Minister, that the House would return to this matter when the question of prosecutions had been concluded. We have done that within 10 days of the Attorney-General giving his view on the matter, and I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will not spread that calumny any further. It did not require the Observer to bring the matter forward or to force the Attorney-General to bring it to the notice of the Government.
I am grateful to the Prime Minister for that statement, but he himself partly produced that thought in the minds of many people when he said in the House the day after the Attorney-General's Written Answer:
… it may be as well to focus on the practice for the future rather than to re-run the past. …".—[Official Report, 20th October 1976; Vol. 917, c. 1449.]
The Prime Minister used those words—such things can easily be said, and one does not always fully intend the meaning attached to them—and I think that he himself contributed to the impression that—
I wish to make clear that because the Lord President was ill I received notice of the Private Notice Question. I was then on my way back in a motor car from opening the Motor Show. I did not actually see the papers until after 2 o'clock on that day, and I gave as much of an answer as I could. I said that I wanted to reserve my position on whether the matter should go to the Committee of Privileges. Having studied the matter further, after our exchanges in the House I returned to the House immediately the next day and stated what I thought the right conclusions were. I had by that time seen all the papers, and it was only then that I saw in full some of the letters which had passed.
I readily accept from the Prime Minister that on the occasion when he made his first statement he had not given the matter the mature consideration which he clearly had given it by the time he made his second statement. But it is important to return to the basic question.
The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition have rightly said that they are concerned to protect the innocent. But by recommending the procedure that the Committee shall meet only in private, they are, I suggest, again creating suspicion where no suspicion need exist. I am sure that that is so in the public mind, and I am suggesting that it is possible to protect the innocent by a different kind of procedure. I think it right that the Committee should have a discretion to sit in public if the public interest and the interests of justice require it to do so. It should have that inherent discretion from the start.
One of the basic tenets of liberty is that there shall be liberty to know. We live in a mature democracy. Our democracy is used to having evidence published in the newspapers—evidence which is later rejected, for example, by juries. If there be a prima facie case established to the satisfaction of the Committee, at that stage it will be in the interests of the country as a whole that the Committee shall have the right to sit in public.
The first point to which I should like to refer is the matter that has just been discussed by the spokesman for the Liberal Party, the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. That is whether the Government, through the Attorney-General, would have taken any action on this matter. I want to be fair to the Government on this specific point—although I want to be fair in any case—and, perhaps more precisely, to the Attorney-General.
About a year ago a letter was sent to me in reply to a letter that I had sent to the Attorney-General in which I had raised the fundamental question regarding not the whole Poulson activities but a certain area of them. Much to the chagrin of the Opposition—I am not sure whether they included the Liberals—the Attorney-General replied to me to the effect that the matter was still continuing and that certain decisions would have to be made later. Therefore, it would be wrong of me to assume at the outset that the Government had no intention of returning to this matter. Indeed, the Attorney-General made that point to me in his letter. Many hon. Members were not terribly happy about that. However, the Attorney-General was right to reply to me in that strain.
It can be argued—I put it not higher than that—that the Government would have brought this matter to the House for it to be dealt with. It is not easy to talk about the general view outside this place. However, let me put it like this. I get the impression that most people outside Parliament, who start by being a little cynical about politicians, would argue that what we seemed to be doing was evading the issue because it affected Members of Parliament. That may or may not be true. However, I am fairly certain that that was the impression of many people to whom I speak, who have never been to this place and are not terribly anxious to come and have a look at it, but who, nevertheless, want to ensure that a Government of a certain political colour is in being. Today, therefore, we debate this matter against that background.
It is true that we here get a different conception about how things should be dealt with because our environment, both in the Chamber and in places outside it in the House of Commons and thereabouts, is different from that in which our constituents normally live. That is not to say that I know too much about the voters who put the Tories in this place. Of course that is not so. I am talking principally about those who are, roughly, like me. Those are the people who concern me.
There are literally millions of them. There are millions of constituents who, day in and day out, want to support a Socialist Government. On occasions they get the opportunity, and in varying degrees they support a Socialist Government. I tend to get the impression that they are unhappy about what is taking place. For the life of me, I cannot see why the setting up of a public tribunal was not proposed, a tribunal in which the whole of this dirty washing—if it is dirty washing—could have been hung out to dry.
Does the hon. Gentleman realise that what we are proposing to do here, in bringing this matter out in public on a report with all the evidence, is something that is not done by many trade unions? When they bring their own members before them, they do not even present a report. They simply present a verdict.
If people involved in a trade union get involved in some difficulty with their members which is a matter purely for the trade union, they will deal with it in that way. What we are talking about is something entirely different. If a member of a trade union, an officer or a shop steward, were alleged to have been involved in some area of corruption or bribery, he would not be dealt with by the shop stewards' council or whatever it is. He would be dealt with by the courts of law.
When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was speaking, I referred to the 16 British Steel Corporation workers who, according to the Sunday Mirror of yesterday, have been charged with corruption arising out of something that has happened at the British Steel Corporation. I do not know the precise allegations. In many ways, I do not need to care too much about them. However, one thing I know is that those 16 people will go through a process that is completely different from the process that Members of Parliament—irrespective of whether they are involved in this matter—would go through.
Therefore, by and large, many people take the view that this particular incident, like many others that arise in this place, suggests that Members of Parliament are above the law. It may be argued by all the lawyers in this place—no doubt they will so argue very forcibly—that that is not true and that it is a generalisation that may easily be challenged.
On the contrary, no lawyer worth his salt would argue that. The whole point is that there is an area of law in which the Member of Parliament and those who attempt to corrupt him, in particular circumstances, cannot be brought before the courts, so there is no such argument. I hope to have an opportunity of developing that matter later.
Yes, but the point I am making is that our constituents generally tend to take the view or to get the impression that Members of Parlament are above the law. That is why what we should have done in this case was to say to the public generally "Because there is a great deal of cynicism, because there is this constant reference to Members of Parliament being above the law and because some newspapers write editorials which make that suggestion in slogan form—because of all that we shall go one stage further and ensure that we use a sledgehammer to crack a nut." That is what we should be doing, instead of giving the impression that we are posturing as an elite all the time and that we are just a shade better than the ordinary man in the street.
On this occasion there can be no argument about a public inquiry costing any more. We are constantly told that everything must be looked at in terms of public expenditure. I cannot see that this would affect any area of finance. I suppose that it could be argued that it would be cheaper to hold it publicly anyway.
Another important point concerns the terms of the motion. This point has been referred to by the Liberal spokesman, who said that the terms were too narrow. Immediately, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as the hon. and learned Gentleman was anxious to make that point, you had to intervene to prevent another hon. Member from pointing out what would happen if the terms were broadened generally. However, I am concerned about the precise definition.
I want to know what will happen in relation to the Poulson subsidiaries. John Poulson always argued that the subsidiaries were not his companies, but a lot of the shares were owned by him or his family through his wife. Therefore, I want to know from the Government that these companies, such as ITCS—the company that did the international trade and international business—Open System Buildings and Construction Promotions, are all areas into which the Select Committee will delve. We do not want to get into a situation in which it is said, "This is not the main company". I noticed that my right hon. Friend nodded in assent. It seems that at least we shall have some attempt made to investigate these matters a little beyond the narrow area of Poulson's own architectural company.
Even so, we can still run into difficulties. What happens when it has been established that certain of the subsidiaries have been involved in certain activities and various matters need to be examined further? What happens when someone demands that Mr. Kenneth Williams, the Medical Director of Vickers, should be brought before the Committee to fulfil the requirements of a thorough and searching investigation into certain aspects of ITCS? What happens when that course is taken regarding the building company in Gozo?
Kenneth Williams, according to the Attorney-General, was being sought by Scotland Yard in Saudi Arabia a year ago. We were told that our relations with Saudi Arabia this is the impression that has been given—were so weak that we could not persuade the Saudi Arabians to allow Scotland Yard to investigate. I am told that Kenneth Williams is now in France. What attempts will be made to get the man here? I am not referring to a Member but to a man who, according to the Attorney-General's letter of a year ago, would be a prime factor in an attempt to root out some of the affairs that have not been concluded in the Poulson inquiries.
What will happen when the Committee reaches the stage when it is necessary to find Kenneth Williams and to bring him before the court to explain his conduct in the affairs of the Poulson international subsidiary that was involved—
This is a subject that has quite wide surroundings. Does the hon. Gentleman recall that when the Committee on Un-American Activities under the late and unlamented Senator McCarthy wanted to bring American citizens back to America from this country to testify before the committee, Americans who had not committed any offence against American law, people of all parties in this country took the view that we should not waive our sovereignty to allow that to happen? Whatever views we may take about this case, if the hon. Gentleman were a Saudi Arabian, is he quite sure that he would want a British Select Committee to do what I think both he and I would have agreed an American Senate Committee should be allowed to do in Britain?
The McCarthy attempt to drag people back to America from this country, which he says many people resisted, is different from the case to which I am referring. According to the Attorney-General, Scotland Yard was attempting to get hold of Kenneth Williams. Apparently it was having some difficulty in finding him. Scotland Yard was interested not in some American senator or a Select Committee but in finding an individual who was wanted. It was suggested that he would be needed at any time if the whole investigation of the Poulson activities were to be concluded in a proper fashion. The point I am making is that it was not a Select Committee that was anxious to fetch him back because of a McCarthy-like witch hunt, but an attempt by Scotland Yard to get him back which was not successful because of various difficulties.
The Select Committee endeavoured to get this little part of this little area of the Poulson activities wound up once and for all.
My hon. Friend was very fair to me at the beginning of his speech. The duties given to me by the motion are to
attend the Committee so far as the Committee may require to present evidence relevant to the subject matter of the inquiry".
Will my hon. Friend take it from me that I shall seek to nut before the Committee all the material in my possession which appears to be relevant? Does he accept that if the Committee asks me to do anything further—and the motion states
and may give such further assistance to the Committee as may be appropriate"—
I shall do my best to meet its wishes? However, if that involves obtaining for the Committee the evidence of someone who is not within the jurisdiction—namely, someone who is outside the country—I shall have no power to meet such a requirement, although I shall do my best to achieve it.
That outlines the difficulties to which I have referred. Surely that makes it necessary to endeavour to get the matter completely resolved by some other tactic. In the absence of being able to get certain gentlemen to appear before the Committee either inside or outside this country, the Committee will have to use some other tactic to achieve its objective and to allay not merely my fears but the fears of those outside.
There is another matter that worries me about this whole affair. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is still present to listen to what I have to say. Of course, he might not be terribly concerned about what I say on many other matters, and he might not be concerned in this instance. I regarded the initial announcement by my right hon. Friend with some suspicion. On more than one occasion I heard him refer to the future. Any Socialist worth his salt should be concerned about what we do in the future. He was right on that score, but I think that he concentrated in his initial statement on wanting to do something about the future—this was apparent in the replies he gave to questions from either side of the House—to the detriment of taking immediate action to begin the cleaning up, if there is any cleaning to be done.
I was worried when my right hon. Friend seemed to harp upon that phraseology. It worried me even more when the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition seemed to confirm that point of view in the few remarks she made on 21st October. What makes me more suspicious—I am naturally a suspicious person—is that on the following day, when my right hon. Friend announced that he had managed to get hold of some information that hitherto he had not been made aware of, or had not had the opportunity to see, he was able to put forward the idea of a Select Committee, which, to say the least, was a little different from what he had said the day before.
Strangely enough, this area of collaboration continued. The right hon. Lady said that she had changed her mind as well in the preceding 24 hours. Therefore, they were back together again.
When it comes to the drawing up of the terms of reference for the Committee we see, once again, a convergence of views. My right hon. Friend and the Government Front Bench generally seem to be agreeing with the Opposition Front Bench almost all along the line. We have witnessed that again today. It makes me angry as well as suspicious when I am told that I am expected to continue this collaboration in the Lobby. I am told to vote for the Government in accordance with what the Opposition want. I am sorry, but when it comes to that sort of collaboration I, for one, cannot take part in it. I suggest to my right hon. Friend that even in matters of this sort he should always be wary of what the Opposition put forward. When the two Front Benches have agreed on a course there are few occasions when that course has been either for the good of the nation generally or, more important, for the good of our party and our party supporters.
As I said at the outset, I am motivated more by what concerns the people who sent me here than by the so-called national interest, which can vary from time to time. Sometimes the national interest corresponds with one line of thought and sometimes with another. I am more concerned with advancing the cause of those who want a change in society, so I start from a completely different point from that adopted by the hon. Gentleman.
Why are we debating this motion in relation to Members of Parliament and the élitism which on this occasion surrounds the operation of a Member of Parliament? It stems from the simple proposition that a Member of Parliament, unlike most workers, is able to have his fingers in more than one pie. It all comes back to the general proposition that this whole area of suspicion cannot be eradicated unless we establish that the principle of one man one job should apply to Members of Parliament. The Register of Members' Interests was an advance along those lines.
Without doubt this is a matter of public concern. No doubt the Liberal amendment will command a good deal of support in the House because it means all things to all people. Many motions which can be interpreted in various ways command a lot of support in the House. The Liberal amendment would allow the Select Committee to hear evidence in public if it so wished. I am not sure that the Select Committee would want to do that. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the composition is not exactly like that of any other Select Committee in the proportion of Privy Councillors who are members of it. My view is that it would be likely to continue to sit in private once it started to do so. If that Liberal amendment is not carried today, the Liberal Member who has been allocated a place on the Committee has only one honourable course, and that is to come off it.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friends and myself provides specifically that the Select Committee must meet in public. The last secret Committee in the House of Commons was in 1857, and we do not want to go back to that kind of operation. That amendment is unqualified. If it is carried, some of the public's fears will be allayed, but not all, because the only way to allay all fears is by the appointment of a full tribunal of inquiry unconnected with the operation of the House.
The fundamental aspect is that Members of Parliament are seen to he investigating allegations against other Members of Parliament. We have just passed an Act which provides that the investigation of complaints against the police shall not be a matter for the police alone. Yet in this internal investigation we are saying to the public that we can do the job better than anyone else. Any ordinary member of the public who was involved in allegations connected with those being debated today would have to appear before a court of law and to pay whatever penalty the court imposed. That is why I feel that we are making the wrong move. We should have established a tribunal of inquiry from the beginning.
Over the years the House has had the opportunity to appreciate that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is a man of wide attainments and that his character has many facets. Today, perhaps for the first time, he has demonstrated that he has an unswerving regard for the integrity of public life. He has displayed his considerable forensic talents to demonstrate that he has reservations about the procedure that we are being asked to adopt. I hope that he will not take it too personally when I say that I wish he had displayed those same talents in pressing his right hon. Friends for an inquiry into the administration of Clay Cross. He would have done the general public a greater service than he has done in developing some of the arguments, not entirely relevant, which he has deployed today.
At the end of the day I, too, have certain reservations about the procedure we are being asked to adopt. If we are to appreciate why we are being asked to adopt it, we have to look at the whole case in its context—I agree with the hon. Member for Bolsover that we have to look a little further ahead—and start by asking ourselves why we are being asked to set up this special Committee.
A welter of bad law has been deployed in the debate, and I hope that the House will not feel that I am attempting to add to it. The reason why we are being asked to set up the Committee is that there is a gap in the law. I am in agreement with the hon. Members for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) and York (Mr. Lyon) that this is not a question of privilege. It may be peripheral—Article 9 of the Bills of Rights touches on this—but it is not central to the issue. The real point is that neither under the common law nor under statute can Members of Parliament or those who attempt to corrupt them be the subject of a criminal action in the courts.
We might perhaps today debate whether the law should be altered, and I hope that the House will allow me to come on to that, but at the moment the three statutes that bear on this, and the common law, do not touch Members of Parliament in the exercise of their parliamentary duties; nor do they touch those who attempt to corrupt. That is the answer to the hon. Member for Bolsover—it is not élitism. I willingly give way to any hon. and learned Member who wishes to take issue with me on that.
Honourable Members may feel that this is a gap in the law. I do, and so did Lord Salmon and Members who sat on the Committee with him. If we start from that position, I am sure that the whole House will agree that we cannot overlook the case that has been deployed by rumour and in the Observer. I, too, wonder a little whether, if another paper, unsupported by the powerful talents of the hon. Member for Bolsover, had made this case we should have got to this point. However, that is a perhaps unworthy suspicion that will be brushed aside by the Home Secretary.
Be that as it may, allegations of a fairly specific nature have been made, and I do not believe that the House could have let them pass unnoticed. Indeed, so long ago as 2nd May 1965 a resolution was passed to the effect that
The offer of money or other advantages to any Member for the promoting of any matter whatsoever depending or to be transacted is a high crime and misdemeanour.
The House has on numerous occasions since then demonstrated that it feels that the kind of conduct which rumour and, in particular, the Observer have suggested has been committed cannot be let pass by the House without some investigation and action.
I find myself entirely in agreement with that point of view, but I wonder whether we should not, particularly in the light of the Report of the Salmon Commission, have had a broader look at the question earlier. I know that it will be objected that the Salmon Commission reported only in July, and I do not wish to take a partisan point about the way in which we have been flooded with legislation of a far less important character. We should direct ourselves to the Salmon Report in the near future. I hope that the Home Secretary, as he is also concurrently Leader of the House, will give its some information on this point.
Accepting that there is a gap in the law and that these matters cannot be examined dispassionately and judicially in the courts—that would be the proper place for them to be examined—we are faced with the option of setting up the Select Committee that we are considering today. May I respectfully offer my condolences and sympathy to those right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who, I have no doubt out of a spirit of public service, have accepted positions on the Select Commitee, because I believe that theirs will be a very onerous and thankless task?
I want to raise a variety of questions, not that I shall suggest the answers to them, nor even expect the Home Secretary to give the answers today, but only to demonstrate the disadvantages under which such a Committee will labour.
Of course we can all take points about the terms of reference. Indeed, other hon. Gentlemen, and I myself, will be anxious to know how far beyond the House it will be necessary to investigate. Will it be proper or appropriate for the Committee to investigate those who are no longer Members of the House? Will it be proper to investigate those in local government? How far outside the confines of the Chamber here and now will the Committee have to enlarge its investigations? This is a matter of some ambiguity, as I read the terms of reference. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, although not the Prime Minister, certainly threw some light on these ambiguities, but I hope that at the end of our debate the Home Secretary will give us some more enlightenment on this.
Next, the proceedings of the Committee give me cause for thought. The Prime Minister said that the Committee would be entitled to engage accountants. As any of us who have been even peripherally involved with company investigations or with questions of company fraud know, there must be some body charged with the conduct of the investigation. Is the Committee to be equipped with such an investigating body? Dare I say it—it may be out of order—but are the Clerks of Parliament equipped by training to conduct this kind of inquiry?
I do not imagine that the Committee would relish engaging the services of the Fraud Squad, but I believe that probably at the end of the day that is the only body equipped by training and experience to conduct this kind of inquiry. It will be very difficult indeed for the Committee to conduct the sort of roaming inquisition which may be essential, even if it throws out questions from time to time for firms of accountants of the highest repute and the greatest experience to investigate.
When a case is ready to be brought before the Committee, again who is to deploy the case? I understand that the Committee will have the assistance of the Attorney-General. I have no doubt that he will give the Committee all the assistance in his power, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman knows that when be appears in court he has a wealth of support behind him: he has the vast resources of the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions or the Treasury Solicitor. Are those offices to be available to assist the Attorney-General, and how will he present the case to the Committee?
Then, indeed, when a prima facie case has been made, will it be put extensively to those hon. Gentlemen whose reputations are at stake? We understand that they will be allowed to appear by counsel, but will they be permitted to cross-examine those who evidence is the basis of the case deployed by the Attorney-General? Will they be allowed to look at all the documents and to cross-examine those from whom they derive?
I refer to only one document. This is because it has been so much before the public eye. It is the letter, or perhaps more exactly the photostat copy of the letter, purporting to have been written by an hon. Member to Mr. Poulson. Let us suppose that the Committee feels that that raises a serious case for that hon. Gentleman to answer. Will he be allowed to take, through his counsel, the kind of points that he could take in a court of law? Will he be allowed to find out from what source that letter emanates?
Will he be allowed to cross-examine the Editor of the Observer? It would be nothing but a public scandal if the Editor of the Observer, if he has any confidence in the case which he has deployed, were not called to give evidence and exposed to cross-examination by those hon. Gentlemen whose reputations are at stake. This, perhaps, is unprecedented, but perhaps we are embarked on an unprecedented course.
What standards of proof will be required? Will the onus be on the prosecution, if I may so call the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General; or will it be on the defence? These are, perhaps, matters which the Committee will have to determine. We shall no doubt for future reference and future occasions watch with interest what it determines in this case.
I hope that I have uncovered to the House sonic of the difficulties that I see lying in the path of this Committee.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. I have indeed taken the precaution of reading those proceedings. We have not been told by the Prime Minister—perhaps it was not for him to tell us—whether this Committee will follow that procedure exactly. May I remind my right hon. Friend, who has no doubt devoted a great deal of thought to these matters and who, though perhaps he may not care to admit it now, had certain legal training at one time, that in the Boothby case one specific allegation was made against one hon. Member? This is to be a roving inquiry—we are not told against whom, nor precisely in what field. We are told that it is in any matter connected with Mr. Poulson. I am not certain—it may be that the Home Secretary will be able to reassure me, or perhaps my right hon. Friend will be giving the House the benefit of his experience—but it may be that there is a precedent that can be followed fairly exactly.
I pass now from the Committee itself to the House. The Prime Minister was apt to give the analogy that the verdict will be ours. I have considerable reservations about that. I greatly hope that the evidence will be produced in full, and I entirely fall in line with the suggestion of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that the evidence should not be published until the conclusion, that it should be published then, and that the Committee should then state precisely what evidence it has accepted and what evidence it has rejected.
Again, if I am asked from this Chamber to pass judgment on any right hon. or hon. Gentleman, I shall feel a certain reticence about reaching judgment merely on published evidence. Of course I have confidence in the integrity and judgment of those who are to serve on the Committee, but as we are in fact involved in something very near to a State trial, and if as the Prime Minister suggests I am to be asked to pass the verdict, I am not certain that I should not have preferred to see that evidence tested and to see the prosecution witnesses under cross-examination.
I never like passing judgment at second hand. That may sound a rather priggish point of view, but I can only give it to the House for what it is worth. If indeed the House is to give the verdict, are we to give it on the basis of the published evidence and the conclusions of the Committee? Shall we be entitled to call any right hon. or hon. Gentleman against whom the Committee has made a finding or on whose conduct it has passed a stricture?
Will such a Member be summoned to the Bar of the House? There is the precedent of the Boothby case. My right hon. Friend will no doubt remind me that Mr. Boothby, as he then was, made a speech to the House. He took his case with a certain gentlemanly reticence. He appeared to accept. But supposing an hon. Member is not disposed to take that attitude, will he be allowed to deploy his case again for the benefit of the House?
Perhaps many of my fears are fanciful and perhaps hon. Members feel that I am drawing on my legal experience—which is not great in the criminal field—and that I am adopting too legalistic an approach to the matter. But the consequences to those concerned will be just as grave as they would be if a court of law were involved. We must be certain that the procedures that we adopt take account of that.
Although on this occasion we may be compelled to adopt a certain course of action, it could be a dereliction of duty if we did not at least consider the Salmon Report, perhaps against the background of this case. We need to consider the gap in the law which means that hon. Members who indulge in corrupt practices and those who attempt to corrupt them are free from criminal charges.
Like the Salmon Commission, I believe that the best course is to amend the law and to introduce a new Corruption Act to enable a criminal charge to be brought against hon. Members and those who attempt to corrupt them in the course of their parliamentary duties. In that way they would at least be assured of a proper trial in a dispassionate, judicial atmosphere, where the evidence against them could be propertly tested and examined and that decision if needs be, be taken to a higher court. Perhaps I am trespassing on the kindness of the House by touching on these matters. It would be wrong to leave this as a narrow issue that we can dispose of today. We must see it in its proper context and we must see it as a prelude to some kind of implementation of the Salmon Commission's conclusions.
I hope that I share the common desire to see that the name of the House and the name of hon. Members is cleared, but I wonder whether this is what we shall achieve. I shall not be voting against the motion. Perhaps we are putting too heavy a burden on those hon. Members who have consented to sit on the Committee. Perhaps we are putting at risk in an unsatisfactory way the reputations of those hon. Members against whom a case may be made. And finally I wonder whether we shall be able to reassure the public that matters in the House are conducted as they should be.
Listening to my hon. and learned Friend, I observed that the tenor he has taken throughout is that, were it not for the Prevention of Corruption Act, hon. Members would be charged with criminal offences. Has he any justification for saying that? I have seen nothing to justify the view expressed by the Observer.
Of course, I do not know what the evidence is which is available to the Observer and I cannot forecast what it is. But a scintilla of a case, a prima facie case of a kind, appears to have been made and in regard to it one can perhaps detect whether the existing statute law is defective.
I make no assumptions about any hon. Members. I read the Observer articles. I do not know the source of the letter; I do not know whether it is a photostat copy. If the law were effective, I do not know whether there would be a prima facie case. I hope that the Attorney-General will give us his valuable views.
Is it not the case that the police are debarred—as the Salmon Report makes clear—from making an investigation at the moment so that nobody could know whether a prima facie case exists? It is a lacuna in the law that prevents anyone from knowing whether there is a prima facie case.
I am in the invidious position of trying to answer two questions at once. I am inclined to agree that if the matter had been put to Scotland Yard—and perhaps the Attorney-General will explain the situation—we should have been told that it was idle for investigations of hon. Members to be conducted, that it was a waste of scarce resources because there is nothing known in law as the corruption of hon. Members or the attempted corruption of hon. Members in the discharge of their duties.
I hope that no words of mine have suggested that I have prejudged the issue in any way. I do not know whether there is a case against any hon. Member who is in or who was formerly in the House. I apologise for being so lengthy but I am concerned about our position as caused by the defects in the law.
I have no doubt that the members of the Committee will do their level best to make the procedure work and to demonstrate to those whose reputations are at stake and to people outside that they are dispassionate and scrupulously fair. But I wonder whether they are qualified for the job—not by their training or character, but by the powers given by the House. I wonder whether they will be able to do a satisfactory job which will satisfy the House, those whose reputations are at stake, and the public.
I am inclined to agree that there is a gap in the law which grants immunity to MPs and which should be removed. But that will not help us in this case.
I remind the House of the things that happened during the Lynskey Tribunal. Those who argue in favour of total publicity have forgotten what occurred at that tribunal. Most of us had no idea at the time what would happen under those circumstances. Mr. Sydney Stanley discovered that what he said at that tribunal was entirely privileged and that no action for slander or libel could result from any statements that he made at the tribunal. The tribunal was conducted on the understanding that he would not be liable for any prosecution for perjury. I am not sure whether that was correct under the law but he proceeded on that assumption. Mr. Stanley made a series of sweeping allegations which were wholly fabricated and for which there was no evidence whatever. He named a large number of individuals and their names were published in the newspapers for weeks. No remedy was open to those whose names were flaunted about in that way. There can hardly be a worse procedure than that.
Those who were defamed in that way had no remedy. I remember that on behalf of some colleagues in the House who found their names being bandied about by their constituents I consulted the Law Officers of the Crown to find out whether they had any remedy. The informed legal answer was that they had none, that they had to sit back for weeks at a time and allow those allegations to be made without being able to take any action. That seemed to me a worse abuse than the abuses which the tribunal was asked to investigate. I hope that nothing of that kind is allowed to happen this time. We should think before we argue in favour of unrestricted publicity.
Everyone is conducting the debate today on the assumption that we are protecting only the reputations of Members of Parliament. But Mr. Sydney Stanley did not restrict his wild fabrications to Members of Parliament. Although the terms of reference of this inquiry clearly do not intend that the actions of others should be entered into, if individuals can come before the Select Committee in public, there will be no way of preventing them from making allegations against whomsoever they wish—for example, the Archbishop of Canterbury or the Editor of The Times. To judge from the motion, the Chairman would no doubt rule them out of order, but we well know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Mr. Speaker cannot always rule hon. Members out of order in this House until their point of order has been stated, and it can then be published.
If there were total publicity I do not see how it would be possible to prevent some characters—no doubt of varying intelligence and discretion—from approaching the Committee and making allegations out of malice or delusion. As Members of Parliament, we all know that there are quite a number of curious characters who from time to time write us letters in which they make the most extraordinary allegations. I have no doubt that the Committee will be approached by at least some such people.
All that I am saying is that when we are advocating or considering the widest possible publicity, which obviously has an appeal at first sight, we should pause and think of what happened in the Lynskey Tribunal. We should be extremely careful not to permit injustices of that kind to occur. Whatever is the right procedure, which, as the last speech clearly showed, is extremely hard to say, the worst possible procedure would be anything on the lines of the Lynskey Tribunal.
I am not a lawyer. I have never been employed in the legal profession and I cannot speak in erudite terms about the motion, but I am concerned about the view taken outside the House. Unlike the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), I am concerned about what is thought not only by those who elect me but by the whole world outside.
There is a grave matter before us. After a long weekend of thought I came to the Chamber ready to support the Liberal amendment, but I have changed my mind after listening to the debate, and for a very good reason. It is the reason just advanced by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), that the public sifting of the evidence referred to by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) would unleash something which I do not think hon. Members deserve—accusation and counter-accusation and claims from various people such as the right hon. Gentle man described to give evidence to the Select Committee. We should be doing ourselves a disservice.
I am fully aware of the need to stop any possible suppression of matters which are in the public interest and which may or may not be declared by Members, but we must be clear that it is not a court of law that we are setting up by the motion. It is a Select Committee to inquire into matters which concern the House. Representation before the Committee is a matter of some concern. If it were a court of law, those coming before it would have a legal right to be represented. Why is representation under the motion not a right of the person called but a matter that the Committee may decide
as they shall see fit"?
That is the part of the motion that most concerns me.
I also wonder whether the laws of libel will apply absolutely to the eventual published report. That is not clear from what I have heard this afternoon.
I firmly believe that until this country has a law of privacy we shall further involve ourselves over a period in disputes and doubts of this nature over the activities of hon. Members. As a supporter of the Register of Members' Interests, I am convinced that most people in the country are prepared to accept that Members of Parliament enter into outside activities in good faith, but we are all well aware that it is not too difficult for some people, if they are of a mind to do so, to represent those outside interests in a manner totally different from that which was intended. Therefore, the House needs a protection which I hope will come from deliberations and probably eventual law on the basis of the Salmon. Report recommendations.
However, that is not what we are considering. We are considering whether the evidence should be published as the Select Committee goes along, as would happen under the Liberal amendment, or whether the Committee should have the right to sift and decide what is relevant and admissible. Who is to decide what is relevant and admissible? I agreed with the hon. Member for Bolsover when he asked who would be the absolute decision-maker. We are in grave difficulty. I believe, from what the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said, that it will be possible for the Select Committee to call on the judiciary for advice on what is relevant and admissible in the evidence that is sifted and then published as the findings of the Select Committee.
But I hope that all hon. Members will accept that there should be no suppression of information which should be laid upon the Table in the public interest. If I thought that the Select Committee was incapable of putting that information in the final report, I should probably still support the Liberal amendment. I find myself unable to do so because I believe that we should cause certain people not to present evidence to the Select Committee if every jot and tittle were reported, and misreported, in the Press as the Committee proceeded on its difficult way.
I hope that we shall hear from the Home Secretary that those matters which so concern the public about the way in which our national life is now conducted will be considered by the House at an early stage but that for the time being we are taking the fair, considerate and just way for hon. Members who may be named and against whom allegations may be rightly or incorrectly made. I hope that we shall reduce the public disquiet on these matters by an unequivocal report, and that, if the evidence should then be presented to the Attorney-General or other persons, criminal charges will be proceeded with. For the present, it is not for us nor the Select Committee to judge, but it is for us to put our own house in order.
When Mr. Boothby, as he then was, spoke to the House when the Select Committee Report dealing with his case was presented, he made some comments which I believe are relevant to our discussions today. He made it clear that the powers of a Select Committee which had made a judgment on his conduct far exceeded those of a court of law. He emphasised the point that much of the evidence that was put in would have been inadmissible in a court. In addition, he said that the decision of the majority in a Select Committee became the findings of the Committee as a whole. He pointed to a specific piece of evidence which had been put in and said that that evidence would not have been upheld had it been presented in a court of law because it would have been privileged and could not have been introduced in that manner.
Commenting on that episode, Mr. Boothby, as he then was, said that there was both rhyme and reason for the procedure in our courts of law, and that there was something to be said for adopting it in his own case. He was saying that what he had gone through was a trial, and so he had. Nobody who has read the evidence or studied the report could come to any other possible conclusion.
The dilemma we now face, as the hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Rees) pointed out, is that we have avoided taking action so far by dealing with a lacuna in the law. It means that in engaging in parliamentary activities we are immune from the ordinary statute law as it relates to corruption, and so are any people who attempt to corrupt us in our parliamentary activities.
My hon. Friend has put the matter in the wrong way. It is not that we are immune from a criminal act that we could commit. There is no criminal act capable of being committed under the present law by a Member of Parliament in exercise of his parliamentary duties. There is not immunity in that way. The fact is that it is not a criminal offence in the first place, anyway.
My hon. Friend is engaging in an argument about semantics. I would ask the House to refer to the relevant paragraph in Lord Salmon's Report:
It is in the light of the foregoing paragraphs that we note the fact that neither the statutory nor the common law applies to the bribery or attempted bribery of a Member of Parliament in respect of his parliamentary activities. It is clear to us that a Member of Parliament cannot, in that capacity, be deemed an 'agent' for the purposes of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. It is equally clear that Parliament could not be deemed to be a 'public body' for the purposes of the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889. Nor does membership of Parliament as such, constitute public office for the purposes of the common law.
It means that proceedings cannot be brought to bring before the courts a Member of Parliament or somebody who has attempted to corrupt in respect of actions in connection with those parliamentary activities. It is useless to deny what is being said in every editorial and by people outside the House that Members of Parliament have a special position in relation to the offence of corruption.
Furthermore, it means that in the event of any facts coming to the police which relate to a possible act of corruption by any individual outside the House, or in respect of receipt of money or any other gift by a Member of Parliament corruptly, it is not possible in those circumstances, as Lord Salmon pointed out, for the police to pursue those inquiries with the full confidence that they are engaged in something that comes within their purview. Indeed, they could be in contempt of Parliament in pursuing such an investigation. Therefore, it is valueless to attempt to evade the reality of the situation when we are criticised outside the House because we are in this curious position.
It is highly unfortunate that we are in this position at the very moment when we are well aware that throughout the land, and particularly in the Principality of Wales, trials are taking place affecting other people in public office who are able to be brought before the court. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) instanced the case of certain steelworkers against whom charges were laid yesterday. I shall not comment on that case because it is sub judice, but certainly those workers have had to face the publicity involved in the issue of summonses which have been served upon them. It is impossible for us to suggest that those people are not in a different position from any Member of Parliament.
What are we to do about the matter? We can be subjected, as was Lord Boothby on an earlier occasion, to a trial without the proper rules of evidence and without the form of testing that takes place in a criminal court. We are now saying that we have no alternative but to proceed more or less slavishly in the same manner as on other occasions, although we are all uneasy about the situation.
Are we so helpless in the present situation? What are we concerned about? It is true, as the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition tried to suggest in reply to my intervention in her speech, that perhaps the matter with which we are concerned goes beyond matters that would normally concern a criminal court, and indeed, that they go beyond actual corruption. That may be so, but what the general public and the community are concerned about—and I believe that we as Members of Parliament are also concerned about—is the question whether there has been any attempted corruption of a Member of this House, and indeed whether any Member has been corrupted.
Is it being said vaguely and in some inchoate manner that there has been some misbehaviour on the part of some Members which goes beyond a peccadillo but which is less than a criminal act? Is it being suggested that because of that situation we now have to set up the whole panoply of a Select Committee invested with powers to enable it to have a roving commission and to engage in an inquisition evocative of the McCarthy era? Are we saying that, because there are some rumours abroad that somebody has committed something short of a criminal act but more than some peccadillo, we have to become engaged in a Select Committee investigation invested with powers which make us all profoundly uneasy?
I do not accept it. Outside opinion wants to feel certain not that there is some prurient inquiry into some peripheral activities of Members but that, if there has been any bribery or attempted bribery, or if anyone has acted in his parliamentary capacity in anticipation corruptly of receiving a reward, and if he would have been charged had he not been a Member of Parliament, then he should be placed in exactly the same position as anyone else.
Going almost outside their terms of reference, Lord Salmon and his Commission recommended that corruption, bribery and attempted bribery within a Member's parliamentary activity should be brought within the ambit of the criminal law. Is it too late to do that in these circumstances? I do not share the view expressed today that it is too late. Irrespective of what may come out of this debate. I hope that the Home Secretary will assure us that the small Bill recommended by Lord Salmon is included in the Queen's Speech. Otherwise we shall face this problem again if there is an errant Member at any time in future.
Perhaps the only good thing which can come out of this debate is an intimation that consideration will be given to such a Bill, so that the community may be assured that we are taking action to prevent anything like this occurring again. Could such a Bill apply to these circumstances? People's first reaction is, "Would that not be restrospective?"
But the powers of this House in dealing with the Report of a Select Committee are, except in one respect exactly the same punitive powers as any court of law would have—and in another respect we should have more powers. This House can suspend a Member. No court can do that directly, although it could be the consequence of a sentence. We can put an hon. Member into the hands of the Serjeant at Arms and send him to prison. We can do everything except fine him: that is all we cannot do. If my right hon. Friend thinks that the vague, indeterminate rules under which this Committee will operate will give more justice to any hon. Member than a defined law, I do not agree.
I therefore believe that we are committing a blunder in setting up the Select Committee. We are going into a morass. The hon. and learned Member for Dover delineated many of the likely problems. There were enough problems in the Boothby case, but this is a wider dimension. It is suggested that more than one hon. Member may be involved: we know not how wide the net may be cast. The problems caused by the Lynskey Tribunal could arise again, although it is suggested that we shall at least have the benefit of casting a veil over them, because the proceedings will be in secret.
But in going along that path we are estranging ourselves entirely from outside opinion. The views of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover to this extent bear the stamp of those expressed in working men's clubs throughout the country. If we set up what will be regarded as a clandestine Select Committee, it will be interpreted, no matter how ungenerously, and no matter how we protest, as giving ourselves treatment which is not afforded to a man before a court of law.
While one appreciates the force of my hon. Friend's desire for legislation quickly next Ses- sion to deal with the gap in the law, and while one also appreciates the many difficulties to which he has referred, what is the alternative to a Select Committee in these circumstances? Is he suggesting that the matter should be overlooked? Surely not.
No. I do not think that the matter should be overlooked. I hate to say anything in criticism of the Attorney-General, who has enough problems and whose scrupulous conduct we all admire, but if he found himself unable—as he clearly did, judging from the announcement ultimately made—to take any proceedings because of the problems of jurisdiction which we have discussed, the first and obvious thing to do was to come to the House and explain the situation and to get the aid of the House in getting legislation through.
That still could be done. Of this I am certain—we shall not be concluding this matter quickly by setting up a Select Committee which will sit right through the next Session. We can judge that from the time taken by the Boothby inquiry. Setting up this Committee will not cut any corners. We are even placing ourselves under the possibility of severe criticism—that, instead of an independent inquiry before a judge, we are inquiring ourselves. We have told the police that there must be an independent element in inquiries concerning policemen, but we do not adopt that principle for ourselves. Lawyers have introduced a lay element into disciplinary proceedings, but we shall exclude Press and public.
We should say boldly that there is a lacuna in the law. If there is any among us who has offended against the law, let the law be made clear so that he may be brought to trial. When the matter came before the court, no accused would be prejudiced as in a Select Committee. As the law now provides it could sit in secret if it wished during any preliminary proceedings—thus avoiding the danger of a wrongful accusation without prima facie evidence. So I put forward the view that, if we are to vote for this resolution, clumsily though the Liberal Party spokesman put his case, better that than to have a completely secret inquiry.
After all, many of us have sat upon Select Committees which have sometimes sat openly and sometimes privately. I have been sitting for more than one Session on a Select Committee which has been engaged in that manner. Why should this be so special? Under a disciplined chairman of great experience, as is intended to be appointed, tact can be used to determine whether a meeting should or should not be in private. That would mitigate the problem, though of course it would not solve it. The Attorney-General, who will be presenting evidence, will have a great awareness of what he will be presenting and will undoubtedly be able to give an intimation to the Select Committee if he thinks it likely or probable that someone utterly irresponsible will attend with the intention of indulging in smear campaigns. The disciplines could be imposed. We have eminent lawyers sitting on Select Committees. Why should not they he able to impose the same discipline as they would if they were sitting as recorders and wishing to short-circuit someone who wanted to use the occasion merely to publicise himself and to smear innocent people?
We are taking too comfortable a view. I believe that the two Front Benches are taking far too comfortable a view in believing that, if they can persuade sufficient of us that there should be an inquiry of this kind, the matter can be resolved to the satisfaction of people outside. It will not be. It will attract obliquely even if it is undeserved; and it would be wise for us to make clear that we are ready in the first instance to act upon the recommendations of the Salmon inquiry, that we shall proceed in that matter. But that, if the House cannot be persuaded to act as quickly as that, by way of legislation, at least we shall not impose secrecy on the Select Committee. We ought to give the Committee the discretion to decide when to sit in public and when in private and not give, by passing this resolution, a demonstration by this House that at all costs there must be secrecy during the whole of this prolonged inquiry.
When the appropriate moment comes, I shall move, in line 24 of the line 24, at the end to insert—
'That no witness summoned to appear before the Committee shall claim Crown Privilege as
a justification for refusing to answer questions asked by the Committee:'
Before getting on to the subject matter of this inquiry, I hope that we can all agree upon one issue. It is that if the Committee is unable to get at the truth because it has inadequate powers it will do a gross disservice to this House and to the public.
What are the powers that the Committee may need? We are concerned, among other matters, with payments of money. Anyone who receives a payment of money for services rendered has, under the existing law, an obligation to declare it for income tax. If that money has been paid to him, whether or not he is a Member of this House, to reimburse him for expenses that he has paid out on behalf of the person who has paid him the money, he can file with his income tax return the receipts for those expenditures and, if the inspector is satisfied, he will not have to pay income tax on the money. But it is not open to a Member of this House to decide for himself whether he should file with his income tax returns payments that he has received from Mr. Poulson or anyone else. He is bound to file them. If he does not, he has committed a criminal offence. But he will not be charged tax on them if the Inland Revenue is satisfied that they are not an income but repayment of a disbursement.
However, no Minister can order the Inland Revenue to reveal such information even to Ministers and, as matters stand at the moment, no Select Committee can require such information from the Inland Revenue without the Inland Revenue being able to claim Crown privilege and to refuse to answer such questions.
Having listened to the entire debate to date, I am not at all certain which of two jobs it is that the Government wish the Select Committee to do. One is to do the job of the criminal court; that is to say, to accuse an hon. Member or Members of what would be an offence in normal criminal law were that hon. Member not an hon. Member of this House of Commons. Alternatively, it is to ascertain whether the hon. Member or Members have been guilty of conduct that
would not be an offence were they not Members of this House but that is
a contempt of the House or … inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members.
Those two are totally different.
If anyone, including a Member of this House, is believed to have committed a statutory offence and is subjected to the normal criminal processes, the case is heard in open court but the evidence given is subject to the rules of evidence and the procedure of the court is subject to the normal rules of procedure.
Those of us who are addicts of Perry Mason on television will know that, very often, participants in those gripping serials ask for certain testimonies to be struck from the record. That does not mean that they are struck from the memories of those who have heard them, as we are vicariously allowed to do on television; it means that in the judge's summing-up they are not alluded to, and the artificial presumption is made that the human beings who constitute the jury will excise them from their memories. All of us know perfectly well that that is an impossible feat.
Incidentally, in the Perry Mason context, I am interested that the Liberal Party decided to choose a member of the jury as its spokesman in this debate, which is a somewhat unusual proceeding. I was astonished that the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), who appears in the motion as a member of the Select Committee, should it be appointed, was chosen to be his party's ex parte spokesman in this debate—he said that he was speaking on behalf of his right hon. and hon. Friends. I am not a lawyer, but I have never read of a member of the jury, before trying the ease, addressing the court on what he thinks should be the conditions in which he tries the case. I am astonished that the hon. and learned Gentleman should think it proper to do so.
I cannot help whose advice the hon. and learned Gentleman took. He cannot discharge his responsibility by pleading that he tried to sub-contract that responsibility to someone else. If he thinks it right that he should be a member of the Select Committee, I think that that carries with it certain obligations beforehand. Clearly, the hon. and learned Gentleman is not of that view.
Among the issues that will be considered by the Select Committee, quite apart from who has done what, is what constitutes a contempt of this House and what was—in the past tense—inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members. If the Committee, unadvised by the House—this is a decision that the Committee will have to make for itself, without the benefit of any advice from the House—decides that it is
inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members
that its Members should accept money from a person or firm purely and solely because they are Members of this House and not because of any expertise they may have in the world of business, why are the terms of this inquiry confined to the words
in connection with the affairs of Mr. J. G. L. Poulson"?
If, on the other hand, the purpose of the inquiry is to examine the conduct of Members of this House in so far as it is
inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members",
but is not restricted to breaches of the criminal law, and it is particularly concerned with what an impartial inquiry has criticised, why is the criticism by the Department of Trade inspector directed towards a right hon. Gentleman who until recently was prominent in this House—he is still a Member of it—excluded from such an inquiry?
If the object of these proceedings is to enable the House to wipe its nose in public, why should it wipe only one nostril? This is what I do not understand, because clearly that is what it will be doing.
We are told that owing to lacunae in the law Members of this House who accept money for acting corruptly cannot be prosecuted under the existing law. Is this so? There is such a thing as the law of conspiracy. There has been a lot of criticism of the breadth and the scope of the law of conspiracy. It is a novelty to hear it, by implication, criticised for its incapacity, for the smallness of its scope, for its unreasonable restriction.
If it is the case that Members of Parliament have taken money corruptly there must be at least two parties involved in that. Where there are at least two parties involved—I say this subject to correction from the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Attorney-General—I should imagine that that would give basis to a charge of conspiracy, would it not?
I am following the argument with great interest, and the suggestion that the state of affairs complained of is capable of being dealt with by a charge of conspiracy, but does not the hon. Gentleman appreciate that in order to get a charge of conspiracy on its feet, one of two specific things has to be proved which may well not be capable of proof in relation to the mystery that it is sought to solve here, namely, that there must be an agreement to do an unlawful thing or an agreement to do a lawful thing by unlawful means?
I do not believe that that is an exhaustive description. If the person concerned has agreed for a consideration to do something that he would not have done without that consideration—this is the essential aspect—and if what he has done is contrary to the duty which he owes in his vocation or employment, I think that the ex-prosecuting counsel for the Inland Revenue would be aware that that is a statutory offence.
For instance, if an employee of a firm accepts money to tell somebody outside the firm something about his employer's business, that is not a criminal offence. It is not a criminal offence to tell somebody about one's employer's business, but a charge of conspiracy would lie. I think that the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman)—whose very pertinent knowledge of these matters must be fresh in his memory—has misguided and misdirected himself to this context.
However, what the House is asked to do is something imprecise. I listened to the Prime Minister's speech with great interest, hoping to discover what it was that the Select Committee is expected to do. What, in fact, is the definition of conduct
inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members,
and what is
a contempt of the House
in that context?
If we look at the nineteenth edition of "Erskine May", we find on page 142, from the last paragraph onwards, descriptions of some acts which have been held to be inconsistent with a Member's duty to the House, but nowhere does it say that this exhausts the contempts of which a Member may be guilty.
Is the Select Committee to take this as the outer limit or the inner limit? We have not been told. What are to be the criteria for the Select Committee? If a man is charged before a court, he is charged with a specific offence, to which he can make an answer. But if the Committee—which is, understandably, prosecuting as well as investigating—does not even know what is and what is not the offence with which he is being charged, how is the Member concerned to know what it is against which he has to defend himself? That is what I do not understand.
If the House is to set up such a Committee—and I happen to take the view that it should set up such a Committee—it should define for the Committee the job that it has to do. I do not think it is right to set up such a Committee without defining the limits of the job that it has to do.
Before I came here today I had considerable sympathy with the amendment that will be moved by the present Leader of the Liberal Party, but I thought that my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) made a very telling point. Whereas in a normal criminal trial there are, first, the rules of evidence, with the verdict following at least within a day or so of the conclusion of the trial, we all know that the publication of a Select Committee's findings comes generally not days, not weeks, but months after the conclusion of its taking evidence. Indeed, many of us have tried to speed up that process.
To make allegations against somebody—allegations that that person cannot rebut because that person is not entitled, as of right, to call witnesses to rebut them, and to have them published days, weeks or months before the assessment of that evidence by the prosecutor, who is also the judge, the maker of the rules of evidence, and the determinant of who shall or shall not be called as witnesses—is a corruption of justice, as I understand the word as a non-lawyer.
I do not say that there is any particular merit in legal processes, and I am all for Select Committees of the House in general making up the rules as they go along so that they can do their jobs more effectively, but if they do not know what their jobs are because it is not laid down in the motion setting them up, then a recognisable rubicon has been crossed.
I conclude by asking this question. What do the Government and the House want the Select Committee to do? Should it do the job of a criminal court with this difference, that because of lacunae in the law it does not happen to be an offence by the hon. Members concerned? Should it look beyond the criminal law and report on whether there has been conduct or activities amounting to contempt of the House, or inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from Members as defined in pages 142 to 144 of the nineteenth edition of "Erskine May"? If that is not to be the criterion, what is? The Committee is not specifically empowered to invoke its own criteria. What are the rules of procedure to be?
Usually any person called in evidence has the right to call witnesses in rebuttal of the evidence given which reflects upon him. But the motion does not say this, and we are entitled to know. The problem is that nobody can tell us. Government Ministers who wind up this debate cannot tell us any more than is in the motion. They cannot say that they mean anything which is not in the motion, and that the Committee will do anything which is not in the motion because that is not within their power. Members of the Committee cannot say what they will do because they have not yet been appointed as members of the Committee. The most sensible thing would be at the conclusion of this debate for the Government to withdraw the motion and re-table it in a couple of days after taking into consideration the points made from all sides of the House. I think that the Select Committee does need to be set up and it does need to do the job of which all of us are conscious, but the terms of reference in the motion are not fair to members of the Committee, Members of this House, or the public.
We have a duty when we ask our colleagues to discharge a function to define that function. We owe them that duty. It is onerous enough to ask them to be prosecutor, judge and jury, but it is intolerable to ask them as well to write the law on which they are adjudicating.
I was aware of that. What I meant was that I was not quite clear whether the hon. Member's speech was directed towards the question whether a witness should be able to claim Crown privilege as a justification for refusing to answer questions asked by the Committee. If that was the case then I stress straight away that as far as I am concerned it will be my duty, and one I shall do my best to comply with, to make available to the Committee all the relevant materials which are in either my possession or that of the Government, or some other party, or where I have the opportunity of claiming or putting in a claim for material on behalf of the Committee.
It is possible, although I cannot at the moment think of an occasion on which it has occurred, that there may be some difference of opinion as to whether some document should or should not be produced to the House. If there were such a difference, the amendment put down by the hon. Member for Tiverton would not be the proper way of dealing with it. It would be necessary for an Address to be presented; but that would come if and when the occasion arose. No doubt this was the case with the Boothby Committee. That Committee came back to the House and said it needed something more than it had been provided with and it was given what it needed. I do not believe anything of that kind is likely to happen here because I shall do my best to produce all the relevant material to the House.
Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman representing himself to the House as being able to speak on behalf of the Commissioners of the Inland Revenue, an independent body, when not even a Treasury Minister can require it to reveal information about individual taxpayers? Is he representing himself as being able to produce such information? Will he undertake on behalf of the Chairman of the Board of the Inland Revenue that Crown privilege will not be pleaded? Is he aware that my amendment does not waive Crown privilege, that it simply orders witnesses not to invoke it?
I was coming to matters concerning the Inland Revenue and income tax. The hon. Member has, perhaps, forgotten the fact to which the Prime Minister drew attention at the outset of his speech. The reason why we are coming forward now and have not come forward before with this motion, is, as I said on 19th October, that I have reached the conclusion, with those advising me, that the point has been reached at which there is no evidence to support criminal charges. The position is also that, on the evidence we have, it is plain that a continuation of the investigation, in order to hope that there might be evidence to support criminal charges, would not be justified.
I can assure the hon. Member that that includes any form of offence, whether it be concerned with corruption or with offences again the Income Tax Acts, or whether it be concerned with the offence of conspiracy which at one stage in his speech the hon. Member suggested might be involved. He can take, it, therefore, that on the most thorough and exhaustive survey by those advising me and by myself, of the whole of the material, there is no possibility at this stage, which we have reached after so many years of investigation, of coming forward with further criminal charges, whether relating to income tax or anything else. I therefore do not follow the point that he is making specifically in relation to income tax.
However, if some matter arose that in some way related to income tax but did not relate to a possible offence and that was, in the terms of the motion before the House, material—conduct or activities which could amount to contempt or might be inconsistent with the standard the House is entitled to expect from its Members—and this is a highly hypothetical supposition because I do not know of any such material—it would be for the Select Committee to decide whether to make use of its powers to send for persons, papers and records. If any such difficulty arose such as the hon. Member is referring to, I have already told the House that his amendment would not deal with that difficulty, and I have told the House what the proper procedure would be.
Because the proper procedure is that to which I have already referred. The hon. Gentleman appears to disagree with me. He is entitled to advise the House just as I am entitled to do so, but I can only give the House the best advice I have, based on my knowledge and on what I am told by my advisers.
I am listening with rapt attention to what my right hon. and learned Friend says about there being no possibility of criminal prosecutions on the basis of such evidence as is known in relation to such matters as income tax returns. Ts he, therefore, assuring the House that the income tax returns of the hon. Members who might be concerned in this inquiry have been investigated?
I am assuring the House that in so far as the prosecuting authorities possess any material which might suggest that offences against the Income Tax Acts might have been committed, those matters have been gone into, and I have been advised—and I have accepted the advice, having seen that material—that it is not sufficient to warrant criminal proceedings on income tax matters.
I cannot, of course, say that some members of the public, at present unknown, may not write to the Chairman of the Committee giving him information, true, accurate, scurrilous or whatever, which may involve something to do with income tax. What I can say is that the Select Committee is not concerned with criminal offences. It is concerned with conduct or activities which could amount to a contempt of the House or which might be inconsistent with the standards that the House sets. These last words were taken from the resolution in the case of the Boothby Select Committee.
I did not find with those words the difficulty that was encountered by the hon. Member for Tiverton. It is not unusual for all kinds of bodies in dealing with members to take a view whether the conduct of those members is consistent or inconsistent with the standards which are set or expected to be followed by those in the organisation, whether it be a professional organisation dealing with solicitors or accountants, or any other such organisation. It is only by looking at the material which comes forward from case to case that one can build up the standards into a form which may serve as a precedent. That is the way in which the Select Committee on Privileges operates, and I have no doubt that that is the way in which this Committee will operate.
I wish to pass from that point and deal with just one or two other matters without covering any of the ground that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends to deal with later.
One point has been mentioned more than once in the course of the debate. I hope that what I say here will be noted and reported because of some of the observations which have been made in the Press. It is quite untrue that but for the article in the Observer these matters would not have been presented to the House, whether by way of such a proposal as we have made, and as I believe is right, for a Select Committee, or in some other way.
I have no doubt that I can speak for my predecessor in this matter when I say that we have been considering what would happen when the time eventually arrived—and it came much later than we had hoped—when I would be able to say, as I did on 19th October, that the criminal investigation had come to an end. We all knew that there would be residual material which could not be left as it stood, whatever the form in which it was inquired into. We did not know whether it would be material affecting only Members of Parliament or outside people as well. We did not know whether it would be material such as has been customarily held to justify a tribunal of inquiry—that is, something affecting gravely the nation as a whole—or whether it would be confined to a much narrower compass. I am glad that it has been confined to the compass of Members of this House, and that means Members at the time when the events were occurring, and that it is for this House to deal with a domestic matter rather than that it should be left to an outside body such as I have described.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that, while we may all accept his words, the impression given by the Prime Minister when he answered my Private Notice Question on 20th October was that he twice referred to the need for the House to focus on the future and not worry about the past? Contrary to the impression given by the Attorney-General, he specifically said that he was unable to express a view on whether we should look back. That is reported in column 1453 of Hansard of that day. That is quite contrary to what the Attorney-General is telling us. In the considered statement the following day the Prime Minister said—it is in column 1659—that in the course of exchanges the previous day the view had been expressed that such allegations having been made and having achieved wide publicity it would be in the public interest that they should be investigated. That, too, does not square with what the Attorney-General is telling us.
The hon. Member heard what my right hon. Friend said earlier in the debate when he said that he had been confronted with the Private Notice Question at the very last moment with very little opportunity to go back into the history of the matter. I am telling the hon. Gentleman what was happening as far as my Department was concerned. I have no doubt that the same sort of thing was happening when the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) was in office. We were looking forward, not with pleasure but as a fact, to what would happen next.
I do not know whether a motion would have been put down this week or next if it had not been for the Observer article, but a motion would have been put down, for either a Select Committee or some other form of tribunal. In my view, the appropriate tribunal is the one now being discussed by the House. I hope that no one will give currency to the idea, which appeared to emerge from some of the remarks of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) and which I hope he will repudiate, and from observations in the Press, that but for the Observer article there would have been a monumental cover-up. The very idea that there could be a monumental cover-up in relation to material which is perfectly well known to the public and which has been the subject of reports in periodicals and the Press is so absurd that it does not stand up for one moment.
I have explained why we propose to set up a Select Committee rather than some other form of tribunal.
The Leader of the Opposition was asked about the possibility of the Press naming people, whether hon. Members or not, who might give evidence to the Committee as a result of newspapermen and others watching who went into the Committee. I have no doubt that for them to do so could be a contempt. It is always a matter for the House to decide whether something is a contempt, but this sort of conduct could obstruct the Committee in the functions given to it by the House. I hope that I need say no more than that.
The words in lines 3 and 4 of the motion are in the past tense. They are:
whether any such conduct or activities amounted to a contempt of the House or was inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect".
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be advising the Committee, can he confirm that the motion applies to anyone who was a Member of this House at the relevant period?
The House is here concerned with the conduct of persons who were Members at the time certain events occurred. I read the terms of the motion to mean the conduct and activities of those who, at the material time, were Members, whether they are now or not. It is for the Committee, subject to the view of the House, to decide these matters, but that is the advice which I would give, if asked.
There is only one other matter with which I wish to deal, unless hon. Members have questions on other points. I refer to the procedure which I advise the Committee to adopt in carrying out what I accept will be extremely difficult functions, not made easier by the fact that although I have a great deal of evidence and information which has caused this motion to appear on the Order Paper there may be all kinds of people seeking to assist the Committee by giving it material, whether accurate or ill-founded, scurrilous or not. We start, as has been said quite properly by the hon. Member for Tiverton and others, with no firm knowledge. We have a certain amount of knowledge, but no firm knowledge about how wide the scope of the inquiry will be. I recognise that this creates some difficulty.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has told the House that he regards the amendment standing in the names of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) and myself as being defective in some way, but has not shared with the House the grounds on which he believes it to be so. What are the grounds on
which he believes that a perfectly clear amendment which reads
That no witness summoned to appeal before the Committee shall claim Crown Privilege as a justification for refusing to answer questions asked by the Committee:
will not do precisely that? It does not require a Crown waiver of privilege because it is not a waiver of privilege. It is merely an instruction to witnesses not to exercise their right to claim Crown Privilege. On what grounds does the right hon. and learned Gentleman believe the amendment to be defective? If he has grounds, he has a duty to tell the House what they are, or are these groundless observations on his part?
I thought that I had satisfied the House—though maybe not the hon. Member for Tiverton—on this matter. I made clear that in questions affecting documents within the possession of the Crown, where the Crown did not make them available—though I hope there will be no such circumstances—the proper course would be to use the procedure of an Address to the Crown. The hon. Gentleman's amendment would not do what he wants it to do.
I do not think that the House would want me to go into a long, technical explanation. I have it here if hon. Members want it. I shall gladly put it in writing and send it to the hon. Member for Tiverton. We have studied this matter since the amendment appeared on the Order Paper and I hope that the House will accept what I have said.
I return to the much more important matter of the procedure which the Committee may wish to adopt, having regard to the undoubted difficulty of the task it will be performing. May I advise the House on the way in which I hope and believe the Committee will carry out functions which the House will place upon it?
I went a very long way with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, but at the last minute he rather illogically wanted to bring the whole thing into public at a certain stage. I agreed when he said that the type of inquiry we should have in mind is like that carried out by Department of Trade and Industry inspectors under Section 165 of the Companies Act.
All kinds of people may give evidence to the Select Committee, and if it became clear that there were matters for a person to answer and an application were made to the Select Committee by that person, who had been given proper notice, for the assistance of counsel, I hope that the Committee would grant him that assistance and also that counsel would have the opportunity to sum up what the person had said at the end of his evidence. I go further even than that. It is vital that everybody concerned, and especially anyone who may be criticised thereafter by the Committee, should feel that he has been treated scrupulously fairly and that no criticism of him has not been put to him in a way which gives him the opportunity to answer.
The procedure which I believe to be current for inquiries under Section 165 is that, if at the end of the day, when the inspectors—in this case it would be the Select Committee—have reached a tentative conclusion, and feel, on the evidence, that somebody should be criticised, they put that criticism to the person concerned and give him the opportunity, if he wishes to do so, to make further representations, either in writing or orally, with the help of counsel again if he wishes.
I hope that that will be the way in which the Committee will operate. It seems a totally fair way of proceeding. There is precedent for it, and I believe that the public will accept it.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman will be aware that there is criticism of Board of Trade inquiries on that point, in that those who are to be criticised or who may be at risk of criticism do not have the chance of testing the evidence given by other witnesses against them. I shall be grateful if he will consider whether that defect may be remedied in the proceedings of the Committee.
The main criticism of the Section 165 inquiry, as it used to be—I speak with a certain amount of personal experience of the matter—is that some such inquiries did not have the last stage to which I referred—that is, the inspectors, having heard all the evidence and summed it up, saying "This is what we propose to say about you. Now you have a further opportunity to deal with that".
Cross-examination is a different matter altogether. If one had unlimited cross-examination we should be back to the tribunal of inquiry type of procedure, which I do not think appropriate for this sort of investigation. It is for the Select Committee itself, with all its highly distinguished lawyer members and others, to test the evidence of all the witnesses. I can see no reason in the world why it should not be able to do so by asking appropriate questions and putting to each witness, particularly one under possible criticism, what some other witness may have said, and giving him opportunity to answer.
I take the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees). Members of the Committee, lacking instructions upon the facts that will come before the Committee, and lacking what every solicitor and every barrister has when he wants to cross-examine, cannot be fully in a position to conduct an inquiry by asking questions. Is it not clear that whoever is being charged is under scrutiny and is disadvantaged by not having an opportunity to cross-examine?
I have cited the nearest analogy that one can possibly find to the kind of inquiry which is to be embarked upon as proposed. It is a form of inquiry which has always been regarded, subject to the point I made, as being fair. It is not an inquiry such as is heard in court, where there are charges or pleadings from the very beginning, one knows precisely what material is to be put forward, and cross-examination by a number of people may be permitted.
I hope that the House will agree that we have gone as far along the road as one possibly can in order to comply with both the principle of doing justice to individuals and the principle of not so opening up the matter as inevitably to produce suspicions getting into the Press and so on, to the detriment of Members and, possibly, other people, who would be condemned in advance of any report made by the Committee to the House.
I hope that the House will accept that this is a proper procedure, which is precedented; and that the House will trust the members of the Committee, when they are appointed, to do in a fair way the job given to them, in a fair way which takes account of all the difficulties and gives every opportunity to anyone who may be criticised to make whatever points he wants to make, and enables the Committee, as a result of the points he makes, to question other witnesses, and so on. It is the method which has been adopted by the Committee of Privileges again and again, and I see no reason why the House should fear that, on this matter, more complex though it is than some of the others which have come before the Privileges Committee, unfairness will be done.
If at any stage the Committee itself feels that it cannot be fair to those who are before it, it has the opportunity, as happened in the Boothby case, to come back to the House to ask for further powers. We think that the powers given to it are adequate. It is for the Committee to apply them, and, if it feels it cannot do justice, it has the opportunity to come back to ask for more.
The question which has most concerned the House in this debate is whether the proceedings of the Committee should be in public. I shall address myself to that, but wish first to go back to the argument that I initiated between the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) and myself, which has been taken up by other Members since, about what is meant by corruption in law and whether Members of Parliament can be guilty of that offence. I wish to restate the matter not only because the Press has so misunderstood it but because an element of confusion about what is immunity and what is a criminal offence has entered into so many of the speeches, notably that of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), in which he made what I thought a disastrous mistake about the question of retrospection, simply because he had misunderstood the distinction.
Corruption arises in law only in relation to three categories—members or agents of public bodies and people who are concerned with Government contracts. It is not, as the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) said, an offence for any person to take money simply to influence him in the conduct of his job. It has to be a particular type of job, and the law as defined in the Prevention of Corruption Act says that "public body" relates to a local authority and to various other bodies but does not include this House.
Therefore, for a Member of Parliament to take money in order to influence him in the course of his duties is not a criminal offence. Perhaps it should be. Perhaps there ought to be such an offence. I think that there should be. So, apparently, does Lord Salmon. However, it is not a criminal offence, and, most important of all, it was not a criminal offence at the time of the circumstances which have been the subject of so much comments and which will be the subject to consideration by the Select Committee. To make a criminal offence of that kind of conduct and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool argued, to make it retrospective to the time when a particular person was carrying out certain duties in relation to his parliamentary affairs in this House, would be grossly unjust.
If, in 1965, a Member of Parliament took money in order that he should make a speech in the House, and that was not then a criminal offence, he, properly advised, might well have accepted that money and done that, provided that it was not a criminal offence and not an offence against the rules of order of the House. If it were now to be suggested that it be made a criminal offence in 1976 and that that Member shall have to carry the penalties of the criminal law because of what he did, properly advised, over 11 years ago, it would be grossly unjust. It might become just if it had been a criminal offence then and he had escaped criminal liability only because there was an immunity in respect of Members of this House. That is the difference between the immunity and the fact that it is not a criminal offence.
Perhaps I may illustrate the point. If I make a speech here which is defamatory and incites violence, I may be in law guilty of the offence of criminal libel but I could not be prosecuted for criminal libel because of the immunity conferred by the Bill of Rights, but I have committed a criminal offence. What I am arguing is that if a man accepted money to make a speech in the House on behalf of his client in 1965, he had not committed a criminal offence. There was no question of immunity. There was no criminal offence. The same would be true if he were a journalist in 1965, or now, and if he were an independent, freelance journalist—not an agent or an employee. If he took money in order to write an article in a particular way, again, he would not have committed a criminal offence. It is wholly wrong to say that Members of Parliament are above the law because they did what was not a criminal offence. It would be like saying that because I walk across Westminster Bridge I am above the law. Of course I am not. I am free to do that, because it is not a criminal offence to do it.
I shall give my hon. Friend his opportunity shortly.
It is essential to keep that distinction absolutely clear, both because one is tarred by the suggestion that Members of Parliament are above the law and also because it makes such a vital distinction about what we do about anyone who conducted himself in this way when it was not a criminal offence.
As I understand it, my hon. Friend is suggesting that if, in 1965, an hon. Member received a bribe to influence Parliament, in fact it would not be a criminal offence. With that I agree. However, it would mean—indeed, this is the purpose of the Select Committee—that if such an unfortunate finding were made available, this House of Commons would be able to send that man to prison, would be able to expel him, and would be able to do all these things. As the House of Commons is able to do that now in relation to an action that was improper some years ago, why does my hon. Friend draw back from our being able to frame a proper criminal charge in respect of an act taking place the same number of years ago? Why is he so squeamish about this so-called retrospective element? Does not such an attitude inevitably corroborate the view of the public that an endeavour is being made to grant the hon. Member an immunity from criminal law?
if my hon. Friend had allowed me to do, I would have developed the argument in a way that would at least have attempted to answer his question. It is the kernel of what I want to say.
If the hon. Member who committed this act in 1965 had not committed a criminal offence, the question arises whether he had committed a breach of the rules of order of this House or, as the motion suggests, had acted in a way which
was inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members.
Personally, I find it reprehensible for any Member, in the course of his parliamentary duties, to conduct himself for payment from an outside person or body. I believe it wholly wrong that that should take place. However, it is not inconsistent with the rules of this House provided that he discloses his interests at the appropriate moment. It is not entirely clear—this is a matter that the Select Committee will have to go into—what is always the practice in relation to the disclosure of interest.
When I came into the House in 1966 I was very conscious of the fact that some Members frequently spoke in the House, and particularly asked Questions, about matters in which they had a business interest although they did not disclose such an interest. The standards were much looser then than they are now. Now, that would certainly be regarded as reprehensible. Then, it was not so reprehensible. It may be that it was, or was not—It is a matter for the Select Committee to decide—a breach of the rules of the House and a contempt to fail to disclose an interest in such a circumstance. However, if the hon. Member had disclosed his interest in such a circumstance, it would have been neither a criminal offence nor an offence against the rules of this House.
Therefore, contrary to what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool, it would be wholly wrong, 11 years later, to try to make it such reprehensible conduct that the hon. Member was guilty of an offence and deserving of punishment. It is this that is at the root of this investigation.
The question then arises whether the investigation by the Select Committee should be in public. I must confess that the argument put forward by the Prime Minister and by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) is extremely powerful. I am much persuaded by it, because it is true that what the Press is looking for is dirt.
I have followed my hon. Friend so far in the point that he has developed. However, if a Member in 1965 had been receiving payment from a person outside the House and that person himself had been following criminal pursuits, would not the acceptance of money from such a person change the situation?
With respect, it would not have made any difference at all. The mere fact that a man who offers money to influence a Member of Parliament in the conduct of his parliamentary duties is also in other respects—not in this respect, but others—conducting himself in a criminal way, would not make any difference to the question of the criminal liability of the Member of Parliament, or, indeed, to the question of the payment of that kind of money to the man himself.
Returning to the question of publicity, I was saying that I thought that what the Press was concerned about was getting some dirt, and that if it got the dirt, it would use it, and use it even in relation to a person who might be innocent but might be named. There is the gap, referred to by the Leader of the Opposition, between the allegation and the refutation of the allegation by the Committee at a later stage. In that gap a man's whole career may be wrecked. We are all aware of that, and anxious to avoid it. That argues against publicity.
On the other hand, what we are dealing with here is not a completely new and unexpected revelation of alleged dishonourable conduct by a Member of Parliament. This is a matter that has been canvassed in the Press for years, in which almost everything that can be known about the conduct is already known, including the allegation against three Members of Parliament specifically and, in general, against another five Members in relation to a particular list. Therefore, in the course of the evidence that will come before the Select Committee, we are not likely to hear something that has not already been put before the public in one form or another. It will look extremely suspicious to members of the public if, when the report is published, there is reference, for example, to one Member of Parliament but not to the others who have already been named in public accounts of what Mr. Poulson did.
Surely it may well be that people of whom at present we have no knowledge will come forward to the Committee and make allegations that are quite apart from those which have already been made.
It happened in the case of the Lynskey Tribunal, which stemmed from a sudden allegation canvassed in the Press that precipitated a tribunal of inquiry. We have heard something that has been canvassed in bankruptcy proceedings and in successive criminal proceedings. A whole lot of evidence has already come out. It seems unlikely in the extreme that we shall now find some members of the public coming forward to the Select Committee with information that they did not want to produce at an earlier stage to the police or anyone else involved. The whole matter has been canvassed so widely that almost any member of the public who had anything to say about the matter has now already said it.
One of the problems is not whether allegations have already been investigated but the succession of cranks whose evidence has been examined and found to be empty. Because they are obsessed, these cranks will continue to repeat their allegations and demand to be heard by the Select Committee. That evidence will then be smeared across the front pages of the Press, how- ever hard the Select Committee tries to stop it. Surely it will be impossible for the Select Committee to sieve what is put before it.
If it has been sieved already, it has been done in a way that has allowed some of the flour to get out into the public arena. There has already been some public coverage of allegations against Members, apart from the three who have been so widely named. It seems unlikely that others will be named. However, let us consider the position of one of the list of eight whose names have appeared in the Press—a Member whose name has not been so widely canvassed as the names of the three. If nothing is said about him by the Select Committee in its final report, because it is thought that he is completely innocent and, having regard to the Leader of the Opposition's definition of relevancy, that the charges against him are not relevant, it will look to the public as though something has been hidden that should be disclosed, and that man's name will be besmirched.
I have in mind the Denning Report, which followed on a particularly notorious case. Lord Denning tried to deal with all the wilder allegations against certain Members of Parliament and certain Members of another place—allegations that he regarded as unsubstantiated—by preserving their anonymity but to some extent describing them. For years afterwards there was a flurry of rumour, innuendo and suspicion against all sorts of Members, regardless of whether they were the actual persons, because people were speculating on the identity of the anonymous persons. That is the situation that may arise if all the evidence is not produced.
I was rather attracted to the way in which the Leader of the Opposition put her case. I think it is right that if all the evidence that comes before the Committee is published at the same time as the report of the Committee, the best will have been obtained. That may not be perfect, but it will be the best we can do. That will mean that the allegation will have been made and repudiated then and there in the same document. However, I disagree with the right hon. Lady in thinking that that is what the motion
will achieve. The fifth paragraph of the motion simply refers to the production of
all such … evidence … as … shall appear"—
that is, to the Committee—
to be relevant and such as may fairly be taken into account
That is clearly much less than the word "admissible" that the right hon. Lady quoted fom "Erskine May". As she indicated, she does not want the evidence published against a person who is found to be innocent. In general, I accept that principle, but for the reasons I have argued I believe that it would be wrong in this instance. Therefore, I come to the conclusion that the proper procedure is that all the evidence should be published—all the evidence that is admissible in the "Erskine May" sense—whether or not it is against a person who is found to be innocent. I believe it should be published at the same time as the report. That would remove most of the sting from any allegation.
As there is no motion on the Order Paper that would allow that to be done, I am not quite sure how I can vote at the end of these proceedings. If the Government agrees to amend in the way I should like the matter to be dealt with and as the right hon. Lady said she would like it dealt with, I shall be satisfied, but otherwise I shall have to vote against the fifth paragraph. If I am placed in that position I shall have to vote for the Liberal amendment or for my hon. Friend's amendment. Of the two, I think that probably the least damaging is the Liberal amendment. I shall probably have to vote for that.
Perhaps my hon. Friend will take into account that it is quite impracticable to suggest that the Committee should publish only such material as is both relevant and admissible in the technical, legal sense of what would be admissible in a court of law. It must go further than that; it must go to the point of being able to lay before the House such material as is not, for example, sixth-hand hearsay—material that is totally scurrilous though relevant and which no Committee would consider for one moment as being of probative value. It is that sort of material that is contemplated in the wording that has been used. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that if one were to cut that down so that only what is admissible in a court of law were reported to the House, the public would certainly feel that something was being covered up which should be disclosed.
I did not use "admissible" in the sense in which my right hon. and learned Friend used it. I used it not in the technical sense of criminal evidence but in the sense in which "Erskine May" uses it, as quoted by the Leader of the Opposition. I used the word only in the sense that it is admissible before a Select Committee. That is not out of order by the rules of the House. It would be inadmissible in a court of law, because it might be hearsay or even scurrilous. If that kind of suggestion is to be made against a Member before the Select Committee, my assumption is that it has already been made. If I am wrong about that, I am certain that it will be made after the Committee's report has been produced and that somebody, somewhere, will want to get it into the Press. Therefore, it is better that the Committee should hear it and should tell the country that it has heard it so that all the allegations are made in public.
The Committee should then say "Having considered all the evidence, we, the peers of the people against whom the allegations are made, say that we find that this is unsubstantiated." If that is done, I am sure that it will allay public suspicion and get us away from any suggestion—a suggestion which the Press will undoubtedly make if we produce only part of the evidence—that something has been covered up. I am sure that that is the best way of dealing with the matter. I am prevented from voting for a motion that contains that provision, and I am bound to choose between the two amendments that have been put forward.
One difficulty with publishing the evidence is the scurrilous piece of evidence which reads well but which the Committee rejected because it thought the man who gave the evidence was a liar. The hon. Gentleman knows from his experience at the Bar that evidence in cold print gives a totally different impression from evidence heard by the Committee. That might cause difficulty for both the individual and the House
I can see that that argument could be made, but I am surprised that the hon. and learned Gentleman should make it, he having moved the amendment. According to him, the evidence should be heard in public. My suggestion means that the evidence will come out at the time when a refutation can be made, so that the public can judge between the two. It is naive to think that it will not come out at some stage if it has not already come out in public debate. It is naive to think that a person who might at first sight appear to be speaking the truth will not use an opportunity to go to the Press and make public his allegations after the Committee's report has been published. Although in theory one can take the case of my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North I argue that we are dealing with allegations that will come to public notice anyway, and that the best we can do is to bring them to public notice as quickly as possible and have them refuted.
Suppose a completely idle and worthless allegation is made, which the Committee rightly disregards. If that allegation is included in the report, will not people say that there is no smoke without fire?
I am totally in agreement with the first three-quarters of the hon. Gentleman's speech—so much so that I have decided not to make the same speech immediately after him—but I draw different conclusions. Surely, with respect, "admissible", in these terms must be what is generally admissible in the courts. We are talking about people's reputations. As, to be admissible, evidence first has to be relevant, why does the hon. Gentleman find "relevant" and "fairly taken into account" more objectionable than "admissible"?
Precisely because it is clear from the interchange between the Leader of the Opposition and myself that she did not take it in that way. Indeed, it cannot be taken in that way. "Admissible", in law, means admissible according to certain tests, and the major test is: is it relevant to the specific charge brought before the court? That cannot be true in an inquisitorial system such as the Select Committee will have to adopt, because there is no charge and no specific allegation of dishonourable conduct.
All that can be said is: is it generally relevant to the Poulson business? In that respect we have to distinguish between "relevant", in the sense that the Committee finally will come out with a judgment about the conduct of a specific Member of Parliament which it may find dishonourable, and in the sense of allegations against another Member of Parliament which the Committee dismisses when it finds him totally innocent and which it does not want to disclose because of the feeling that may be engendered that there is no smoke without fire.
In one sense the allegation is relevant because it is an allegation about a Member of Parliament in relation to his conduct with Mr. Poulson, but in another sense it is not relevant because the Committee will finally adjudge that the Member of Parliament is wholly innocent and the allegation is without substance. In the first sense, I would be happy to take "relevant". In the second sense, I would not, for the reasons stated. The allegations will become public and there will be the danger of a feeling of cover-up unless all the evidence is known.
Therefore, I must take the view that all the evidence must come out, either in the way I have indicated or by being taken in public.
I hope I shall not strike a jarring note by saying that, whatever else may happen, I hope that the Committee we seek to appoint will not make such heavy weather of its task as the House is making of the debate. Some of the speeches we have heard have not been uniquely helpful. In general, the longer they have been, the less helpful, so I shall try to be brief.
The House has agreed that this is an unhappy business and that something must be done about it. Whatever we do about it will not be perfect—we are apparently in similar mind on that—but we have to get on with whatever we do. None of us wants to go through all this again, so those who told us that there may be room for a change in the law struck a receptive chord.
If there is any danger of trial by newspaper we should remind ourselves that the only people who benefit from trial by newspaper are newspaper men. It should not he our purpose to advance that cause. We should also remind ourselves that whatever we may do or say on this occasion will not have the effect of raising the reputation of Members of Parliament to supreme heights in working men's clubs. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), even if the report were wholly satisfactory, would go about the working men's clubs explaining what splendid people Members of Parliament are and how terrible it is that they should have been maligned.
It is in the nature of things that we are viewed with suspicion. We should not mind that because it is part of the price we expect to pay for such power and privilege as we have, and it is an essential feature of the democratic system.
Let us not suppose that whatever comes out of this arrangement will be perfect, but let us try to achieve some limited objectives clearly and cleanly. It is unfortunate that there has been talk of whitewashing. I am astonished to hear that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) is contemplating supporting the Liberal amendment, especially after hearing the speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), who moved it. However unhelpful the talk of whitewashing may have been, the speech of the hon. and learned Gentleman for Montgomery made me wonder how he dared to be content to be nominated a member of the Committee. However, that is between him and his conscience, not to mention his party.
Can we not at least give the members of the Committee who are accepting this heavy responsibility on our behalf some advice which they may find it helpful to follow? I sum up as follows. The Committee should try to do its work as quickly as it can so that there is no long-drawn- out inquiry and no prolongation of this affair, which has already gone on far too long. The evidence that the Committee brings to us should be clear and clearly relevant. The Committee should prepare its report in the knowledge that the House wants to make up its mind as quickly as possible, deal with it with the maximum dispatch and never have to go through all this again.
I thought we were to discuss a motion relating to the moral conduct of Members of the House in relation to carrying on their parliamentary duties. The more I listen to the debate the more it becomes clear that we are talking about the definition and interpretation of rules contained in "Erskine May". I refer especially to the extraordinary speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon).
I understand that we are getting to a simple, clearly defined position, which is that the Committee should look at certain allegations. It might find, to take a hypothetical example, that a Member had accepted £500 in pound notes in return for organising Lobby facilities. Alternatively it might find that a charity with which he was associated had been given thousands of pounds because he had buttonholed a Minister in the corridor. The Committee, bearing in mind the rules contained in "Erskine May", would examine those allegations and, if it found them proved, might well say "That is not a crime and it is not against any of the rules set out in 'Erskine May' either." It would therefore presumably give a box of chocolates to the two hon. Members concerned.
Are we to be told, if the conduct of those hon. Members is such as I have outlined, that the Committee will say "There has been no crime. No rule set out in 'Erskine May' has been broken. It is scandalous that people should have suggested that the conduct of these Members was less than that which is required of the House." Some of us may find it difficult to understand the precepts and definitions in "Erskine May", but we know corruption and immorality when we see it. It is to be hoped that the Committee will know corruption and immorality when it sees it.
The Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition are much older than I am, but I was distressed at the way in which the generation gap expressed itself here today. People of my generation—and this applies to an even greater extent to people of a younger generation—will not see this as an open and an independent inquiry. They will see it as a cover-up. Whether it is or is not a cover-up does not matter. Not to understand that is to display either supreme insensitivity or astonishing ignorance. It is because I do not believe that the two Front Benches are full of astonishing ignorance that I can only conclude that it is extreme insensitivity.
The closed society is once again closing its doors to full and proper public scrutiny of public affairs, and the idea that democracy is government of the people by an elite sprung from the people appears to be gaining substance in this debate.
It was depressing to hear the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition say that there was not widespread disquiet about what had happened over the conduct of Members in relation to the affairs of Mr. Poulson. I do not want to indulge in semantics and seek to define what "widespread disquiet" is. However, there is a resigned contempt for politicians on behalf of the public. Not to realise that is to run away from reality. One realises from talking to people in factories, in shops and in one's own home that it is the resignation to the contempt that is so appalling. People have almost reached the stage where they are saying to themselves "You blokes make a bit on the side. You do favours for people and make a bit of money. That does not matter any more: we expect it. Just continue to do so. It does not matter." To say that there is no widespread disquiet is to misunderstand the public mood over this issue.
What is the difference between a man taking money to represent the business interests of a person and disclosing that in the House and a man taking money to represent the business interests of a person and not disclosing it in the House, apart from the fact that one is a breach of the rules and the other is not? The first is apparently entirely unreprehensible whereas the other is entirely reprehensible.
I should find both of those forms of conduct open to some criticism. I thought that that was the substantive point with which I opened my speech.
There was great laughter when someone uttered the word "maturity" earlier. I thought that we were supposed to have the oldest and most mature democracy that existed, but it seems, by having this form of inquiry, that we are saying that our democracy does not have the strength and the resilience to stand a full and open public scrutiny of the affairs of Members. I do not believe that.
In any event, assuming that we have, as undoubtedly we are to have, this particular form of inquiry, there seems to be two matters which we should examine. The first is that which refers to the publication of that which is deemed to be relevant and such as may be fairly taken into account. Again, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition were extraordinarily depressing when they interpreted those remarks. The Prime Minister said that the Committee, when it reported, shall not report really scandalous remarks.
I immediately asked myself what a really scandalous remark would be. My mind turned to the Watergate inquiry. I thought that, if early in the Watergate inquiry someone had said "The President of the United States is engaged in a cover-up", that would have been a scandalous remark and, presumably, would be the sort of scandalous remark which the Committee in its wisdom will exclude from its report.
Then I heard the Leader of the Opposition say "We want only evidence that is truly evidence." That is a great statement for the lawyers to examine in years to come. She was saying "We want only evidence which in the opinion of these 10 white men is truly evidence", which is an even more extraordinary statement.
Then the right hon. Lady got herself caught up in a convoluted lawyers' discussion about what is "relevant" and what is "admissible". I should have thought that the public, had they been here and heard her talking for 20 minutes, would wonder what sort of world they were in. I thought that we were discussing a simple concept, one of public confidence.
That point relates back to the other matter to which I take extreme exception, which is that no one other than members of the Committee shall be present at its deliberations. I take exception to that on three grounds. First, it seems to me that in the last resort the public, if they are to be satisfied with the inquiry, have to satisfy themselves that on the evidence that the Committee heard and that the House will consider they somehow could or would have had the opportunity of reaching the same conclusion.
How can the public, still less the House, say that they have had the opportunity of reaching the conclusion which the Committee will reach? Anyone who has practised in a court of law will know that what comes out in the transcript does not tell half the story. It is the manner and the demeanour of the witness which is important. For instance, was a man who does not normally fidget, in fact fidgeting when he gave his evidence? Was a man who is normally cool when talking, hot and perspiring when he gave his evidence to the court? When reaching its decision, a jury has to decide on the conduct, bearing and demeanour of a witness.
The public should be given the opportunity of seeing for themselves. Most of them will not be there and most of us will not be there, even if the proceedings are open. However, the proceedings should be open so that we and the public have the opportunity of weighing up what a witness says.
Reading the transcript will be no adequate substitute. I have rarely been in a case in which a man who has pleaded not guilty has entered the court and said "I had a wicked intent. I intended to murder the deceased. I hit him over the head with a hammer." The accused answers as many questions as he can with a plain "Yes" or a plain "No". The transcript shows answers of "Yes" or "No" to words uttered by counsel. How can any member of the public or Member of the House make up his mind about the probative and evidential value of such answers? We are now talking about Members who can give skilled and plausible answers. We are not to be there to see the manner in which they give those answers. Therefore, any attempt by the House after the inquiry is over to evaluate the evidence is almost bound to fail.
I rarely find myself in agreement with anything that the hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Rees) says, but he was right when he said that he does not like dealing with such matters second hand. I do not like dealing with such matters second hand either.
The second reason I object to this form of inquiry at which neither we nor the public can be present is that evidence begets evidence and the publication of evidence begets evidence. In this case a witness might present a line of argument which is known to a person or to an organisation or to a newspaper—it may be the Observer; it may be another newspaper—to be wholly false. If that line of argument were made public, that other person or organisation might well be prepared to come forward and give evidence. Of course, it might be that the other party would be prepared to come forward with evidence anyway. As the inquiry unfolds there is a chance that the evidence given will produce more and relevant evidence for the Committee to consider.
The issue is straight forward and simple—it is one of public confidence. It is not a question of people like me standing here and impugning the motives of the Committee. We are talking of the public's confidence. If we are to have any credibility we should show that as a House we are prepared to adopt the most scrupulous and the highest standards when investigating the conduct of our own Members. This inquiry cannot be described as open or independent. It is not to be exposed to the public gaze which it so desperately needs.
I support the Government in establishing a Select Committee although I appreciate that there are many imperfections in the type of machinery that has been canvassed. In particular I want to refer to some of the remarks made by the hon. and learned Member for Dover and Deal (Mr. Rees) on the practical considerations governing the working of the Committee. The Attorney-General has already helpfully intervened to explain some of the difficulties.
The most fundamental difficulty has not yet been mentioned. It is said that the difference between the Select Committee procedure and a trial in a court of law is that in court the allegation is specified in advance and that Members appearing before the Select Committee will have to answer questions without knowing in advance the allegations made. Surely before an individual hon. Member is interviewed by the Committee he can be told by means of documents, broadly speaking, the nature of the questions that he will be asked. An exhaustive list will not be needed but he could be told the broad nature of the allegations which are to be made and the area of questioning that he will experience. No one has suggested that such a procedure will closely resemble that on indictment or proceedings in a civil court but it would be helpful for hon. Members to know as precisely as possible the type of questions that they will have to answer. There will of course be hints before hand about what they will be called upon to answer.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend for making that point. If I overlooked it I apologise, although I did not think that I had. In broad terms I hope that what my hon. Friend suggests will happen. But I was trying to explain that the particularity of charges in a court of law remain the charges throughout. In this case there is a broad area at the beginning which may change as the evidence proceeds.
I am obliged to my right hon. and learned Friend and I am glad to hear him express that view. Although circumstances may change during the hearing of the Committee, it cannot be said, as has been suggested by hon. Members during this difficult and distasteful debate, that the hon. Members concerned will have no idea of the allegations against them. The guts of the matter is that hon. Members appearing before the Committee will know perfectly well all the allegations against them.
Shorn of all language and trimmings, it is alleged that, while no criminal offence has been committed because no criminal offence exists to deal with such a situation, these hon. Members being investigated by the Committee are guilty—and it is for the Committee to say whether they are—of conduct involving grave moral turpitude which brings them within the ambit of the motion on the Order Paper. It would be artificial to say otherwise. Many of the points that have been made, particularly by lawyers, indicate the legal and practical difficulties but they do not detract from the fundamental reality that we know full well what the whole thing is about.
My next two arguments have not been touched upon before. I was horrified to hear the hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) say that what really matters is that the issue should be dispensed with as quickly as possible and that speed was of the essence. I appreciate the hon. Member's anxieties but I cannot think of anything more disastrous than to rush through this inquiry in an effort to arrive at finality as quickly as possible. A most careful inquiry and the utmost scrutiny of the evidence before the Committee is needed. Any talk of haste or hurry is wrong.
The other matter which has not been made sufficiently clear is the lack of similarity between this and the Boothby case. They are not alike because the allegation in the Boothby case involved one specific matter of non-disclosure. Here we are dealing with a wider and more complicated situation. It would be wrong simply to compare this with the Boothby case.
We have to appreciate that the machinery, imperfect though it is, is the best available in the circumstances. I fully endorse the pleas by many hon. Members for the Government to introduce early legislation to deal with the obvious gap in the law. It is astonishing that this situation can arise and not be the subject matter of a criminal offence as the law stands. Pending further legislation to deal with the gaps in the law, the Select Committee is the best available machinery.
One of the vital questions is whether the Committee's deliberations should be in secret, in public or part secret and part public. I represent a constituency in the North-East of England that has had its fair share—or unfair share—of adverse publicity on the corruption issue. I sense that the mood of the North-East and constituents of mine and of other hon. Members in the region would be wholly dissatisfied by a totally secret hearing. Whether or not there is an intention to whitewash or cover up, my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) was right, and he echoed the feeling of the country, when he said that the general public would be horrified if they were not able to know what was going on. Their attitude would be "This is a club committee dealing with members of the club alleged to have behaved improperly". If an allegation is made against a member of a club the committee sets its own rules and standards in deciding whether to suspend or expel a member. There is grave disquiet among the people, who fear that if the proceedings are wholly in secret they will be very unsatisfactory.
I shall not get involved in the niceties of what is relevant and irrelevant, what is admissible and inadmissible. Ordinary people do not think like that. They simply want to know what is going on and how a Member has behaved. They are not interested in legal niceties and fine debating points. They want to know whether the behaviour of any hon. Member has fallen below the standards he should adopt.
The Government should carefully consider whether the terms of the motion, which in effect prevent any publicity, are correct in the light of the anxieties expressed by many hon. Members. It is a difficult question for the Government, and there are many permutations, but the present position is profoundly unsatisfactory.
My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) restored to the debate some of the sanity which had been missing for the past two or three hours. The prime issue is the public's distrust of hon. Members and the public's disgust. That matter will not be dealt with under the terms of the motion. I intend if possible to vote against the first paragraph, because my amendment seeking to widen the inquiry was not selected. Therefore, I have no choice but to vote against. Given the present widespread distrust of Members, it is indefensible to limit the inquiry to matters appertaining to the activities of Mr. Poulson. There is plenty more meat to go at, and the public know it.
What happens if, for example, evidence on other matters comes the Committee's way? That could happen by accident. People who do not understand the motion but who know that there is an inquiry on corruption and bribery of Members of Parliament might write in about other matters. Does the Committee just put such evidence on one side and forget about it? It cannot be dealt with if it has nothing to do with Mr. Poulson. Such questions should be answered, and they would have been answered if my amendment had been selected.
What happens if, a week after the Committee has begun its work, another newspaper, or perhaps the Observer again, brings up a totally different case but with the same sort of prima facie evidence? Must we set up another committee and have this debate all over again, with the same arguments and the mess that many hon. Members have got into over the legal niceties? That would not be satisfactory.
I can give my hon. Friend an example of a matter that requires investigation in addition to the matters for which the motion provides—the allegation of bribery by Lockheed of a former Minister. As both the Prince Consort of Holland and a Japanese Prime Minister were involved, it would not be incredible if somebody in a high position in public life in this country were involved as well.
My hon. Friend helps me make my point. People outside the House could send in what they considered to be evidence, but an inquiry has not been allowed on that matter. However, that will not stop people sending evidence to the Select Committee on other questions. The inquiry should be widened, if only to stop the matter rolling on for years. Many hon. Members would wish the Select Committee's proceedings to be over by Christmas. Others would tell the members of the Select Committee to take their time and make sure that they do a good job for the next two or three years—the remainder of this Parliament. That is the period for which the motion provides. When the report is published the matter will start all over again, with arguments about the evidence published by the Select Committee. This could go on for years, and lead to people raising other matters. We should get the whole thing over once and for all.
Like many hon. Members, I was surprised by the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson). That he spoke at all is surprising as he is to be a member of the Select Committee. I believe it to be superior to that of many others set up to deal with such matters since I entered the House. The composition of the Committee reflects the composition of the House much more accurately than the Select Committee to inquire into the matter of the former right hon. Member for Walsall, North, John Stonehouse. That was a committee of bosses sitting on a former boss—right honourables to the last. On this Select Committee we have recently-elected Members, which is a good thing. It could be argued that there are too many lawyers on the Committee—we have had a real lawyer's debate today—but it could also be said that non-lawyers are not qualified to sit on the Committee. I would argue that we should not have the Committee anyway.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General made a telling remark in response to an intervention, when he said that this was a domestic matter and that the Select Committee was the way to settle it. That attitude is totally divorced from the public anger and frustration encountered by many hon. Members of all parties on the doorsteps in the three constituencies where there will be elections later this week. It clearly is not a domestic matter; it is a matter of supreme public concern. Whatever candidate we support, we have all met the attitude "You are all the same. You are all in it for what you can get out of it." The public can reel off one case after another, and we find it difficult to defend ourselves because we know—I shall name no names—that there are hon. Members here for what they can get out of it personally. It is a widespread feeling among the public, which one meets on the doorsteps, particularly when canvassing during by-elections.
The public think that the subject of this debate is a disgrace, because they do not see the equity of Members of Parliament sitting in judgment on matters relating to Members of Parliament. Many hon. Members have mentioned the Police Act. The Police Commissioner for the Metropolis resigned, or will retire early, over a similar point. He deeply resents—
I accept what my right hon. Friend says, but there is a widespread impression that Sir Robert Mark feels very deeply on the matter. I accept that it was an error on my part. He has not resigned, but he is retiring early next year.
It is indefensible for us to argue that we can be judge, jury and prosecutor. I cannot defend that stance, and I am not prepared to do so to my constituents or in my local party.
On page 99 in the red-covered version of the Salmon Report we see the following passage:
With the most genuine respect to the Committee of Privileges and the Select Committee on Members' Interests, we do not consider that they provide an investigative machinery comparable to that of a police investigation.
I accept that the police have no power to investigate these matters under the criminal law. We know that the Select Committee's work will drag on, because we must remember that we are dealing with events that happened many years ago, and these matters are only now coming before the House and being subjected to a process of inquiry. Therefore, to that extent the work of the Select Committee is retrospective.
I believe that we should have used today as an occasion on which to debate the Salmon Report. Having debated that report and having expressed our worries as Members of Parliament, we could then, at the end of this week or early next week, debate a Government motion. Clearly, in a debate on the Salmon Report in its entirety we would have alluded to the chapter relating to Members of Parliament. Therefore, the Government would not have had to place themselves in the position of tabling a long motion last Thursday. Incidentally, the result was that many hon. Members who wished to table amendments had to take those steps at 10 o'clock last Thursday evening, because we were away in our constituencies on the Friday. If the Government had allowed the House to debate the Salmon Report in full today, we would have had more time to think about the Government motion that would come later.
Many hon. Members have drawn attention to the fact that the Select Committee is to meet in private and have asked whether that fact will affect hon. Members' reputations. There are many thick skins among hon. Members, as is apparent from this debate. Many hon. Members would prefer not to have any inquiry.
In recent years there have been two cases that have raised interesting factors of relevance to this debate. A year or so ago the Committee of Privileges examined some allegations that were aimed at my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton), concerning some of his comments on a radio programme. The Committee sat and reported—and never at any time was my hon. Friend called to appear before it. What happened was that the whole thing was done by correspondence. There is nothing in the present case to stop the Select Committee kicking off its proceedings on the first day, examining the terms of this motion, looking at a rough outline of the evidence that it might like to consider, and then reading a few newspapers, particularly the Observer. It could then write to certain Members asking questions.
The Committee could write to an hon. Member and say "We have read this letter and presume it is true. We assume that no fraud or forgery is involved. Will you say whether you declared your interest at the time?" The hon. Member may write back with the short answer "Yes", thus satisfying the provisions in "Erskine May", and that would be the end of the inquiry. It would have meant no appearance before the Committee and no examination of the Member concerned. I repeat that that very case has happened within the past two years, when my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw was not even called upon to appear before the Committee of Privileges.
The other example that is relevant to today's debate concerned the late Sir Gerald Nabarro, who was called to give evidence before a House of Commons Committee. I understood that that Committee was open; indeed, cohorts of hon. Members went upstairs to listen to the proceedings. They thought that was a right and proper thing to do, because they wanted to listen to what was being said. In that way they could listen to the cross-examination, weigh the answers, listen for the inflections in the voice, and all the rest of it. Those are matters that can be weighed by a jury in a court and they cannot be conjured up by reading a transcript. Those two cases that I have instanced seem to cut across many of the arguments about procedure that have been dredged up in this debate.
We have before us the alternative of publishing all the evidence. Even as a non-lawyer, I appreciate that the motion does not specify "all the evidence", in the true sense of that phrase. Nevertheless, the Committee will have to consider all the evidence, all the admissible evidence, and, indeed, all the relevant evidence—in other words, three entirely separate sets of evidence.
Clearly, we are not to get all the evidence. If I talk to somebody outside the House and say that we have considered all the evidence, he will take my remarks to mean that I am including all the evidence in respect of allegations made. That would include all the testimony put before the Committee. Whether that evidence were true, scurrilous or totally objectionable is beside the point. The point is that all the evidence should be put to the Committee so that its members may hear that testimony and adjudge it. I believe that that should happen. Clearly, the Leader of the Opposition disagrees with me, but she has got what she wants, because her views are reflected in the terms of the motion. There is to be great restriction on the evidence that will be published.
Does the hon. Gentleman appreciate that the wording of the motion refers to
all such … evidence as … shall appear to be relevant …"?
He surely would not want the Committee to release or indeed to seek evidence that was irrelevant. To that extent I imagine he will approve of the wording.
That is the whole point of my argument. I would deeply resent it if somebody sent into the Committee evidence relating to me, and I should look for some form of redress.
If a person is tried in a court of law only the relevant evidence is admissible and would go before the public. What the hon. Member is suggesting in this instance is that irrelevant evidence should be acceptable. That would be totally unfair to the person in question, including the hon. Gentleman if he were involved.
It is a rare occasion when I attend a court of law, but shortly before last Christmas I heard remarks made in one court which were totally irrelevant to the proceedings and which destroyed the reputation of a Member of this House. Therefore, it is not true to say that a court will listen only to relevant evidence.
I agree that that will be part of the court proceedings.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that the terms of the motion were unprecedented in their generality, but that is not the case. If the motion were made more general, so as to widen the matter from Poulson, that situation would be far more unprecedented than even the Prime Minister can contemplate in his wildest dreams, with all the evidence that he must have available to him. Even on the information that I have before me about other matters, I believe that the terms should be much wider.
My party fought the last election on a platform of open government. We said that we would reform the Official Secrets Act—although we clearly will not do that next Session. But if we cannot be totally open in the proceedings and inquiries that this House sets up, what confidence will the public have, when we start to reform the law, that we will make the Government and public Departments more open?
Earlier, there was an argument about income tax returns. There is a good case for making available to public inspection everyone's income tax return. I know that that goes against the grain. People cringe when I say that. I see the expression on the Home Secretary's face—
There was an interchange earlier about conspiracy. The hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) raised the matter and the Attorney-General responded. A good case can be made for making all income tax returns available to public inspection. That is not unique. It happens in at least one Western country.
We are using a procedure which was last used in 1857 and it behoves both the Government and Opposition Front Benches who believe in the use of that procedure to justify it. In 1857, it was used for a Select Committee concerned with the Bank Acts. I can see why there should be secret Committees—
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman so early, but he must get his facts right. He knows better than that. The last time that we had this procedure was in 1971, for the Committee on the Civil List, which was entirely in private. He and I were both involved. Leave of the House was not given to hold the Committee in private, but in practical terms that Committee was in private.
The hon. Gentleman is wrong. I said "this procedure"—the procedure whereby the House forbids Members to attend. His intervention, if he will allow me to say so, was somewhat irrelevant, because in the end we both agreed not to sit in on that Committee.
I am talking about the procedure whereby Members and everyone else are forbidden to sit in. It was used in 1857 for a Select Committee to consider the revision of the banking laws of the United Kingdom, the Bank Acts. I can see why the House chose at that time to make that a secret Committee. A similar modern analogy is the secrecy that we attach to the Budget, even in the Cabinet until the last minute—for the simple reason that in such cases people can make money by knowing the proposals in advance.
But we are talking tonight about an investigation into some past activities. This Committee is not set up to make suggestions for the future. One thing which has worried me during these proceedings is the bad advice which it appears the Prime Minister is getting. I will mention in a moment other bad advice that he seems to have received, but on this issue he said that it was not customary for hon. Members other than its membership to attend the Committee of Privileges.
That may or may not be true in recent years. It is very difficult to prove, because no record is kept of the attendance of non-members of a Committee at any Select Committee. I suggest that whoever gave him that advice—he said that he understood it to be so and had been given advice to that effect—had clearly not recollected that the practice of the House is widely varied. Until about 1837, every hon. Member could attend every Committee and speak in it. Thereafter, with one interesting exception—the Committee of Privileges—they were not allowed to speak in a Committee, until we revived the practice for the Report stage Committee. But the Victorians, who precluded that right in 1837 for most Committees, allowed hon. Members for a time not only to attend but to speak in the Committee of Privileges—a fact which seems not to have been conveyed to the Prime Minister.
I go that far back for precedents because the Government and the Opposition have themselves gone that far back—to 1857—to find this procedure. I do not know whether they realise the full peculiarities of a secret Committee, with documents carried in through doors in little green bags and things like that. They have set up this Committee under an ancient procedure a Committee which is entirely secret.
Again, I do not know whether they realise some of the peculiarities or not, but why did this happen? It happened in the first place because many years have passed before a matter which may or may not have been a breach of the privileges of this House has been raised before us. Some confusion has been caused by Lord Justice Salmon. His remarks in his report have been taken by people who do not understand this issue to imply a series of things. The first thing that they are taken as implying is that anyone who is corrupt in this House is not guilty of a criminal offence. That is simply not true. I twice said that to the Prime Minister on the occasions last week when we discussed it, and on both occasions, clearly misadvised, he said that it was not necessarily a criminal offence.
The hon. Gentleman should not make silly interruptions. If he looked it up, he would find that it is Wormwood Scrubs to which prisoners can be sent. The condition of the Clock Tower is not such that people would use it nowadays. The hon. Gentleman should get his facts right.
This House has the power, slightly limited, to imprison only for the Session—instead of for any period of time, as the House of Lords can do—and it does not have the power to fine, which the House of Lords has. There are various difficulties connected with the jurisdiction of this House, but it is a criminal jurisdiction. To say that someone has not committed a criminal offence because it is a contempt of this House—if anyone has—is quite wrong.
But these difficulties could have been cleared up years ago. There was a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament on Privilege. It was the last Joint Committee to consider this issue. The only two people still alive and in this House who were on the Committee are the Attorney-General and myself. Therefore the Attorney-General is the one person who cannot claim not to know what was in it because he was one of the three people from this House who made the recommendations on what needed to be changed in the law of privilege. If one of those changes in the Joint Committee's First Report is not made, I do not see how this House can be broadcast because, by some quirk, the broadcasting authorities are not protected in the way in which the Press is protected in reporting our proceedings, and they will be sued for libel in the way in which we are not capable of being sued under the Bill if Rights.
My hon. Friend has referred to the powers of the Commons to imprison. Would he regard it as unconscionable if this House imprisoned one of its Members for an offence which would not be imprisonable when committed by a local councillor—so that, although there is the technical power, it would be improper to use it?
Quite the opposite is the case. If a Member of this House did something in this House exactly the same as a councillor in a council and we had the power to imprison him and did not use it, I would think that disgraceful, even if the councillor could not be imprisoned, because an offence committed here is far greater than that committed in a local council. However, that is a relatively small point.
The point at issue is that, during all the time that the Attorney-General has been considering this issue, nothing has been done to revise the procedure on the privileges of this House when anyone could have raised all these points. They were not dealt with by a succession of Governments. As I say, one which has not been dealt with will enable any broadcasting authority to be sued for libel if any of us makes a statement in this Chamber for which we cannot be sued and it is repeated. The only alternative is for any broadcast to omit such statements. But none of them has been dealt with, yet the Attorney-General is one of the people who know precisely what those discussions were.
A lot of nonsense has been talked, but the first and most important question that we should ask is why the Attorney-General, as a Member of this House, never brought to the attention of this House any question of a possible breach of privilege or contempt of the House if he thought that there was one. That is a question which needs to be asked of him. As Attorney-General, he has the responsibility of deciding upon prosecutions. It is customary not to question him unduly on these matters. I think that they have been discussed only on formal motions before the House. But he also has responsibilities, as we all have, as an individual Member of the House, and he must be asked why, if he had knowledge of the possibilities of contempt of this House, he did not bring them to the House under the normal procedure. As a result of his not doing so, we have not had a normal consideration of this case by the Committee of Privileges.
It looks, therefore, as though someone, somewhere, is trying to cover up things and, because we have not had that normal procedure and because Mr. Speaker ruled the other day that it was possibly too late under our procedure to have it, we have to set up a special Select Committee. It is not the ordinary Committee of Privileges but a special one.
I am sure that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Lyons) will agree that one of the matters that are challengeable, if we have a criminal system, is any attempt suddenly to change a court when a particular case is brought before it. I think that my hon. and learned Friend would take a different view of actions in the High Court if we suddenly changed its membership just before someone brought a specific case before it. That is not consonant with natural justice. When we have a system of law which someone may have broken and, in the same way, when we have a Committee of Privileges with the rights of this House to investigate possible breaches of them, it is not consonant with natural justice either on behalf of this House, on behalf of the public at large or on behalf of any possible defendant suddenly to change the court just before the hearing. It is not common practice and should not be done in this case. Nor is it right suddenly to change the procedure of the court. It is not right suddenly to change the rules of evidence if that is what is being done, nor to change the practice of this House which has been compiled over many centuries.
Even if we make the assumption, which I do not, that Members have been guilty of contempt, this is not the first time. If we believed that that would be the result, it would not be the first time in the history of this House. It has happened in every century over the 700 years that this House has been in existence, and there is a proper procedure through the Committee of Privileges and a subsequent resolution of this House for dealing with it and for penalising the offender, if there is one.
Why did not someone adopt it? It would have been much simpler and more believable if that had been done in this case. If the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is defeated, I shall therefore vote in the sense of my own amendment on the Order Paper, to leave out the paragraph of the motion that changes the procedure.
I believe that we should have referred the whole matter to the Committee of Privileges. I certainly do not believe in changing the ancient procedures of this House, particularly in a case such as this. There is a good deal to be said for changing our procedures, but we should do it as it is done with the law; we should do it in advance and not after we know about a particular case, as a sort of set-up, special job for that particular case.
There are, I believe, three purposes which we ought to seek to accomplish in concluding this particular business and which are only imperfectly covered by what the Government are proposing to the House tonight. What is proposed puts a good many Government supporters, as the debate has shown, in very considerable difficulty. I dare say this applies to right hon. and hon. Members in other parts of the House, too.
The first purpose must be to bring out the truth and to allay public concern about what actually happened. The second purpose must be to do justice and to see that fair play is exercised in relation to all individuals, including Members of this House. The third purpose must be to clear up the widespread anxiety about the provisions which enable Members of Parliament to exercise their duties.
I put the third point deliberately in that way because it has not yet been put in that way today. But it is the only way which is either relevant or historically correct. I think it is quite wrong for people to take over from newspapers many of the allegations current at the present time. Along with many other hon. Members, I have been in public life over many years now, and I do not believe that there is widespread corruption. I do not believe that many people in our public life are corrupt, whether in central Government, local government, the Civil Service or in public service generally.
But there is, unfortunately, a growing belief among well-meaning members of the public—supported by a good many people who are in a position to spread what I believe to be false views—that there is increasing corruption in our public life. The fact that there is this growing opinion ought to be recognised by the Government and by this House as a matter of the first importance. The fact that I do not believe that there is any significantly large body of corruption in our public life is irrelevant compared with this growing opinion among our people, because what people think matters much more than any individual assessment made by any of us in our own thinking and researches.
Against that background, Parliament over the years has developed the conditions in which Members work. I have always objected—as have other right hon. and hon. Members—to the term "privilege", to which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) referred in his interesting contribution. We cannot help it. It is a term that has been used for some time now. I have always objected to the term "privilege" being used because, as we all know, it is not meant to be a privilege at all. It is to create conditions which safeguard the work of a Member of Parliament in the interest of his constituents. The hon. Member is safeguarded physically, as a person, on his way to Parliament. He is safeguarded against physical attack in doing work for his constituents. That was what was originally meant by privilege.
In exactly the same way it must be understood that this privilege, which allows a Member to act freely inside and outside the House in carrying out his parliamentary duty and acting for parliamentary purposes, should have the added phrase "on behalf of his constituents" or "on behalf of the general public". This privilege should never be extended to a Member acting on his own behalf, and that is the cardinal difference at the bottom of this whole problem.
Nobody has ever suggested, nor has it been held to be constitutional doctrine, that any hon. Member ever held, as a result of any part of a legal or constitutional convention, a position which was in any way the slightest bit different from that of any other citizen, apart from the limited function in his political life.
It is a confusion between the two which is involved here, and the public have every reason to be strictly condemnatory, even without knowing all the details, if they think any Member is deliberately confusing the two. As a body, we must be ruthless in exposing and condemning ourselves for any confusion of the two. That does away immediately, without any great difficulty, with the problems which have arisen in the course of the debate this afternoon.
One does not have to accept the deliberate exaggerations of the enemies of the parliamentary system, who feed all this propaganda—and it is highly organised in this country—against Parliament. It is based on little evidence, and most of it is completely unfounded. But in order to see that the enemies of Parliament do not succeed, Parliament has to make its contribution. The Government must give the lead, and the proposition they have put forward this afternoon has sadly failed to meet the point.
It would not matter that it will be difficult for a number of hon. Members who may have to appear and give evi- dence and have their positions discussed if that were all that was at stake. But it is not just the position of individual Members which is at stake. Safeguarding the position and purpose of an hon. Member would be the only thing, if the other two purposes to which I referred earlier were not equally important.
We may have to make a sacrifice, and that sacrifice might be finding a form in which the public can be convinced that these exaggerated attacks on Parliament are wrong. I believe that the result of a wide, free and searching inquiry would produce very little that was bad for Parliament. Therefore I deplore the decision to use the Parliamentary Committee instead of a public tribunal to conduct the inquiry in the first place. In spite of all the disadvantages of tribunal processes I believe that the Government have taken the wrong decision. Having taken it, however, I think that this is not the moment for them to change course. Undoubtedly they have consulted some sections of this House. I do not know how widespread the consultations were but obviously there have been some and this decision has been made.
But they have confounded that decision by their reluctance to have at least the whole record published at the end of the Committee. I ask the Government now to amend their present intention. Anybody who listened to the debate would know that there was a marked difference in the interpretation originally given by the Leader of the Opposition and that given by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. But the way in which the right hon. Lady started before the lawyers on her side got at her left little to disagree with. She went fairly wide, and the Government have yet to agree with that wider definition. The Government must say authoritatively at the end of the debate that all the evidence will be published, barring bad language under the definition of the late Mr. Justice Simon. If the Government can say that, many of us will feel a lot closer to them than we are at present.
There is the important argument that some of the remarks made about Members would be left in mid-air at the end of one afternoon. But at the end of the Committee there would be the possibility for everyone to be completely convinced since they would have been able to see the whole record of everything that took place. I do not think that is too great a decision to take in view of the great advantages of avoiding the dangers that arise with allegations of secrecy which might involve allegations, quite wrongly based of course, of an intended cover-up—and I repudiate such an allegation as much as the Government do.
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said the other day, the reputation of Parliament is at stake. No formulation of mine can be more serious than that.
There is also the urgent need for comparison between representation and self-interest. If under my original definition service to constituents and a wider service to the country were to be the yardstick that justified safeguarding a person and protecting his freedom of speech, there could be no room in that concept for personal gain or personal advantages. The two are separate and can easily be separated.
I do not expect that a lot of evidence of a criminal character will emerge. People are nervous that there will be a fair amount of evidence that is unattractive, but the nation is entitled to have unattractive evidence about its elected representatives. Unattractive evidence is part of the public contract that we enter into when we stand for election. It must be accepted along with the attractive evidence that we present on the platform or at public demonstrations or even at a football match.
I do not believe that anyone has it in his heart to make party capital out of this issue or to try to drive anyone into a particularly difficult position. Every hon. Member will support the creation of the best possible conditions for this old and important body to do its work. However, the Government have not acted correctly so far and they must improve their position to get our support in the Division.
I found much of what the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) said wholly acceptable, but I did not agree with his conclusion. His suggestion of a tribunal to deal with this matter was extreme.
I have listened to most of the debate and I am concerned that the House is in danger of giving the impression that we are setting up an alternative to what the courts should be doing. Of course, this is not correct. That was obvious from the statement by the Prime Minister and has been confirmed by the Attorney-General.
It is clear that if any hon. Member had been criminally involved in this matter he would have been subject to proceedings in the courts. There could have been court action if it had been justified in this case.
I have heard it implied that hon. Members are somehow above the law. That is utter nonsense, but it would be most dangerous if such an impression got across to the public. I do not believe that people could gain that impression—unless the Press misreports what we are trying to do—because an hon. Member was recently sent to gaol for a considerable term. Hon. Members are brought before the courts for misdemeanours on many occasions. Like everybody else, we commit motoring offences. It is not true to suggest that we can escape the normal rigours of the law.
We are discussing this procedure because there may have been some misdemeanours. I hope that the media and the public will recognise this situation.
I, too, have difficulty in deciding whether the inquiry should be open or whether the Committee should follow the Government's suggestion and submit a report after a hearing. I concluded that the Government and my right hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench were correct, for one reason. If it were not so, the hot-house which this place is would have a Roman holiday. There would be great exaggeration of everything said on every day that the Committee met. It is extremely doubtful whether, in those circumstances, the Committee could do its job properly.
When the report is published, the relevant evidence will be produced and printed. The hon. Member for Penistone said that he feared that what would have been said in a court would not be said to the Committee. The Committee would be very ill advised if it left anything out, even if it did cast a distasteful slur upon a Member of Parliament.
Every Member of Parliament should be subject to his peers in this place, and the House must be able to probe when it thinks that it is justified in doing so. The Select Committee is being set up to do just that. I have every confidence, and I hope that the country will have confidence, that the Committee will print what it thinks needs to be printed and that there will be no secrecy in the report. The point is that the Committee will be able to get on and do its job. Incidentally, I hope that it will do it with as much speed as possible and not prolong the matter. I think that it will be unnecessary to prolong it. It would be extremely dangerous for the House if it were prolonged.
The first principle is that this is a House of Commons matter, because whoever may have been concerned will have been cleared by the courts, as the Attorney-General has indicated. That is the first thing that we ought to make clear to the country. The second is that there will be no secrecy in the long run because the report will be published and both the individuals concerned and the House will be open in the testimony that is produced in terms of whatever investigation takes place.
I think that there has been too much legalistic pedantry in this debate, and what I have to say is purely from the point of view of an ordinary person trying to cope with a rather difficult situation.
What we are purporting to set up is not a trial but an investigation. The Committee will have no power to convict or to impose sentences. It will not be conducting a legal process at all. It will be carrying out an investigation on behalf of the House. Indeed, its findings need not be accepted by the House. There have been many occasions on which the recommendations of Select Committees have been subsequently rejected by the House. That may occur on this occasion as well.
One or two important features of the procedure of the Committee have been touched on in the debate. In the first place, we ought to recognise that to the outside world this will not be an independent investigation. It will be an investigation by Members of Members, and by any normal standards in the conduct of public inquiries this does not constitute an independent investigation of what, if anything, is wrong. Therefore, on that ground, it is all the more important that the Committee's work should be in public, not in private.
It has been argued that, somehow, the conducting of the Committee's affairs behind closed doors will ensure that speculation, gossip and malice will be less possible or, indeed, be made impossible. In my view, the reverse is true. There is nothing more conducive to speculation, gossip and malice than the holding of investigations in private.
Unless the investigation is conducted, as it were, entirely on another planet, there are bound to be incidental events—the calling of particular persons. the Committee suddenly deciding to adjourn or sit twice a week and so forth—which will be built up by people who have no good will in these matters as a basis for all kinds of malicious comment.
Indeed, secrecy could damage people who are entirely innocent. Let us take, for example, the possibility of an architect or county treasurer being invited by the Committee to give some purely technical evidence or advice, not in any way involving that person or any allegation of improper conduct. Whatever he said to the Committee, the fact that it was not reported and was not known could give rise to all sorts of speculation in that person's area or home town about why he was suddenly associated with Poulson. If, on the other hand, the matter were conducted openly, everyone would know straight away that that person had been invited simply to give advice on a technical matter on which the Committee needed elucidation.
Then there is the point that, so far as I know, this Committee's proceedings will not be subject in any way to any sort of sub judice rule. When a matter comes before the courts, there are rules relating to contempt of court, but in this case there will be no sub judice rule. At least, I know of no law or rule of the House that provides that there may be no public commentary on a proceeding of the House or a Select Committee. If that is so, secret inquiries, private discussions and private investigations can be the subject of all kinds of private speculation, without any limit.
It has been argued that if the matter is conducted in public, cranks or people inspired by sheer malice can come to the Committee, or be invited to the Committee, and spin any yarn to the detriment of the character of Members of the House or other people—that any lie can be told and any allegation can be made, and, so the argument goes, as the matter is held in public it will be reported and, therefore, infinite damage can be done by people giving irresponsible or grossly untrue evidence to the Committee.
I should have thought that the House could deal with that situation, if it arose—which is unlikely—by its ordinary rules of conduct. I should have thought that a person who came before a Committee of the House and told blatant lies in the knowledge that the information given was blatantly untrue and given in bad faith, could be warned of a possible contempt of the House and dealt with in that way. I do not think that the possibility is a very likely one. I suppose that it could happen, but I should have thought that the judgment of the persons we are likely to appoint to this Committee would be such that they could distinguish between evidence that was necessary for elucidating the case and evidence that was based on sheer malice or stupidity.
I have no doubt that a great many hon. Members hope, as I do, that in the end the Committee will decide that nothing, or very little, improper had been committed, and that at the end of its investigations it will find that hon. Members who have been referred to in the Press and so on over the past few weeks have done nothing unworthy, nothing improper and nothing short of the standards that this House would expect.
However, in a situation in which the Committee sits privately, in secret, and publishes only that evidence which is thought by the Committee—the rather unfortunate words "by them" are included in the terms of reference—to be relevant, even if it finds at the end of the day that the persons concerned have done little or nothing improper, the public reaction will be even more to the effect that this is a cover-up operation, that the matter has not been thoroughly investigated and that the House, in a nice cosy club atmosphere, has combined in a general conspiracy to see that nothing terrible happens to any of its own Members. By conducting the whole inquiry absolutely in public and publishing all the findings and all the evidence, those kinds of argument can be disposed of.
I agree that there are hazards, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) said. Some sacrifice might be required of individual Members or, indeed, of other citizens who may accidentally become drawn into the argument or the investigation. However, as my hon. Friend said, that is a price we must pay if we want an absolutely thorough and convincing inquiry into this matter.
It is regrettable that the Government did not see fit to appoint an entirely independent tribunal to look into this matter. That option has apparently been discarded. It has been decided that this is—to use another hon. Member's phrase—"a domestic matter". However, as we have embarked on this course, we must get rid of the neurotic obsession with secrecy and discharge our duty absolutely in public.
The hour is late and I shall not speak for long. Basically the argument is about disclosure and non-disclosure. In this House a Member can speak for money provided that he discloses. If he does not, the House takes a serious view. Basically the Select Committee will be concerned with whether there has been non-disclosure. In my view it is no use the House and the public getting terribly upset about Members taking money in this case when they do not get upset about Members taking money who disclose.
Perhaps we should consider whether we wish to proceed with the custom that enables Members who are elected by constituents to represent them and to take money to represent special interests. That seems to be the core of the evil and it does not matter really whether one discloses. Admittedly it is better that there is disclosure, but it does not remove the evil when we are elected to represent our constituents and not to represent special interests. It seems that the Select Committee will do nothing to deal with that major and basic issue.
Another argument appears to be whether publicity has to be day by day or at the end when the evidence is published. Apparently there are those in the House who feel that the situation is disastrous unless we get publicity day by day whereas others take the view that publicity at the end is good enough. I should be in favour of publicity day by day if we had a system of cross-examination so that as fast as an allegation is put there is an opportunity for it to be tested and the counter-allegation or defence to be put. If that were done, the answer could be printed within a short time. That is not the position with a Select Committee as there is no cross-examination permitted.
Before the House changes its procedures to allow a Watergate tribunal system where 10 politicians, some of whom may like publicity, some of whom may have ambition and others of whom may not like Members of opposing parties, may appear before the media day by day, we should consider whether we wish to change the rules to permit the sort of thing that is likely to occur.
My hon. Friend the Member fox Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) says that this is an investigation and not a trial, but in my opinion he is playing with words. In effect, the Select Committee is a trial. If the Press were there day by day it would be even more of a trial. The penalty is loss of reputation, destruction of prospects and possibly the destruction of livelihood. Therefore, it is a trial in a real sense, but who has heard of a trial where there are 10 judges drawn from one's own body, judges who may have axes to grind? Why should the accused persons—and there is no doubt that those who appear before the Committee will be the accused persons, whether or not they have technically committed a crime—have to endure 10 people who possibly have axes to grind and who can deal with them in that way?
If we are to have publicity day by day, we should have a tribunal which permits cross-examination. If we are not to have publicity day by day, the argument for a tribunal is clear because there would be no incentive for a member of a tribunal to ask questions to the gallery when he would know that the evidence would not be published for some months. With that knowledge the atmosphere is calmer. There is less of a tendency for the members of the Committee—namely, the judges—and the witnesses to say things that are dramatic merely to get a headline or a mention on the television news.
Given that the Government have eschewed the tribunal as a method of procedure, I must support the Government in saying that there should not be day-by-day publicity. When the Committee's report is produced, the evidence in full should be published simultaneously. I agree that there is a risk in doing that, but the evidence should be there for people to read. If there is a commitment by the Government to publish all the evidence simultaneously with the report, the argument that there is no publicity and that the Committee is acting privately loses a great deal of its significance. In those circumstances I should be even happier to support the Government.
If the House wants publicity it must allow the accused person the right to cross-examination day by day and the right to have counsel. Furthermore, in the American system which is being advocated committee members with no legal experience have counsel to guide them. That is not being suggested here. Before the House changes its rules to enable Members of Parliament to bask in publicity, it should see that they also have the benefit of professional advice.
In the American system, the senators have professional advice because they need experts to guide them in procedure. Some of the members of the Select Committee are lawyers, but others are not and do not possess legal expertise. Before we embark at half-cock on the American system—which is what day-by-day publicity means—we should think about that. Formal consideration and investigation by the House are needed before a changeover to the American system of open committees, television cameras and the Press. If the Press is allowed to be present, it is difficult to exclude other media, and that would bring us very close to the American system. One American tried to use such a committee to run for the Presidency. We are dealing with people's careers and reputations and should not embark on a new system of that kind without a great deal of thought. I support the Government.
The debate has gone on for longer than some of us expected. The whole House must be united in regret that such a debate as this is necessary and that we have been forced to set up an investigatory process. These events are always unpleasant. We go along with the Prime Minister when he said that the standing of Parliament requires that the allegations that have been made should be investigated.
I want to be fair to the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), but he seemed to show rather less than his usual skill. For instance, he said that according to the motion it would be the duty of the Select Committee to make recommendations, but further study of the motion will reveal to him that the Committee is under no such duty; it merely has to report.
It appeared that the hon. and learned Gentleman had been put up to deploy an argument for which he had no heart, and that he was endeavouring to put some life in the notion that the Liberal Party was superior to all others, that it alone was against a cover-up and that it alone was anxious that all should be known. I do not believe, however, that the hon. and learned Gentleman persuaded anyone who was not already of his opinion to espouse his cause. He might even have dissuaded some who previously held that view. The hon. and learned Member hardly helped the cause of the Select Committee, on which he himself is due to serve, by some of the remarks he made.
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) made a rather better speech than the hon. and learned Member who preceded him. He said, and went on saying, that he was suspicious, and he reiterated the idea that people outside would believe that we were evading the issue. If people outside convince themselves that we are evading the issue as a result of this debate and what we decide tonight, they will reach that conclusion for two reasons—partly because they are suspicious by nature and wish to reach such a conclusion, and partly because they have received the most liberal encouragement to do so by speeches such as that made by the hon. Member for Bolsover and some of his hon. Friends.
I will not now pause to speculate on what exactly the hon. Member meant when he said towards the end of his speech that he and his hon. Friends would be obliged to get the matter resolved by some other tactic. That we shall leave to the future to unfold.
The right hon. Member for Battersea North (Mr. Jay), in perhaps the shortest speech of the whole debate, made one of the most powerful contributions of all. He reminded the House, as perhaps others should have done, of the really painful, unsatisfactory and unjust results of the tribunal procedure. I agreed with the right hon. Member completely and was very glad that he made that contribution, but I am sorry that it was not more widely attended to.
I am also glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mrs. Chalker) has been persuaded, both by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and by the remarks made by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North, that her previous doubts about the procedure adopted were unfounded and that she should support the Government's proposals tonight.
The hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), who, unfortunately, is not in his place at present, made an interesting speech on quite another issue. That was whether we should adopt the recommendation of Lord Salmon in paragraph 311 and have new legislation. That is not the question with which we are faced today. That is a matter for the Government and for everyone in the House to make up their minds about in due course. For the moment we have, within the present framework of the law—adequate or inadequate—to decide what to do and we have to make that decision knowing that whatever conclusion we reach it will certainly not be perfect.
My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) was, I am glad to say, persuaded by the arguments of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. I do not think that there can be any justification, however, for harping on the point that in this case the Select Committee will be prosecutor, judge and jury. It will be nothing of the kind. There will be no criminal cause before it. There will be no prosecution. This is an investigation being carried out at the behest of and on behalf of the House of Commons by a Select Committee of its own Members who, as far as I know, enjoy the trust and confidence of the House.
The Attorney-General helped us considerably with his advice, though I am bound to say that at the end he made two very surprising remarks. First, he announced that he went a long way with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery, which seemed very surprising, as I had understood that they were on diametrically opposed sides of the argument.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman went on, I thought rather gratuitously, to endorse the Board of Trade inquiries which at least seem to me to be potential sources of very great injustice indeed. I hope that in future the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not go out of his way to confer the immense accolade of his blessing upon them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Onslow) made a refreshingly brief intervention which was to the point and which I endorse. The hon. Member for Luton, West (Mr. Sedgemore) surprisingly commented upon the generation gap. I had no idea that he was so young and that there was such a yawning gap between us. I thought that he was a rather bitter old gentleman, but it turns out that he is very young and well on the other side of the yawning generation gap in which I languish. One might have expected much idealism from him, but he expressed a great lurking cancerous suspicion and lack of any confidence in anyone on any side of the House. He gave a cynical example to his generation. Not all the young accept that 40 is young but I give him the benefit of the doubt. Today he gave a typical example of the most deep-dyed cynicism which might have been more suitable to someone twice his age who had experienced an unfortunate and unhappy life.
The hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Ryman) at least accepted that the Select Committee was the best machinery available. But he complained that it would be like a club committee dealing with allegations against a member and making its own rules as it went along. I am sorry that we have lost his company but I did not think that there was a word in the latter part of his speech which could be made to stand up except by a mixture of prejudice and misunderstanding.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) was very regretful indeed about the whole proceedings. He said that there was after all plenty more to be got and he was very sorry that he would have to make do with suet an emaciated and meagre meal. He made it clear to the House that although he would be greatly offended if some slur came anywhere near himself, the idea that the Select Committee could be inhibited from giving further circulation to the merely scurrilous did not bother him.
The real worry that has emerged, particularly from the last speeches from the other side of the House, is whether the Committee should meet in secret. No one would deny that it is a difficult question hut we believe that the time lag between the allegation being made—perhaps baseless allegation—and the conclusion of the Committee is dangerous and exposes innocent people to great hazards. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition made our view clear. We must retain some regard for the interests of the innocent. The standards of parliamentary conduct are of the greatest possible importance to us all. But let us remember that the proceedings that are contemplated are not the alternative to a criminal trial.
We are concerned, and so will be the Select Committee, with the conduct of Members. The question is whether by their conduct they injured the House of Commons, not whether they were guilty of criminal acts. That has nothing to do with it. We are concerned with the injury or otherwise sustained by the House.
I believe that the standards of parliamentary conduct will be better protected in an assembly the membership of which is widely regarded as a great privilege and in which the public can feel confidence that it is a protector of them and their rights and not merely the creature of a powerful Executive. I believe that the standards of Parliament, of this House, will be less safe if we allow ourselves to degenerate into an assembly where suspicion is assiduously fostered and unfounded charges are allowed to become routine.
We must also be particularly careful when we embark upon inquisitorial procedures such as the one we are now contemplating. The rules in all criminal proceedings are designed to hedge around and sustain the notion fundamental to the British constitution that a man is innocent until he is proved guilty. We must be careful not to jeopardise that in our haste to satisfy a public demand for a rapid clearing of the decks.
In this instance no one faces any defined charge, nor—and this is important—does anyone know that he is safe from smear or slur. Moreover, if the Committee were not to sit in secret and if it did not publish both the evidence and the conclusion together, innocent people could face pernicious attacks which they could refute only after a lapse of time.
Some comments have been made about the position taken up by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition on the publication of evidence. As far as I am aware, her position is not changed in the slightest. What she requires is that there should be full publication of all the evidence that is properly put to the Committee. But she is anxious that there should be no unnecessary circulation of the unfounded or the purely scurrilous. That seems to me a perfectly reasonable, defensible and right position.
There is a need for special care in such courses of action as we now contemplate. We should take some encouragement from the good record of Select Committees such as this. We can be confident that if difficulties arise the Committee will be free to return to the House, and that is what it should do.
I should like also to make it absolutely clear that we have neither sought nor reached a bargain with the Government.
There are some people who are such strangers to truth that they find it impossible to believe anything anyone says. The House would have benefited if it had had the chance to hear the hon. Gentleman today, if only so that he unveiled his true character, but perhaps we are better off without that.
We have neither sought nor reached a bargain with the Government. We support the position shown by the motion on the Order Paper, which the Prime Minister explained today, because we think it right for Parliament and the public and because it offers at least a minimum of protection to the individual.
These occasions are sad and, happily, not all that frequent. Therefore, when they occur we must take them seriously and be seen to do so. But they are made sadder by the evident relish with which they are greeted by the few.
There is always a risk, when there have been four Front Bench spokesmen in a debate such as this, that the House may suffer by way of repetition, but in my view, having listened to the debate right through, there are some matters that need to be repeated.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson), fairly and in a non-partisan fashion, raised the subject of the good name of the House. We know from many newspapers that many people outside have become used to suggestions that Members of Parliament are "at the game", "on the fiddle" and so on. Those allegations are made and we have to take account of them in what we are doing. We must give our attention to the good name of the House. Some people talk about "the club", and "looking after themselves", and all the rest of it, and the time comes when all of us who are proud to be Members of this House should consider what is said about us outside and do something to correct it, in whatever way we can. Therefore, it is right that we should consider this matter, because it is a House of Commons matter.
Let me turn to the origins of the appointment of the Select Committee. It started on 19th October, when my right hon. and learned Friend, whose rôle in Government, whatever party is in power, is known to all, was asked whether the Director of Public Prosecutions had received the report
on the investigations into the affairs of Mr. Poulson and his companies; and whether he will make a statement.
That was not related to information merely gathered together over the years in an ad hoc fashion; it came from the Director of Public Prosecutions. My right hon. and learned Friend said that the report had been received, and added:
This investigation, which has been concerned solely with possible criminal offences and has exceeded in scope detail and time spent on it, any similar operation, is now complete. The police the Director of Public Prosecutions and the team of counsel retained to advise throughout the investigation have examined a mass of documentary and oral evidence and many allegations and rumours concerning the possible commission of offences
My right hon. and learned Friend said a little later:
Those participating in this investigation have now reached the conclusion, with which the Solicitor-General and I concur, that so far as concerns persons within the jurisdiction, there are not sufficient grounds to merit the commencement of any further prosecutions or continued inquiry into the possibility of obtaining further evidence of criminal offences."—Official Report, 19th October 1976: Vol. 917, c. 361.]
I think that needs saying, and certainly needs saying outside the House. That statement stems from a Law Officer of the Crown. The Select Committee was conceived in that way.
The hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Rees) mentioned the matter of the Observer. In 1972, under a previous Administration, the decision was taken that police investigations should take precedence over other investigations into the Poulson affair. Therefore, the present proposed Select Committee was not prompted by the Observer report.
As for the method that we use to investigate this matter, which is for the House of Commons, I would say to the House what other people who were around at the time have said—that it is not a matter for a tribunal of inquiry. The reasons have been given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). Other reasons were given in, to use the felicitous phrase of the Leader of the Opposition, the blue-covered Salmon Report. I believe that, on reflection, those who believe that there should be a commission of inquiry into this material, which has already been considered by the police and the DPP—leaving aside the question whether it was something new—will agree that that would be unwise.
The Prime Minister mentioned the Committee of Privileges and explained why it was thought better on this occasion to go for a Select Committee—a Select Committee in which, I concede, there will be no specific charge or charges and where the evidence will not necessarily be relevant. I raise those two points because they are two of the main reasons why I believe that the best time to reveal what is said to the Select Committee is at the end of the day.
The inquiry will be into matters concerned with the Poulson companies. That is why we chose the words:
That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the conduct and activities of Members of this House in connection with the affairs of Mr. J. G. L. Poulson".
One could have specified the "companies of" or "persons associated with" Mr. Poulson, but in my view those words are broad enough to take in any possibility. It is the Poulson affair that we are talking about now.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) asked what would happen if evidence were brought forward relating not to Poulson but to other matters affecting hon. Members. This Select Committee is set up to inquire into the Poulson affair and its ramifications in this House, but if any one has any evidence affecting any other hon. Member—relating to contempt or anything else—the fact that we are talking about Poulson does not prevent my hon. Friend or anyone else, if he has any information or if information comes his way, from raising it in the usual way. But this is an investigation into the Poulson affair, and the motion is so drawn for that reason.
The motion goes on:
… to consider whether any such conduct or activities amounted to a contempt of the House"—
this is a paraphrase of Section 9 of the Bill of Rights—
or was inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members".
The Committee will be able to send for persons, papers and records. In the Yorkshire Post in my area today, Mr. Poulson is quoted as saying that he is prepared to come to the House. I would only say that if the Committee wants Mr. Poulson it will decide, not he, whether
he should come along. It is a matter for the Committee. It is then a matter for the Attorney-General, in consultation with it, what information he gives to the Committee.
Counsel can be heard if the Committee sees fit. It is certainly the Government's view that the right to counsel for those whose conduct is called into question would be a correct interpretation of the terms of reference.
I believe that it is right for the Committee to sit in private, for reasons which have been given, but what matters at the end of the day is that the information given to the Committee, oral and written, should be made available to the House. I will come to the point about relevancy in a moment, but on the question of secrecy being maintained until the report is published, I would say that the Committee will be sitting and investigating. If it feels that it cannot do its job properly it can always come back to the House and put its view to us. Before I come to the point about relevancy, perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) will make the point that he wishes to make.
My right hon. Friend has corrected himself. A Committee of Secrecy has not been used since 1857. All Select Committees meet in private, certainly to start with, and all of them have the power to decide whether to meet in public or in private, so that privacy in that sense is not secrecy, which is true of this one.
I accept that. I listened carefully to what was said.
A number of hon. Members have expressed concern about the word "relevant". That was put in for the reason that what we are concerned about is that it is possible that evidence will be sent to the Committee which has no bearing whatever on the cases. All of us who get letters from all over the country—especially as we play a more prominent part in public life—and not just from our own constituencies will know the sort of letters that will be written. All that we suggest is that the Committee should have the right not to publish that material. The Government are concerned to see— and the Opposition have spoken for themselves—that all the evidence, oral and written, shall be published, but we are trying to protect the innocent from scurrility and material of that kind which I believe that no one in this House will want to see published.
At the end of the day, the report will be presented to the House of Commons. Then it will be for the House of Commons to decide. If anyone then feels that there has been a whitewash—and many people who believe that will have talked around—he will have the chance to put that view to the House of Commons.
Once the motion has been passed, it will not be possible for anyone to establish authoritatively what the wording means. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will say what his understanding is on one specific matter. When he says that the evidence will be published, does he mean minutes of evidence, such as those published by a normal Select Committee, or does he have it in mind that the Committee will produce a summary of the material put to it and publish that kind of summary in contrast with the verbatim report that is normally published?
My view is that the Committee will publish a verbatim report of all the relevant evidence that is put before it.
I ought perhaps to mention the subject of costs if there are counsel involved. That is a matter for the House. There is no precedent for the House paying costs where a Member has been represented. It is wise, perhaps, not to enter into a commitment. But the Committee itself will be free to make recommendations to the House on the subject of costs at any time.
On occasions, it has seemed apparent that some right hon. and hon. Members have not got quite correctly the recommendation of the Royal Commission on Standards in Public Life. It says:
Membership of Parliament is a great honour and carries with it a special duty to maintain the highest standards of probity, and this duty has almost invariably been strictly observed. Nevertheless in view of our report as a whole, and especially in the light of the points set out in the foregoing paragraph, we recommend that Parliament should consider
bringing corruption, bribery and attempted bribery …".
It does not say that it should. Right hon. and hon. Members who believe that it would be an easy matter to consider this and to have a quick Act of Parliament in all that spare time that we are likely to have in the next Session should think again.
In my view, the House should have confidence in the Committee, the membership of which is a fair mix of the different age groups—the young, the not so young and the old in wisdom in the House. It is right that there should be lawyers on it, because they will be dealing with criminal reports which will come from the DPP. We should have full confidence in the Committee and in the report that it puts to us at the end of the day.
This House will come to its decision when we see the report. The report will not be a cover-up. It will only leave out what is scurrilous and the things that I feel sure right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House would not wish to see published.
I put it to the House that the motion should be passed in the form in which it stands on the Order Paper. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover and to his hon. Friends that the effect of their amendment would be to instruct the Select Committee to conduct its proceedings in public, and "proceedings" would normally be interpreted to mean not only the taking of evidence but all
The fact that there is no precedent for such a course does not matter very much, but my lion. Friend ought to take into account that judges, juries and members of tribunals are allowed to confer in private during the course of their activities. Whatever my hon. Friend is trying to do here, in my view he is not getting it right.
As to the Liberal amendment, we have made our case in the course of the day. Our view is that the Committee should meet in private, that it should publish at the end of the day its report, together with the evidence taken, and that this House should then decide what it wishes to do in a matter which is quite properly, as it has been historically, for this House.
Motion made, and Question put,
That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the conduct and activities of Members of this House in connection with the affairs of Mr. J. G. L. Poulson; to consider whether any such conduct or activities amounted to a contempt of the House or was inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members; and to report:—
|Division No. 356.]||AYES||[9.47 p.m.|
|Anderson, Donald||Butler, Adam (Bosworth)||Dodsworth, Geoffrey|
|Archer, Peter||Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE)||Doig, Peter|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Campbell, Ian||Dormand, J. D.|
|Arnold, Tom||Canavan, Dennis||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Ashton, Joe||Carlisle, Mark||Drayson, Burnaby|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)||Carmichael, Neil||Duffy, A. E. P.|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Cartwright, John||Eden, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Baker, Kenneth||Chalker, Mrs Lynda||Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)|
|Banks, Robert||Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Edwards, Robert (Wolv SE)|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Clemitson, Ivor||Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)|
|Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)||Cockcroft, John||Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)|
|Bates, Alf||Cocks, Rt Hon Michael||Emery, Peter|
|Beith, A. J.||Cohen, Stanley||English, Michael|
|Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)||Coleman, Donald||Evans, Gwynfor (Carmarthen)|
|Benyon, W.||Concannon, J. D.||Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)|
|Berry, Hon Anthony||Conlan, Bernard||Faulds, Andrew|
|Biffen, John||Cooke, Robert (Bristol W)||Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N)|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Cope, John||Fletcher-Cooke, Charles|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Corbett, Robin||Fookes, Miss Janet|
|Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)||Corrie, John||Ford, Ben|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Cox, Thomas (Tooting)||Fox, Marcus|
|Brocklebank-Fowler, C.||Cunningham, G. (Islington S)||Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)|
|Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)||Dalyell, Tam||Freud, Clement|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Deakins, Eric||Fry, Peter|
|Buchan, Norman||Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Gardiner, George (Reigate)|
|Buck, Antony||Dean, Paul (N Somerset)||Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)|
|Budgen, Nick||de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Ginsburg, David|
|Bulmer, Esmond||Dell, Rt Hon Edmund||Golding, John|
|Goodhew, Victor||McGuire, Michael (Ince)||Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)|
|Gow, Ian (Eastbourne)||Maclennan, Robert||Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)|
|Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry)||Mallalieu, J. P. W.||Silverman, Julius|
|Gray, Hamish||Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Grieve, Percy||Marten, Neil||Small, William|
|Grimond, Rt Hon J.||Mather, Carol||Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)|
|Grist, Ian||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Speed, Keith|
|Grylls, Michael||Mayhew, Patrick||Spence, John|
|Hall, Sir John||Mikardo, Ian||Spicer, Jim (W Dorset)|
|Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)|
|Harrison, Walter (Wakefield)||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove)||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Hatton, Frank||Miller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)||Stallard, A. W.|
|Havers, Sir Michael||Mills, Peter||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Hayhoe, Barney||Miscampbell, Norman||Stanley, John|
|Heffer, Eric S.||Molloy, William||Steel, David (Roxburgh)|
|Heseltine, Michael||Montgomery, Fergus||Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)|
|Hooley, Frank||Moore, John (Croydon C)||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)|
|Hooson, Emlyn||More, Jasper (Ludlow)||Stoddart, David|
|Horam, John||Morgan, Geraint||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Hordern, Peter||Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)||Strauss, Rt Hon G. R.|
|Howell, Rt Hon Denis (B'ham,Sm H)||Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)||Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley|
|Howells, Geraint (Cardigan)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)||Taylor, R. (Croydon NW)|
|Huckfield, Les||Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King||Tebbit, Norman|
|Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)||Neave, Airey||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport)||Nelson, Anthony||Thatcher, Rt Hon Margaret|
|Hunt, John (Bromley)||Neubert, Michael||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Hunter, Adam||Newton, Tony||Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)|
|Hutchison, Michael Clark||Ogden, Eric||Thompson, George|
|Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)||Onslow, Cranley||Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)|
|Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley||Tierney, Sydney|
|James, David||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David||Tomlinson, John|
|Janner, Greville||Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)||Torney, Tom|
|Jenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd&W'df'd)||Paisley, Rev Ian||Urwin, T. W.|
|Jessel, Toby||Palmer, Arthur||Vaughan, Dr Gerard|
|John, Brynmor||Park, George||Viggers, Peter|
|Jones, Alec (Rhondda)||Parker, John||Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)|
|Jones, Barry (East Flint)||Parkinson, Cecil||Wakeham, John|
|Judd, Frank||Pavitt, Laurie||Walder, David (Clitheroe)|
|Kaufman, Gerald||Penhaligon David||Walker, Harold (Doncaster)|
|Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Perry, Ernest||Walker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)|
|King, Evelyn (South Dorset)||Peyton, Rt Hon John||Walker, Terry (Kingswood)|
|Knight, Mrs Jill||Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch||Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek|
|Knox, David||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)||Wall, Patrick|
|Lamont, Norman||Rees-Davies, W. R.||Ward, Michael|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Reid, George||Watkins, David|
|Lawson, Nigel||Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)||Watkinson, John|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Ridley, Hon Nicholas||Watt, Hamish|
|Le Marchant, Spencer||Ridsdale, Julian||Weatherill, Bernard|
|Lester, Jim (Beeston)||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)|
|Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)||Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)||Wells, John|
|Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)||Roberts, Wyn (Conway)||Welsh, Andrew|
|Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)||Roderick, Caerwyn||White, Frank R. (Bury)|
|Lipton, Marcus||Rodgers, Rt Hon William (Stockton)||White, James (Pollock)|
|Lloyd, Ian||Roper, John||Whitlock, William|
|Lomas, Kenneth||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Loveridge, John||Rost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Luard, Evan||Rowlands, Ted||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Lyon, Alexander (York)||Ryman, John||Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)|
|Lyons, Edward (Bradford W)||Scott-Hopkins, James||Williams, Sir Thomas (Warrington)|
|McAdden, Sir Stephen||Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)||Wilson, Rt Hon Sir Harold (Huyton)|
|McCartney, Hugh||Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)||Woodall, Alec|
|McElhone, Frank||Sheldon, Robert (Ashton-u-Lyne)|
|Macfarlane, Neil||Shelton, William (Streatham)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|MacFarquhar, Roderick||Shersby, Michael||Mr. Joseph Harper and|
|MacGregor, John||Shore, Rt Hon Peter||Mr. James Hamilton.|
|Bean, R. E.||Lewis, Arthur (Newham N)||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Litterick, Tom||Skinner, Dennis|
|Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)||McDonald, Dr Oonagh||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)||Maynard, Miss Joan||Woof, Robert|
|Evans, John (Newton)||Parry, Robert|
|Fletcher, L. R. (Ilkeston)||Price, C. (Lewisham W)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)||Richardson, Miss Jo||Mr. J. W. Rooker and|
|Kerr, Russell||Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)||Mr. John Lee.|
That a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the conduct and activities of Members of this House in connection with the
affairs of Mr. J. G. L. Poulson; to consider whether any such conduct or activities amounted to a contempt of the House or was inconsistent with the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members; and to report: