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I should announce to the House that I have selected the following amendments: (a), leave out from 'House' to end and add
'takes note of the First Report of the Committee of Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 376); believes that it would be proper to punish an honourable Member who disclosed the draft report of a Select Committee before it had been reported to the House; but considers that it would be wrong to punish a journalist merely for doing his job.'.
I suggest that it would be for the convenience of the House if the formal moving of the amendments was deferred until the end of the debate. Under the terms of the order passed last Friday, I am required to put them successively to the House. It will be in order to refer in the debate to amendments that have not been selected as well as to those that have been selected. I must tell the House that no fewer than 24 right hon. and hon. Members will seek to catch my eye, and more may also try to do so. Six of the 24 are Privy Councillors. I therefore appeal for speeches to be brief.
It may help the House if I outline the general background to this matter and the basis on which the Privileges Committee has made this report. But first I should make it clear that this matter is for the House of Commons and the House of Commons alone to decide in the same spirit of free voting as the debate on televising our proceedings last November—[Interruption.]
Secondly, I think that it would assist the House if I made a relatively compact speech in view of the general interest in the topic and of the desire of many to speak. Thirdly, I propose to centre my speech around a narrative of the events which culminated in the report that we are now debating; and to comment briefly on the alternatives that have been proposed to the Privileges Committee recommendations.
Through the ages the House of Commons has asserted its right to be able to determine the manner of its own proceedings; to choose, for example, when these shall be private and when they shall be public. So far as proceedings on the Floor of the House are concerned they are almost invariably public, and what is said is freely and immediately available to all.
But so far as Select Committees are concerned, the procedural position is that whilst a Committee may take evidence in public, its deliberative sessions and the consideration of any report must be private and confidential, and shall remain so until published. This is of long standing.
This distinction between proceedings on the Floor and proceedings in Select Committees reflects, therefore, a very long-standing judgment of the House as to how Select Committees can best perform their work on its behalf. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Greed (Sir H. Rossi) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) as well as other right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House, in evidence to the Privileges Committee have emphasised the importance that Select Committees attach to the effective maintenance of this distinction. This is because, in their view, Select Committee reports are measurably more influential if they are unanimous or cut across party lines. If draft reports or reports of proceedings of the Committee appear in the press before its deliberations are complete, it is argued that it inevitably becomes more difficult for the Committee to achieve a unanimous view. This should not be a modest factor in our calculations.
The report before the House concerns a departmental Select Committee. These Select Committees were established in 1979. They still have to develop to the role that was originally foreseen in relation to the Executive. This evening, it is their future development that the House must judge, and judge alike the claim of chairmen of the departmental Select Committees that they need this protection of privilege for the deliberative stages of their work.
Against this background, I should now like briefly to recount the facts of this particular case. The Environment Committee, under the chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, reported to the House in its second special report that an article published in The Times on 16 December 1985 had resulted from a leaked copy of the Chairman's draft report on radioactive waste. Since the Committee also reported that, in its view, this leak had caused serious interference with the work of the Committee, this special report stood automatically referred to the Committee of Privileges under the new procedure subsequently approved by the House on 18 March.
The source of the leak has not been indentified. despite searching inquiries of all its members by the Environment Committee — [Interruption.] — although we all look forward to the debate this evening. This, of course, is one of the most highly unsatisfactory aspects of this case. The witnesses from The Times have refused to disclose their source. They have also refused to rule out any category of person — such as the staff of the Committee — from whom the information might have been obtained. Clearly no useful purpose would be served by instituting any further investigation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green has given evidence about the damage he believes was done to his Committee's work and asserted that substantial interference had taken place. It was on the evidence so forcefully presented by my hon. Friend that the Privileges Committee came to formulate its recommendations.
The Times has acknowledged that it was fully aware that in publishing its leak it was committing a breach of privilege. It justified this as being "in the public interest". For the reasons detailed in paragraphs 18 to 21 of the report, the Committee of Privileges cannot accept this. Otherwise the implication is that The Times, and not the House, is the unquestioned judge of what constitutes the "public interest" in the matter.
The world of politics and public affairs lives by a relationship with the press that is necessarily intimate and should be based on mutual and sustained respect. The House will not wish to act capriciously, and these matters proceed in the baleful circumstances where the Select Committee has been unable to indentify the perpetrator of the leak.
Even so, this challenge poses an inescapable and disagreeable choice before the House. It can either allow the right of Select Committees to confidentiality in their deliberations to disintegrate or it can defend that right by some form of punishment. As I have already said, in considering this choice, the House will recall that the whole problem of the premature disclosure of the proceedings of Select Committees, and its handling by the House, has only recently been the subject of exhaustive consideration in the second report last Session of the Privileges Committee. Its recommendations were approved by the House on 18 March last by a large majority.
This is the first case under the new procedure and what we decide this evening is bound to colour the future. The Select Committee on the Environment has concluded that its work has been substantially impeded and the Privileges Committee agrees. It is not disputed that a breach of privilege has occurred. The central issue is what is an appropriate, effective and equitable response by the House.
This takes me to the amendments, selected by you, Mr. Speaker, for debate.
The first is amendment (a) in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). It urges that the House should take no action against Mr. Evans or The Times generally. I do not believe that a course of no action at all would be appropriate in these circumstances since it would put the whole basis of confidentiality of the deliberations of Select Committees at risk. There would also be little point in the Privileges Committee addressing such matters again if the House felt unable to support its judgment in this instance.
Two amendments propose that the recommendations of the Committee should be implemented only for limited periods. Amendment (g) in the name of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) proposes five days; and amendment (i), in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), six weeks. The Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment was persuasive in arguing that his Committee had been seriously harmed by the leak. In this context I am reluctant to commend a penalty so substantially less than that recommended by the Privileges Committee.
The fourth is amendment (j) tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. This would stop any penalty being imposed upon Mr. Evans.
I admire the way in which my hon. Friend has recognised the very real feeling in the House that a journalist should not suffer, but unlike the 1975 case, Mr. Evans has refused to apologise to the House or to exonerate the staff of the House from being involved in the leak. Indeed, on the second point, it has been stressed that that is his own decision, not his editor's. My judgment, therefore, is that the Privileges Committee's recommendation in respect of Mr. Evans for his actions should stand.
I now address the recommendations of the Committee, which are contained in the motion before the House. The motion proposes that the lobby reporter concerned in this leak, Mr. Richard Evans, should be suspended from the lobby for six months and excluded from the precincts for that purpose and for that period. That is in line with the recommendation made by the Privileges Committee in The Economist case in 1975 and in its second report last Session. The motion also proposes that the number of lobby passes issued to The Times should be reduced by one, also for a period of six months.
Does not my right hon. Friend think that, if the matter was leaked by a Member of the House who took it as such a strong principle that he should leak it, he should have the courage to say who he is?
I am sure that it would be a happy issue to most of our afflictions if any hon. Member who had leaked the document were now to make that evident— [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."] The debate might help to that end. I should like to say to my hon. and learned Friend that we still do not know that it is a Member of Parliament, because the information which might have been disclosed by Mr. Evans has been withheld.
It is noteworthy that none of the amendments selected has questioned the judgment of the Privileges Committee that The Times has breached the privilege of the House. The argument—and it will be echoed in the debate—centres around the extent of the penalties to be imposed.
The Privileges Committee gave the question of penalties measured consideration. Inevitably, the suggested penalties reflect a high degree of value judgment with very little precedent as a guide. The House must judge. Even so, I believe that the recommendations set an appropriate judgment between a token punishment and a penal sanction inappropriate to modern circumstances.
I shall try to accommodate the point that the hon. Gentleman fairly makes and also keep in reasonable order. I am certain that this would be to the benefit of the entire House. If there is any member of that Select Committee here who can now resolve the matter by saying that he was responsible for the leak, he should inform the House accordingly.
The House should not lightly set aside the recommendations. The issue is essentially very simple: given that a breach of privilege has occurred, what is the appropriate penalty?
As the Leader of the House said, this is a House of Commons matter. In all political parties, there are widely different views about privilege in general, and, as the amendments on the Order Paper demonstrate, about its enforcement in this case.
I speak as a member of the Select Committee on Privileges, and the report carries the approval of that all-party Committee, with one dissenting voice. Its recommendations, which I support, follow directly from the recommendations of the second report of the Privileges Committee, which was debated as recently as 11 March this year, and subsequently approved by 104 votes to 22 on 18 March. That report did not focus on a particular case, but, following a growing number of leaks from Select Committees, it was directed
to examine further the laws of privilege and the rules of the House relating to the proceedings of select committees meeting in private".
The Select Committee concluded that if there had been substantial interference, or the likelihood of such, in the work of the Select Committee, then, provided the Priviliges Committee agreed, it might recommend that appropriate penalties be imposed on Members or other persons, including the press, especially if no apology had been offered.
Moreover, the Committee of Privileges gave a clear indication of the nature of the penalties that it had in mind. Paragraph 10 of the report states:
If a Member of the House is found to be responsible for a leak in one of the above categories, he should be punished. The appropriate penalty in many such cases would be removal from the committee concerned. If an editor or a journalist (or any other person who enjoys the facilities of the Lobby or Press Gallery) has been found responsible for publishing such a leak, he too should be liable to an appropriate penalty. Such penalty might be the suspension, for a specified period, of the Lobby and Press Gallery passes of journalists employed by that organ of the press.
The case before us tonight exactly fits the criteria laid down in the Privileges Committee report. Mr. Richard Evans, a lobby correspondent from The Times, obtained and published the Chairman's draft report of the inquiry of the Select Committee on the Environment into radioactive waste. The Environment Committee itself summarised the effect of the leak as constituting:
a serious interference with the work of the committee.
That assessment was strongly reaffirmed by the Chairman, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi), in his evidence to the Privileges Committee.
The Times report gave a seriously misleading impression of the Select Committee's conclusions. It made it more difficult for Members to approach the evidence impartially, it damaged trust between members of the Committee, and it delayed for some weeks the completion of its report. Both the journalist and the editor insisted—as the Leader of the House has reminded us—that they were acting in the public interest, and it was made plain that it was the settled policy of The Times newspaper to seek such information from Select Committees and to publish it.
If you say it is in the public interest to publish it when you did, why is it less in the public interest to let it wait a fortnight until it has been properly discussed and publish it then?",
Mr. Richard Evans replied:
Perhaps I could take up one point. If we waited two weeks another newspaper might get hold of it.
I do not automatically equate the commercial interest of The Times with the public interest, and nor should the House.
As to the proposed penalties—six months suspension and the reduction of the number of The Times lobby, passes by one for the same period—I have read the letter, as have other right hon. and hon. Members, that was sent to us by members of the Parliamentary lobby and which states:
the person who leaked the report, who committed the breach of trust and privilege remains undetected and unpunished.
That is true. I regret it, as I am sure all hon. Members do. But in all leaks there are three culprits. There is the source, the editor and the journalist. The absence of one is not a reason for inaction against the others.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell the House whether, had the identity of the person who leaked the document been available to the Privileges Committee or were it to be available to the House now, before the matter is disposed of, that would in any way mitigate or change the decision of the Privileges Committee to recommend the penalty which the House is now considering?
I do not believe that it would. Obviously a penalty would be imposed on the Member.
I now turn to the underlying argument. The one thing that should united the press and Select Committees is the wish to penetrate more deeply into important matters of policy and to prise open the secrecy which Government Departments and Ministers are always prone to. After all, that was a major motivation in the decision of the House in 1979 to establish 14 departmental Select Committees to maintain an on-going scrutiny of departmental affairs.
Few subjects are of greater importance than the nuclear power industry, as the Chernobyl disaster has so vividly demonstrated, and the unsolved problem of long-term disposal of nuclear waste is one of the great questions involved. Far from seeking to cover up the industry and Government policy in relation to it, the Select Committee has, apart from its own 100-page report, obtained 800 pages of written and oral evidence from bodies as diverse as Friends of the Earth, the Town and Country Planning Association, the Trades Union Congress, the Central Electricity Generating Board, the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Secretaries of State for Transport and for the Environment. All that material is now before the public, and the Committee's proceedings, when witnesses were called and interrogated, were held in public and the minutes published.
Although I acknowledge the investigative skills of the press, the Select Committee's investigation was an exercise in open government that far outstripped in depth, penetration and authority anything that could be otherwise achieved—except perhaps by a Royal Commission or a full-scale planning inquiry with especially wide terms of reference.
To present the issue tonight as one between the advocates of open government and those of closed government would therefore be ludicrous. What is at issue is the confidentiality of the closing and deliberative stage of the Select Committee's work, when it considers the evidence it has received and tries to reach its conclusions. Not only is that report then published but so, too, are the specific dissents and alternative drafts and recorded votes of members of the Select Committee. The deliberative session and the Chairman's draft report which is prepared with the purpose of focusing discussion are all that are at issue. Why protect that draft report? Why should it be a contempt to disclose this part of the Select Committee's proceedings?
The answer is simple. Many powerful and interested parties seek to influence Members in their conclusions. None has a greater interest than the Government, since it is Government policy, active or inactive, that the Committee is ultimately investigating. If, at this stage, external influences and pressures, including the Whips, are brought to bear, there is a risk that the judgment of Members will be affected and the difficulties in reaching agreement increased.
If the facts of the Committee study justify it, of course there is great advantage in a unanimous report. No Government can shrug off the findings of a Select Committee whose members always reflect the composition of the House and have, therefore, a built-in Government majority, if that report is unanimous.
The leaked publication of a draft report at the closing, deliberative stage of the Select Committee's work therefore operates against the very purpose for which the Select Committee has been established — to probe sensitive questions, to obtain information from within and outside Government, and then to put the full force of the Select Committee's unfettered judgment behind its recommendations.
No analogy exactly fits but, in trial by jury procedures, the court is open to the press and the public. The witnesses appear and are examined and cross-examined in public. The jury's verdict is then delivered in public. But when the jury retires to consider the evidence and its verdict, the press is excluded. Having heard all the relevant facts, it is for the jury to make up its mind, and for all other influences to be excluded.
It is for those reasons — quite apart from the commercial motivation of stealing a march on other competing newspapers—that I reject the claim of Mr. Richard Evans, the editor of The Times and the letter sent to Members by the parliamentary lobby and journalists that this leak was "in the public interest".
No one can be certain of the effects of sustained and major leaks of the proceedings of Select Committees but if, as seems probable, they are weakened and divided by premature disclosures, the major losers will be the public, the House and the cause of open Government that the Select Committees seek to serve. I believe, therefore, that the Select Committee's report deserves the support of the House.
The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) who is the shadow Leader of the House, made a delightfully reactionary speech. He produced one of the most far-fetched analogies that has ever been put before the House, that a Select Committee bears any relation at all to a jury. I hope that the House will reject this motion. I hope that I may be forgiven for an extremely mixed metaphor: the Committee of Privileges is making a mountain out of a molehill and is barking up the wrong tree.
We all know that Select Committees do valuable and important work. We also know that their members are Members of the House and do not become different beings when they sit on Select Committees. They are well aware of political pressures, they know the importance of publicity and they live the whole time in the political world. The idea that once they get on to a Select Committee and start deliberating they should be pampered and protected from publicity and that that protection should be reinforced by penal sanctions against the press is quite absurd.
Why do they suddenly become so naive that they can hardly deliberate because there has been some publicity and they do not know how to get on with their Select Committee work? This surely does a great disservice to the members of Select Committees. They are grown-up people and if they are not able to withstand these pressures, they should not be Members of this House.
As my hon. Friend knows, I have served on none. If serving on a Select Committee made me change my mind I would know that I was wrong. I am strongly in favour of consensus, but the idea that Select Committees should be immunised from publicity when no other organ of government is so immunised is wrong. Why should this unique protection be given to Select Committees? The whole idea is bizarre and ridiculous.
So much for the molehill: I will now proceed to the wrong tree. We all know that the leaks are extremely embarrassing and irritating, especially when we all know that they almost invariably come from an hon. Member. The fact that we are unable to find out who did it does not mean that out of frustration we should punish the wrong person. There used to be doctrine a long time ago, I think in the law courts, that the fact that a man had committed adultery with a woman did not necessarily mean that the woman had committed adultery with the man. That is so in this case.
I entirely agree about breach of trust, but I am not entirely clear about the relevance of that interruption. We are discussing whether or not there has been a breach of trust by an hon. Member. Whoever leaked this report did wrong. The Times and Mr. Evans did not leak and did not do wrong. They published, as it was their right and duty to do. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] The idea that there should be censorship because of the sacred deliberations of the Select Committees is absurd.
The right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney and the other members of the Privileges Committee seemed to be surprised that The Times was not prepared to wait until the official report was published. They said that The Times should have acted in the public interest, and the right hon. Gentleman thought he knew exactly what the public interest was. All that he was saying was that The Times should behave like an advertising man and sit back and allow its columns to be used for advertising.
The correct definition of news was given by William Randolph Hearst—and he should know—as something that someone does not want published; everything else is advertising. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that newspapers should sit back and say, "We cannot publish this. We must wait until we get the full report." That is not how newspapers should behave. It is not the way in which they behave in any other sphere of government. Why should they behave in that way with the deliberations of Select Committees?
That is right. It is not for the Select Committee on the Environment or the Privileges Committee to decide what it is in the public interest to publish. If any of us knew what it was in the public interest to publish, we would not need a free press and we would not deserve one. It is nonsense to talk about the public interest.
If the motion is passed, the House will be the only loser. Mr. Richard Evans will not lose; he will be respected everywhere except in the House. The Times will not lose. Although it will lose one Lobby pass, it can employ an extra journalist to report sport or something else that will improve its circulation. The House will have once more made a fool of itself on a matter of privilege and will have forgotten that the point of Parliament is to preserve free speech, not to prevent it.
When the House of Commons sets up an important Committee — no Committee is more important than the Privileges Committee—to examine a matter of major significance, as it has done on this occasion, and when the report is presented to the House and so many eminent names are attached to the proposition before us, the House must pay careful attention to what is proposed. I greatly respect the opinion of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore)—no Member of the House is more truly honourable in every possible sense—so I am usually eager to agree with him.
I would pay a similar compliment, although not quite so glowing, to the Leader of the House if I did not think that it would interfere with his young career at an inopportune time. None the less, they have joined many others to present the proposition to the House, and it must be carefully considered.
However, I am bound to consider it as a journalist for many years. I have seen the conflicts between the House and Fleet street in its different forms. I do not say that, in all those conflicts, Fleet street was right and the House of Commons was wrong, but anyone who examines the history of the House will see that, on many important occasions, journalists have been proved right and the House has been proved wrong. On several occasions in recent times—I am not talking about the 18th century—the House of Commons has clambered upon its privileges hobby horse and fallen flat on its face. I do not want that to happen this time, although it is possible if the recommendations are accepted.
Not all the evidence given by journalists to the Privileges Committee was equally valuable. Many of their answers, although not incriminating, weaken their case, but one argument in the replies that they gave to the highly skilful cross-examination by the Attorney-General and others is difficult to meet. If it is all right for members of the Lobby and other journalists working in the House of Commons or its environs to try to search out what is happening in the Cabinet and to publish that, why should it be wrong for them to try to search out what is happening in Select Committees and to publish that?
If we are told—this is the case put by the Chairman of the Committee and to some degree accepted by the members of the Committee—that it interferes with the process of discussion in the Select Committee, then we must accept that there is a whole range of Cabinet committees, including the Cabinet itself, which could make exactly the same claim. A whole range of discussions and reports—leakages, call them what you will—come from the Cabinet or Cabinet committees which may deal with subjects even more important than those assigned for consideration by this Select Committee.
It is impossible for the House to draw the line in that way and say that different restrictions should be imposed on journalists working here when they are trying to report what is happening in a Select Committee than when they are trying to report what is happening within the Government machine itself.
Despite the prevarication of some of the replies given in cross-examination, the journalists were saying, "We believed that we were doing the same job in trying to report what was happening in some of these Committees as we do as a matter of course when trying to report what is happening in the Government."
I guarantee to my hon. Friend that nobody whipped me—not on a free vote. It was carried by a 5:1 majority without dissent from my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), and I am sure that he was not whipped. Why did he not oppose that, when that report said precisely that the proceedings of Select Committees should be treated differently from the proceedings of other bodies?
I give the assurance that I was not whipped in that case, as I was not in many others. If somebody had tried to whip me, I might have paid more careful attention to the proceedings on that occasion. I do not propose to make the same mistake again.
I have been considering the matter carefully. Whatever may have been decided by a previous Committee—and we can take a lesson in terms of the diligence that we should show in attending to the proceedings of the House — I do not believe that one can draw a proper distinction between the two.
It has been argued that there must be special virtue in ensuring that Select Committees should be able to reach unanimous judgments. In my view, that has nothing to do with it. The procedures should not be so arranged to encourage or discourage that result. I have been somewhat sceptical about Select Committees and their role, because there may be disadvantages in forcing a consensual agreement on matters where I believe party arguments should still prevail.
My right hon. Friend challenges us to make a distinction between a Cabinet committee and a Select Committee of the House. Would he not agree that a Cabinet committee or the Cabinet itself deliberates on Executive action to be taken, which may pre-empt the views or policies of the House, whereas a Select Committee can only make a report to the House, and that is its only shot?
It is a continuous process, and indeed it becomes enlarged. The departmental Select Committees have certainly become enlarged since they were established. I do not say this against them. In some ways they have shown much greater vitality than many expected they would, and good luck to them in that sense.
It is not a fair distinction, however, to say that they should have a special kind of protection which is not necessary for the Cabinet and Cabinet committees. I do not believe that that distinction can be made to work for the future operations of the House. If the House of Commons tries to draw such a distinction, my prophecy is that it will fail, which is one reason why I am against the proposal before the House.
It is unfair that the journalists should be punished and the real culprits should not; that is so manifestly unfair that the House of Commons will make a fool of itself if it tries to proceed on those lines.
But what is the remedy for the situation? I know there is a problem. I am not trying to dodge it. I understand that the Select Committee cross-examined the journalists on these questions of confidentiality, which are very important.
I am not saying that the House of Commons should not have the right to establish Select Committees or other Committees which would have the right to insist upon confidentiality. It is absolutely necessary. It is necessary for the Cabinet, and for some of these committees. But members of those committees are responsible for protecting their confidentiality. If some members of those committees cause breaches of confidentiality, they cannot put the blame on somebody else who may have a different kind of job.
I know that an other remedy has been proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), and it is also in the report presented to the House. I understand his argument, but I disagree with it. He says that the solution to the problem is to make all the Committees open and not to insist on confidentiality.
Just as I disagree with my right hon. Friend on that matter, so I disagree when the argument is applied to the Cabinet itself. The trouble about having so many leaks from the Cabinet—this is the leakiest Cabinet in British history — [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Oh yes, it is the leakiest Cabinet in history. The trouble is that when there is a Cabinet of that nature, the decisions are taken more and more by a sort of inner Cabinet, which thinks that it can preserve secrecy. We also know from our experience over recent weeks and months that the way in which that Cabinet has operated has been highly dangerous to the British people.
Moreover, there is in addition much more of an organised system of leaks although I am not saying that there were not signs of it in years gone by. [Interruption.] Day by day and week by week, we have an organised system of communicating to the press the decisions of the Government and the decisions of many Government and Cabinet Committees, and that system continues. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO."]
I say that it is utterly hypocritical for the House of Commons to say that we will have that system of tolerated and organised leaks, but that, when it comes to a particular form of operation in the House of Commons, we will impose these penalties and methods of operation.
So I say that the House of Commons should try to discover a remedy for the disease, one which really works. That will be achieved only if the House insists on the proposition that Members of the House must show the trust and power of maintaining that confidentiality. It is their business to do it. If they cannot do it, they cannot find scapegoats on whom to thrust their mistakes.
I commend to the House my amendment (j) in line 2, at end add
'with the exception of paragraph 25.'.
I wish at the outset to thank my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and the Committee of Privileges for the trouble they have taken to investigate the complaints of my Committee arising out of the premature publication of parts of a draft report even before the Committee as a whole had had time to meet to consider it.
Reading the proceedings of the Committee of Privileges I was immediately struck by the cavalier, truculent and almost contemptuous attitude of the newspapermen in question towards the House. They admit that they acted deliberately in breach of the privileges of the House, make no apology for doing so and assert firmly that they are the sole arbiters of which rules of the House they choose to obey and which they do not. I find that rather rich coming from those to whom the House has granted privileges given to few others, whether it be a licence to come and go at will and to record the proceedings of the House, or to occupy precious accommodation given to no other newspaper.
It is little wonder that the Committee of Privileges was very angry and proposed extremely severe sanctions. I trust, therefore, that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues, having done their best to protect my Committee, will not take it amiss if I suggest that perhaps the Committee of Privileges has allowed itself to be provoked by these very unsatisfactory witnesses into going beyond what is perhaps just and reasonable. Therefore, I tabled an amendment in the names of myself, the members of my Committee and a former chairman of my Committee, to the effect that Mr. Richard Evans be not suspended from the Lobby for six months. That is very much for the reasons expressed in amendment (a) in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg).
It goes against the inherent sense of fair play of the House that a young, well-liked journalist should be punished while the real villain, possibly a Member of the House, escapes censure. [HON. MEMBERS: "Name him."] I must tell the House that, having investigated the matter, I do not know who it is and that I cannot name anybody, nor am I prepared to name anybody. It would be wrong for hon. Members to throw stones at other people in the House without evidence.
I accept, all the same, that if there were no receivers of stolen property there would be fewer thieves; if there were no publishers, there would be no leakers. However, the journalist in question was doing very little more than his duty in reporting to his employer information which had fallen into his hands. I trust that my amendment will be accepted.
May I ask the chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment a simple question? Is it true that a member of the Select Committee admitted to breaching privilege on this matter, that he referred the document in question to Mr. John H. Large of Large and Associates, consulting engineers to Greenpeace, and that Mr. John H. Large wrote a letter to the chairman of the Committee on 23 December in which he said:
On 12 December"——
that is, five days before the leak was published—
a copy of the draft report was delivered to this office by motor cycle courier".
Does the Chairman of the Select Committee know that that statement by Mr. Large is not true? If it is untrue, do we necessarily have to accept the balance of his statement? Finally, is it not also true that the hon. Member who leaked the document has apologised to the Select Committee and that his apology was accepted by the Committee?
The hon. Gentleman has clearly read my report to the House and to the Committee of Privileges. It is clear that there was a secondary breach of privilege by a member of my Committee who consulted a firm of professional experts because he wanted advice on some of the technical matters contained in the draft report. That is perfectly true. I leave it to the hon. Gentleman in question to identify himself if he so wishes. He has apologised fully to the Committee for that secondary breach of privilege.
We are concerned with a different matter altogether. We are concerned with how the report was leaked to the Press.
Does the hon. Gentleman know whether the company which has been mentioned was being remunerated by Greenpeace for acting in an advisory capacity? The company must have had a commercial interest in this document. Is it not true that, after receiving the document, amendments were suggested to various members of the Committee? Was that not an application of pressure? What is the qualitative difference between that and the case in point this evening?
It is true that that firm of engineers has given evidence and had advised Greenpeace on occasions. We established that; that is clear in our reports. If the hon. Gentleman would like further information as to the extent to which this leak or series of leaks has progressed, I can tell the House tht only two weeks ago I was given a photostat copy of parts of my draft report. This was handed to me by a member of the Central Electricity Generating Board who told me that he had received it from the United States of America before the report was approved and published. I have also been told by the producers of "Newsnight", which produced a programme before the embargo was raised on our report, that they paid for a copy of the draft report.
These leaks are distasteful.
I will not give way because this is a time-limited debate and I have already been extremely generous in giving way. We are extending the debate beyond the issues before the House.
Having suggested how my Committee feels about the journalist in question, I would now like to consider the responsibilities of the editor and proprietor of The Times. This is entirely another matter, because they have the responsibility for publication. If they publish a libel, they risk damages. If they publish in contempt of court, they risk imprisonment. If they publish in contempt of the House, they should risk withdrawal of privileges which the House has been pleased to give them. Their justification is that they have acted in the public interest. In their defence, they have raised a great shout in Fleet street about freedom of the press, which has been reflected in some of the speeches that we have heard already today.
I should like to examine for a moment the proposition that it was in the public interest to reveal what the editor and proprietor revealed. Were we dealing with a Cabinet committee matter, some great hidden scandal of state, some great concealment from the public of vital information, some departmental conspiracy to mislead, I might have some sympathy, but what do we have here? This is the publication of a preliminary draft of a document intended for publication and produced to stimulate public debate. How can it be against the public interest to wait until that document is no longer in its crude form, but good and ready for publication?
Would it be acceptable in Fleet street for the world to see a journalist's copy before his editor cuts or spikes it? Can we look at draft editorials to see whether there is true journalistic independence? Do we review manuscripts of books before the author is ready to send them to his publisher? Examined in this way, the demand to be free to publish the Chairman's report when his Committee has yet to decide whether it reflects its collective view is absurd and untenable. What can be in the public interest in publishing an unapproved draft, which is subject to change and revision, some two or three weeks before it is due to be published in any case in its final approved form? We have already heard — Mr. Evans was asked the question and he replied with refreshing honesty—that, if he had waited another two weeks, another newspaper would have got it. There it is. We are concerned with a newspaper scoop, a desire to keep up circulation to make a profit.
There is nothing wrong with those objectives in themselves. Running a newspaper is running a business but I ask that they spare us the cant and humbug of "pro bono publico."
Mr. Wilson's justification was that publication of the draft report widened the debate at an earlier date. He slides over the fact that the deceit so threw the Committee that the final report was delayed three months. He also conveniently ignores the fact that publication of the Craft report misled the public and raised false expectations because our recommendations, or some of them, were substantially amended. Expectations were raised about a report of a Committee dominated by Conservative Members attacking Government policy, demanding the shut-down of THORP, no new foreign contracts for reprocessing and one-off dumping at sea and then finishing with it. It was no such thing, but the story was picked up in that form by commentator after commentator and relied upon even after the Committee report appeared. I should have thought that the spreading of misinformation is against the public interest and that that is exactly what happened.
The problem caused by the leak has already been fully recorded. However, the present rules under which Select Committees are required to operate are unworkable if no sanctions are to exist for a breach of them. It is bizarre that I must produce a draft report which I cannot discuss with anyone outside my Committee, refuse constant demands for interviews, and rigorously honour an embargo intended to give equal opportunity to every interested journalist, only to find that my draft report is published behind my Committee's back as the result of some clandestine deal.
I would prefer it if the House adopted one of two methods. When draft reports are sent to members of Committees, they should be deposited in the Library and in the Press Gallery. The status of the document would be clear — that it reflected only the Chairman's personal views, for whatever they may be worth, and that it may be accepted or rejected by the Committee as a whole. The danger of that is that individual Members may be asked to comment, which would make it even more difficult to reach a unanimous consensus view. The advantage would be that the document would join all the other official press releases as an unleakable document. Another course would be to enable the House to enter into exclusive publication rights and recoup some of the Committees' expenses.[Interruption.]
I am worried that indecision tonight could well damage the growth of Select Committees. They are an exciting development, still in their infancy, through which Parliament is seeking to re-establish its traditional role as a check on the Executive. During the past 100 years that role has been eroded by the party and whipping systems. Question Time has become a ritualistic game, and apart from occasions such as this, setpiece debates in the Chamber are poorly attended.[Interruption.]
On the other hand, Select Committees summon Ministers and, equally important, their officials, and cross-examine them persistently and in depth in a way which is impossible under any other procedures. Having heard all the evidence in open court, as it were.[Interruption.]
I realise that some hon. Members are rather impatient with me, but as I do not speak often and this is an important matter on which I have some experience, the House might listen to my remarks, which may be of assistance, particularly as I have heard speeches such as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) who has not served on a Select Committee and cannot know what happens in one.
Having heard and cross-examined Ministers and witnesses in open court, as it were, we retire like a jury to consider our verdict. The Committee can chew over the draft report, consider the evidence, evaluate it, and compare impressions. We do so in the absence of political rancour or bias. When we have reached our verdict, we do not hide it; we publish it. That is our function. Intrusion into our private discussions would put pressure on Committees from the outset, and that would diminish the value of our reports.
The departmental Select Committee is a new, delicate constitutional plant which must be protected and nurtured if it is to flourish. It is more in the public interest that the House protects its Committees than that it enables newspapers to scoop one another.
I do not intend to follow the length of the speech made by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). In the early part of his speech, as the Chairman of the Select Committee, he opened up a veritable Pandora's box of apparent leaks from the Committee. If I understood him aright, copies of the draft report have been freely available on both sides of the Atlantic. If that is the case, I wonder why we do not have a longer list of people arraigned rather than just one journalist from The Times. My understanding is that that the leak to John H. Large and Associates resulted in that firm circulating members of the Select Committee with suggested draft amendments to the report that they were urged to move in Committee. That is a much more serious interference in the work of the Committee than any journalist reporting the draft report. I wonder why we are not debating that as well.
In no way do I condone the business of leaks. It is an acutely damaging procedure and one which, over the past few days, I have had good reason to be reminded is extremely dangerous and damaging to trust between one colleague and another. [Interruption.] I think that I have made the point. There is only a narrow gap between the leak and the unattributable quote, and the whole business of the lobby system, from which the House has been suffering for so long.
Is there no qualitative difference between leaking proceedings of a Select Committee to the press, and leaking them to a member of the Whips' Office of one's party? Whips of either party might, for their own interests, leak them to the press.
That is a fair point. The existence of research assistants and such people makes it difficult to keep a document 100 per cent. secret.
Tonight we are considering whether the punishment recommended by the Select Committee on Privileges is a reasonable one for us to approve. I cannot accept that it is. I hear what is said about the position of journalists, but it is unreasonable to expect a journalist to refuse the opportunity of publishing a document such as this, which is on an issue of major public concern. To recall what the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) said during the Fulham by-election, we are all of us consenting adults in this business of politics. We are not naive. We know what journalists are about, and if we are stupid enough to give them the opportunity to exploit a situation, we are to blame, not the journalists. We should not be punishing a journalist for doing his job effectively.
There is something ironic about Select Committees, which were specifically set up to blow the whistle on Government Departments, to find out where the bodies are buried and to shed light in dark corners of Whitehall, hiding behind the same sort of secrecy that has cloaked Whitehall for so long. When we last had a debate on such matters, we were debating a leak from the Select Committee on the wealth tax, a Committee on which I served. The then Member for Cornwall, North, Mr. John Pardoe, said:
There is absolutely no value to be attached to secrecy in the deliberations of a Select Committee. The party dimension would flourish more behind closed doors than in the open. The more the Press and the broadcasting media were there to cover the deliberations of the Select Committee, the less would party play its part.—[Official Report, 16 December 1975; Vol. 902, c. 1318.]
I endorse very strongly that approach.
Also I endorse the view of those who have already said in this debate that many other bodies suffer from leaks. The Cabinet, Ministers, Government Departments, even political parties suffer leaks from leaks. If Mr. Richard Evans had published a leak that came from any of those sources, he would not be punished. Only the House of Commons gives itself this extraordinary right to punish people for publishing leaks. The question is whether that power is justified. I cannot believe that it is. The House is in danger of making itself look incredibly foolish and pompous and of filling itself with self-importance. That is the House of Commons at its worst. I want no part of it. I shall vote against these recommendations.
There are comparatively few occasions in the House when it is possible that the debate will persuade hon. Members to change their vote. I believe that this is such an occasion and that the speech of the Opposition Front Bench spokesman, the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), was highly persuasive.
If right hon. and hon. Members look through the reports on this issue which have been published recently it will be very difficult indeed for them not to be persuaded, as I most certainly am, that we should support the recommendations of the Select Committee on Privileges. It is common ground that the departmental Select Committees that were set up in 1979 have been very effective in removing much of the previous secrecy, in subjecting Ministers and officials to scrutiny and in publishing the results.
The other outstanding feature, which perhaps could not have been clearly foreseen, is the extent to which hon. Members who, on the Floor of the House, are frequently divided along party lines, are able to come together in a Select Committee to examine a particular issue in great depth on the basis of the evidence and then to form a common view that they then report to the House. It means that our proceedings on the Floor of the House are better informed than they would otherwise be.
Hon. Members may have received a few days ago a letter from the parliamentary lobby that referred throughout to the leak of a Select Committee report. It is important to stress that this evening we are not concerned with the leak of a Select Committee report. Such a leak may be deplorable and it may be to the disadvantage of other members of the press, but the damage that is likely to arise in that case will not be great. What is the case—and it is important to distinguish it—is that the leak of a draft report is, as the report of the Select Committee on the Environment makes absolutely clear, likely to make the deliberations and conclusions of the Select Committee very much more difficult.
Here I take up the point that was made by the right hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), the former leader of the Labour party. All the way through his argument he sought to draw a comparison between discussion in Cabinet and discussion in a Select Committee. There is a clear and crucial difference. As soon as the Select Committee's report is published, so are its proceedings. That does not apply to Cabinet discussions. If a member of a Select Committee points out that he wishes to dissent from the report, it is clearly recorded that that is his considered view. What is wrong, I believe, is to publish a Chairman's draft, or the deliberations of a Select Committee on the proceedings, when hon. Members are still in the course of making up their minds on the issue.
It is important to distinguish this evening between what is and what is not important. What is most certainly not important is the contents of a Chairman's draft report. That is something that the Chairman, having gone through the evidence, cooks up, perhaps together with the Committee Clerk, and then puts forward as the basis for discussion. He may include in it a few points to stimulate discussion in the privacy of the Select Committee's deliberations. The draft report may be quite misleading and have no particular validity. A draft report certainly does not have the kind of importance that those in The Times sought to suggest that this one had when they published it on the front page. It is merely something which particular Committee Chairmen happen to have taken up. The problem is that it inevitably inhibits free discussion of the issues and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) pointed out, it appears in an incomplete and garbled form, frequently with the objective of influencing the eventual conclusion of the Committee, apart from what it has received in evidence.
That being so, I am sad that The Times reporter and The Times itself have broken with the tradition which the lobby has recognised over the years. Indeed, I think that it is clear from the lobby's own rules that draft reports are not something which should be leaked because they have the disadvantages I have clearly set out.
The content of the draft report is not important However, the leak is a matter of great importance because we need to deter that from happening if we are to do our job properly. I am sorry that the press, which on this occasion has broken previous conventions, does not understand that the press, the House and the Committees should all be on the same side, encouraging open government. It is sad that that is not the case. The press should understand the damage that is being done to the work of the Select Committees in trying to carry out their duties towards the House.
Having said that, I stress that there is no question of secrecy being involved, only timing. What the Committee eventually deliberated in its considered view is clearly recorded, so that there is no question of Select Committees engaging in dreadful secrecy. On the contrary, their intention is to look into matters in depth—not to have decisions released half-baked, but to reach firm conclusions which are then published.
I believe that the argument that the rules are out of date is ill founded. Paradoxically, if we had debated this matter 10 years ago it might well have been felt that the rules were out of date and not relevant. The advent of the departmentally-related Select Committees has given the old rules fresh relevance because they are now doing a job which was not done previously. However, I still profoundly believe that the privilege we are asking for is not unreasonable. It is a privilege which enables us to do our job properly and is therefore something which should be supported on the Floor of the House.
It is argued by the Opposition that the publication of a draft report stimulates debate. The fact is that, taking the case we are considering, the debate was already in full swing. The effect of leaking the draft report was not to stimulate the debate but to inhibit and delay the publication of that report.
That being so, there is another point I should like to make and a question of secrecy is involved. If we do not support the Privileges Committee this evening, we are effectively saying that this is not an important matter and that leaks do not really matter. That is very dangerous. Once that happens those outside the House and in Government will say that if one gives anything to a Select Committee it may leak.
Some Committees, such as Defence, Foreign Affairs and perhaps Trade and Industry, receive information which is commercially sensitive or Government classified which is then sidelined. That enables the members of the Committee to report to the House taking into account information which is not generally available. According to the evidence of the editor of The Times, it is he who will decide, he asserts, whether something should be leaked. I do not think that he will necessarily be a very good judge of that. It is clear that information which is of assistance to Committees has to be leaked only once, or perhaps twice, for the supply of information to the Committee to dry up. Therefore, there is a serious issue which we must consider.
This is a timed debate and I want only to make one other point about penalties. It has been suggested that the penalties which are proposed by the Privileges Committee are severe. It seems to me that they could not be more appropriate. One should say, in parenthesis, that an assumption has been made that the source of the leaks might be a Member of the House, or an official. The way in which The Times has said, "We shall not reveal our sources—it may even be an official," is discreditable. The fact is that it is not absolutely clear that there has been a leak. It may have been procured in some other way—from the United States, as someone suggested.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at our earlier discussions and the evidence, he will see that the Liaison Committee has recognised the importance of the issue. Obviously, members of it will have to make up their own mind individually. There is no question of that. But I believe that it is right that the issue should be debated. It is a matter of great concern to the Select Committees and their Chairmen. That is not seriously in dispute.
We on the Select Committees are trying to do a job. Leaks of Chairmen's draft reports inhibit and damage that work. There is no reason why we should facilitate the work of those who want to leak information. Therefore, there could not be a penalty more appropriate than that which is suggested by the Privileges Committee — that we should not continue to permit those responsible for this damaging exercise to continue to operate in the House in the way that they have done. The penalty is absolutely right. For the reasons that I have mentioned, it is profoundly important that the work of the Committees should not be damaged, as it has been in the case of the Environment Committee. I hope very much that the House will support the recommendations put to it by the Privileges Committee.
The issue for the House is straightforward—do we now wish to reaffirm and uphold the secrecy of Select Committee papers and punish anyone who breaches the rule? We are in one sense fortunate that the Member who did it, if it was a Member, is not known, but it follows from what the Leader of the House and the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) have said, that if we knew who the Member was, we would tonight be suspending a Member of Parliament for six months, thus depriving his or her constituents of the right of representation for that period.
I do not want to give way because I want to put a point that has not been made to the House so far.
The Leader of the House properly presented his report, from which I dissented, with impeccable logic. These are the rules; they have recently been reaffirmed; the leak and the publication were breaches of the rules; therefore we have a duty to identify the culprits, and, where possible, punish them.
You have been generous in selecting four amendments, Mr. Speaker. All agree on the principle of punishment. Amendment (a) says punish the Member of Parliament, but not the journalist. Amendment (g) says reduce the sentence to five days. That would cover the Whitsun recess. Amendment (i) says reduce the sentence to six weeks. That would bring the journalist back at the beginning of August. Amendment (j) says punish the editor, but not the journalist.
I shall vote against all the amendments, and against the report, as I did in Committee, because I do not believe that it is right for Parliament to punish Members of Parliament who publish what they learn by virtue of their election to the House of Commons. I shall not go over my reasons in detail, but I should like to quote from the amendment that I moved in Committee, which only I supported, saying:
There were no grounds on which the Environment Committee could justify its decision to protect the confidentiality of its original draft report.
When I heard the Chairman of the Committee explain that copies had gone to the group of engineers so that they could give advice, my first thought was, if engineers are
allowed to give advice, why cannot the public read the draft report and send in their advice to influence the Committee'? It would be better if Select Committees were to meet and deliberate in public, as the House does. If they wished to go into secret session they would ask the House for permission to do so, just as we have to vote to go into secret session if we wish to do so.
The debate is not about defending parliamentary privilege. Let nobody be under any illusion about that. Parliamentary privilege is an essential privilege to maintain. It is a privilege to liberate Members to speak their minds. Above all, the voters have a right to know what is happening. No hon. Member who has spoken tonight, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot), has ever argued about the right of the people to know what is going on. My right hon. Friend spoke as a former journalist—a man who thinks that to write a diary is obscene. Yet he supports the rights of journalists. The issue is not about journalists or about protecting Members of Parliament; it is about the right of voters to know what is happening.
The issue is not about the freedom of the press. Members of the lobby are the most secretive lot of all. The lobby system is wholly secretive. I do not accept that the proprietor of The Times represents the little man against an oppressive Parliament. Parliament is here to represent the little man against the people such as the proprietor of The Times. Let us not be confused about the issue. It is not about Parliament and the press; it is about the right of the electors in Britain to know what is proposed, what are the arguments, and to bring pressure to bear before a decision is made. That is the only way in which Members of Parliament can be held accountable.
Let us suppose that the Shops Bill had been discussed in secret. Does any hon. Member imagine that the outcome would have been the same? The right of the electors to bring pressure to bear is what democracy is all about. If we meet in a tight little circle and say, "We do not want anyone to know until we have reached our conclusions," we are denying the electors their right. The electors cannot exercise that right if they do not know what happened. I shall deal with the argument about consensus in moment.
What I believe the Committee of Privileges, on which I am proud to serve, has done in making its recommendation is to misuse the idea of parliamentary privilege to suppress knowledge which the voters are entitled to have. That is my argument. Misuse by the lobby of the knowledge that it has to deny the electors their right to know is equally serious. As everyone knows, every morning the lobby goes to No. 10 and is briefed by the Prime Minister's press officer. It never puts in the newspapers, "We were told by Bernard Ingham at noon that the Prime Minister is angry with the Leader of the House." It publishes as if it has some special knowledge such as, "It is understood that in high official circles there is some anxiety about this or that development." The Lobby system leads to a conscious deception of the electors. For the lobby to appear tonight as the advocate of the public interest does not stand examination.
When I heard what the lobby journalists said about the report of the Committee of Privileges, I was reminded of two old dinosaurs locked in combat. The misuse of privileges and the lobby system are both designed to deny the public the information it should have.
Those who have been Members of the House for some time know that the place works by official secrecy being breached, on a daily basis, by unofficial briefings. Everybody knows that 99 per cent. of the leaks from the Cabinet come from the Prime Minister of the day. I once angered Harold Wilson by telling him, when he criticised me, that the difference between a leak and a memoir is a matter of timing. That is absolutely correct. Ministers, officials, press officers, Members of Parliament and lobby journalists like the system. Whether one is the Prime Minister, a Back-Bench Member or an official, it is a form of news management which allows rumour, speculation, malice, information and misinformation to be fed out to the public in the guise of the marvellous lobby system under the marvellous privilege which we preserve. But it is not good for Parliament, the press or the public. If the debate justifies itself—I hope it will by rejecting the report—it may force the Committee of Privileges to do what it should have done and consider rules that people will obey, because they are sensible. I hope that it will bust the lobby system, which is equally pernicious.
I supported the idea of Select Committees because when they were set up I thought that they would use the power of Parliament to prise information from Ministers and officials. When we pass a motion giving a departmental Select Committee the power to summon persons, papers and records, we are giving them a powerful weapon. The right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) says, "If the information comes out, they will not tell us anything." I have never heard a more craven admission of the weakness of the right hon. Gentleman's attitude to Whitehall than the implication that, if the evidence is public, he will not get the information that he wants. I fear — I do not want to give offence — that departmental Select Committees, which were designed to prise out information, have become cosy little clubs with permanent secretaries, Ministers and the lobby knowing all about what is happening. That is the problem.
I must confess that I was much struck by the comments of my old friend, Fred Mulley, when we were discussing leaks in the national executive, which, like Cabinet, spends most of its time discussing leaks. He said, "I have discovered a leak-proof document." We all leaned forward, and he said, "It is my weekend press release." That was typical of Fred Mulley. I do not believe in leaks. I am in favour of publication, especially on matters concerning nuclear waste. Only a week or two ago, we were being told how open we were compared with the Russians. Yet the Chairman of the Select Committee himself delayed publication for three months, because his nose was put out of joint by what appeared in The Times. He could have published that report quickly.
Something else greatly annoys the House of Commons, and I point it out because it is time we learned some elementary truths. The House objects to the manifest truth that the law has been changed historically by people breaking it. On 18 June 1985, I put some questions to the late editor of The Times, Charles Douglas-Home. I said:
I think you accept that privilege, which is the law of Parliament at the moment, prohibits disclosure?
Then, I said:
You conceive it to be your duty to assess whether such prohibition is in the public interest and if you decide to publish that is to say you think it right to break the law you take the
consequences and hope public opinion will support you or that Parliament will not enforce the law. Is that a correct representation of your analysis of the functions you perform?
Hon. Members are annoyed that so many laws have been changed because the old ones have been broken. We would not have the freedom of worship if Catholics and Protestants had not broken the various Acts of uniformity; sheep stealing would still attract capital punishment if juries had not refused to convict; atheists would never have been allowed in the House if Charles Bradlaugh had not refused to take the oath; the suffragettes would never have won votes for women if they had not broken the law. I was on the Select Committee in 1958 when the BBC was not allowed for 14 days to discuss any matter likely to come before the House of Commons. The BBC broke the law, the law was changed and the 14-day rule disappeared.
If the House rejects the report, it will lead to new practices that are enforceable. I greatly fear that, if the House accepts the report; it will bring itself and privilege into disrepute. Privilege is necessary. I have always remembered Duncan Sandys, a Territorial officer and Member of the House who in 1938–39 got information from a fellow Territorial officer about the failure to defend London. His fellow Territorial officer was to be court-martialled. Duncan Sandys came to the House and said, "He told me this so that I could put down a question." The House upheld Duncan Sandys and the court martial against his fellow officer did not occur. That is what privilege is for. If we go ahead and vote to suppress information that should be public, we shall deny what we are here to do.
It should be made public in draft so that other people can contribute. We are here to speak up and the House has no authority whatever to silence an hon. Member or to suppress free publication. Democracy requires free publication and the electors are entitled to it. We deny it at our peril.
As some hon. Members may know, I have or may have an interest to declare. That interest is that my wife is currently a journalist employed by Times Newspapers Ltd., and I have worked for Times Newspapers Ltd., in the past as a libel lawyer, although I have to concede that in that capacity I was somewhat less respected. It may be that it is because of that background that I hold a passionate belief in the right of newspapers to publish the news. I also have a healthy distrust of those who seek to stop that. It is for that reason that I have put down amendment (a) which has one purpose only: to ensure that no penalty is imposed either on the newspaper or on the journalist.
We must be clear what we are doing. We are being asked to impose a substantial penalty upon a man who has committed no offence known to statute or to common law. Moreover, we are being asked to censure actions that he performed in the ordinary course of his duties as a journalist. Worse than that, in the name of parliamentary privilege we are claiming a right to distinguish between news that ought to be published and news that ought not to be published. Whatever we do in this place, whether it be in the Chamber or elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster, is of interest to the public and is therefore news.
Can it really be right for us to try to prevent the publication of material on the grounds that it is not in the public interest to publish what most certainly the public has an interest in knowing? I find that proposition unappealing. It smacks more of the 17th century than of today and is surely not consistent with the concept of an open society in which the actions of the legislature ought to be exposed to constant and public scrutiny. Above all, it is to arrogate to ourselves a right and a privilege which are not accorded to any other political person or institution in Britain. If we are to arrogate to ourselves such a privilege, it must be justified only in terms of the most obvious and urgent public requirement.
Unlike the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I think there is a vital distinction between the role of a Member of Parliament and the function of a journalist. I have served on a Select Committee and I agree that it is important for members of a Select Committee to feel that they can trust their colleagues. It is important that members of a Select Committee can exchange confidences without the fear that those confidences will be disclosed to the press. A Member who breaks that confidence and leaks a document or a draft report is guilty of a profoundly dishonourable act and deserves the condemnation of the House.
But what of the journalist who receives the confidence or is sent the draft report? Why should he be bound by the same obligations by which the Member is bound? Having failed to identify the principal offender, can it be right for us to turn around and kick the cat? A journalist does not owe a special obligation to a Select Committee, and a journalist does not owe a special obligation to any member of that Committee. His duty is different. It is to his editor, his newspaper and perhaps to his readers. I should tell my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General that a journalist's function is to publish the news, not a censored version of the news.
I must tell my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that, for me at least, this is a matter of high importance——
The House is impatient with long speeches, and I am coming to the end. This is a matter of high importance and a principle that we should defend.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey (Sir H. Rossi) that the publication of a draft report may be profoundly inconvenient—
It may even be misleading. It may have all the consequences that are set out on pages 4 and 5 of the report, but none of those reasons is a good reason, or even the start of a good reason, for taking to ourselves the right to distinguish between news that we want to publish and news that others wish to have published. If mine is the right approach — I believe profoundly that it is — we should reject the recommendation of the Privileges Committee. I ask the House to support the amendment that I tabled, which is the only one that would ensure that no penalty was imposed on either the journalist or the newspaper.
I cannot recall any matter of importance coming before the House on which there has been so much ill-informed and misleading comment in the press and from others inside and outside the House as there has been on this occasion. One would think from some of the things that have been said and written that the Committee of Privileges said, "Whoopee, we have caught someone. Let us do something about it." It is as though we decided that we would examine the matter. We did not decide that. We had no option. The decision taken by the House only a few months ago required us to do this. If the House does not want this sort of thing to happen, it must go back on the decision that it made three or four months ago.
There is a logical case for watering down or even getting rid of privilege. I agree to a large extent with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who believes that the privilege that matters most is not our privilege, but the privilege of our constituents, to whom we are accountable. If the House turned its mind to consideration of that proposition and to altering our arrangements to fit in with that proposition, I would take an active part in that discussion. But the House has not done that. The House has laid down rules, and until it changes the rules we are all under an obligation to conform with them. They were confirmed only a short time ago by a substantial majority of the House.
The House should know exactly what the House passed. It is found in paragraph 14 of the second report of the Committee of Privileges in 1984–85, which states:
If the Committee of Privileges found that a serious breach of privilege or a contempt had been committed … the Committee might recommend that appropriate penalties be imposed.
It says no more than that. That is why so many of us took a fairly relaxed view of it.
My right hon. Friend cannot have it both ways. The House should not lay down a regimen and then, when it is deliberately breached, ignore or condone the breach. Some hon. Members have said that we are in danger of makeing asses of ourselves. We shall do that if we decide the law and then say that if it is broken, we shall ignore or condone it. That will only encourage further breaches of the law. We must decide the position one way or the other. Either we get rid of privilege or retain it, and if we do the latter we must make sure that it is not breached.
It might be thought from some of what has been written and some of what has been said tonight—indeed, from what Mr. Evans and his editor said in their evidence to the Select Committee—that if the document had not been leaked, the report of the Committee would never have been published. It might be thought that only the leak enabled publication to take place.
I have served on three Select Committees and been Chairman of one, and I assure the House that the members of those Committees were anxious to get the widest publication of their fundings. I do not spend, as I do now, 10 to 12 hours a week attending meetings and annotating the papers of the Foreign Affairs Committee simply to finish up with a document that is not published.
The report of the Select Committee with which we are concerned tonight would have been published in any event. The damage that occurred was the result of misinformation. A great deal of the discussion that took place after the leak was about the Chairman's dray report rather than the report of the Select Committee.
Journalists feed on one another. Many of them write about Select Committee reports without havine, read those reports. They read what other journalists write about them, so much of the discussion in the newspapers occurs as the result of leaks.
Even after the publication of the Select Committee report, there were articles in newspapers about what were called the contents of the report but which included items that had been in the Chairman's draft that was leaked, but which were not concluded in the final report.
The leak did not increase public interest in the matter. As we know, if one newspaper gets a scoop the others will not touch the story with a barge pole. There is publicity in only one newspaper, whereas if the matter is dealt with properly, with a press conference when the report is pubished, there is publicity in all the newspapers. Such publicity as we got was on the basis of misinformation, with the suggestion that the report contained matters that were not, in fact, in it.
I join those who attach great importance to the work of Select Committees. The right hon. Member for C'hesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) is strongly in favour of them—so long as somebody else does the work, and he is not alone in that sentiment.
Reference has been made to the letter sent to hon. Members by Lobby journalists. They are opposed to the report. They would be. They are interested parties. They are fat turkeys voting for the abolition of Christmas. They are motorists who park inconsiderately voting for the abolition of traffic wardens. They scarcely exercise disinterested judgment. I have already commented on the suggestion that the early publication of the leak was of value in discussing the report. It was not. It diluted the discussion of the report.
Then the journalists go on to make the point that has been made by right hon. and hon. Members — that, because we do not know who the major culprit is and therefore cannot punish him, we should let the other culprit go free. I wonder what the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) would think if it were suggested in a court that there were two blokes who had committed a burglary but the police had copped only one of them and therefore no charge should be entered against the other. That is a strange bit of legal philosophy.
The next thing that our lobby journalists tell us is that the leak did not damage the work of the Committee. I wonder how they know that. They did not take part in the meetings of the Committee, did they? How do they know, without taking part in the Committee, what effect the leak had on its members? I tell you who does know: the Chairman of the Committee came and told the Committee of Privileges that the work of the Committee had Seen damaged.
The hon. Gentleman was pressed very hard on the matter, and he will recall that nobody pressed him harder than I did. I said to him, "Look, I do not care whether you are irritated or annoyed, or your members are. What I really want to know is, did it do damage?" He was absolutely clear and specific that it did. He not only quoted that as his own view, but he also quoted to the Committee of Privileges the view of another member of his Committee, who spoke in very strong terms in the way in which the work of the committee had been damaged.
The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) is a long-standing Member of the House, and a former Minister. He is not at all an irresponsible chap. I am prepared to take his word for what happened in the Committee rather than the word of a bunch of journalists, none of whom sat in at meetings of the Committee.
I select one other point from this letter from the lobby correspondents. They say that it was the unanimous view of the lobby, et cetera. I have had a letter from a member of the lobby, the correspondent of one of the Sunday newspapers. I will not mention his name.
I do not know how my hon. Friend reckons to know that. I will lay a shade of odds that he gets it wrong.
I have had the letter for only a short time. In that time I have not had time to ask the writer of it for his permission to give his name, and for that reason I will not give it, although I can say that he is the lobby correspondent for one of our Sunday newspapers. He says:
I understand that all Members of Parliament have been sent a letter from the Parliamentary lobby journalists stating that it is the unanimous view of the lobby that it is absurd to employ punishment of the nature recommended by the Privileges Committee in the case of The Times. For what it is worth, I have never expressed a view on the matter, so it can hardly be unanimous. Nor have I ever been present at a meeting when a view was sought. Further, my personal view for what it is worth is that the law is the law is the law and that even bad laws are not changed best by breaking them.
Bad laws can be changed, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said and have been changed, by breaking them; but that is a method of last resort, and we ought not to condone as standard practice things that should be methods of last resort. I support the view of the Committee.
I am particularly happy to follow the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) because I agree with much of what he said. As perhaps the only former chairman of the lobby ever to become a Member of the House, which some might think a dubious distinction, I am tempted to follow the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) into various culs-de-sac, particularly on the standing, etiquette and practice of the lobby. However, I shall resist that.
The House is not debating, as I understand it, whether we should change the rules of privilege. If we pass the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), I suspect that that is exactly what we shall do because, as had already been said, if we impose no penalty, it will be open house and we can forget the rules of privilege. That might be a good thing. I am not entirely convinced by some of the arguments used by my right hon. and hon. Friends in defence of the rules of privilege on the relationships of Select Committees with the press. I speak not only as a journalist but as a member of a Select Committee. I think that too much has been made of the need for privilege to safeguard the good workings of Select Committees.
However, that is not the real issue before us. As the hon. Member for Bow and Poplar rightly said, we have the rule of privilege. The question is whether we should now uphold it.
Therefore, I turn my attention to some of the views of The Times and the justification advanced by the editor of The Times and of one of his political correspondents in challenging the rule of privilege of the House. I was not impressed by their evidence. I do not regard this as a great battle for press freedom; I do not see it like that. As has been said by many people, the truth was that The Times saw a good story and wanted to publish it before anybody else had it. That sums it up. There might be nothing wrong with that so long as The Times was prepared to face up to the consequences of breaking the rules of this place at the same time as it wanted its privileges.
A newspaper cannot have it both ways. In my former life as a lobby correspondent for a national newspaper I was frequently telephoned by the night news desk saying that another newspaper had broken the rules. I always refused to break the rules myself. I said to my newspaper, "If you want to do it, do it, but withdraw me from the lobby because it is dishonest to try to have it both ways."
We come to the question of penalties. For the reasons which I have given, I believe that a penalty should be imposed. However, the penalty of six months' suspension is too severe. Is it too late for the hon. Member who leaked the report—because I think it was an hon. Member—to stand up and admit it? If the culprit had been identified, would the House have suspended him or her for six months? I doubt it, for the reasons given by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. I think that the House would have taken the view that that would be too long to deprive that Member's constituents of his services, unless the Member chose to resign, which might be the honourable thing to do. I do not know; I pass no judgment.
I think that a suspension of six months would have been considered too great a penalty to impose on the prime culprit. Therefore, it is wrong to impose such a penalty on the other person who is just as guilty in many ways but who is not the prime culprit. I tabled amendment (i) because I thought that a suspension of six weeks was probably the right length of time. I do not claim any special merit for six weeks, but it would show that, so long as we have the rule of privilege, the House treats it seriously and that we are not prepared to let the people run amok and cock a snook at the House. That was what The Times set out to do. I believe that the penalty of six weeks is about right, and I commend my amendment to the House.
I sense that hon. Members would like to reach a conclusion on this matter, so I will be brief. It is most agreeable to be able to share the reservations of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) about the Committee's report, although unusually I would not walk hand in hand with him all the way on the matter.
I find it objectionable that we are tonight intending to punish a journalist and a newspaper for a breach of trust by an hon. Member. Until recently I had the honour and the privilege to serve my party in the House in what are known as the usual channels for a long time and I know that the whole process depends on trust. I believe that the present position is very regrettable. The penalties that have been proposed do not meet the case because they are far too heavy. However, I think that there must be penalties. They are necessary to protect the privileges of the House which have been built up so elaborately. It is very easy to destroy traditions and values, but it is extremely hard to establish them.
I am unhappy with the behaviour of the staff of The Times involved in this matter, as they have refused to exonerate the staff of the House from any complicity in the leak. The Times staff are in a favoured position in this place and the staff of the House have a great responsibility and a unique role to play. Unlike hon. Members, they cannot defend or look after themselves in the cut and thrust of debate. The staff of The Times have been irresponsible and their behaviour is regrettable.
We should think very seriously about the penalties. We are dealing with a system of Select Committees that has been set up only very recently. Some people had misgivings about their structure and, although great tributes have been paid to them, there are still some deficiencies. Some Committees work better than others. It is a new system and the problem we are discussing now will crop up again and the House should reflect on how best to deal with it.
The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend—and I say that in a personal capacity — the Member for Monmouth (Sir J. Stradling Thomas) and myself would reduce the loss of privileges to five days. That seems to strike a balance between the needs of the House to do something and to avoid a disproportionate penalty which would not serve the interests of the House, the press or the people. We have not so far in the debate referred to the nature of the issue involved with the leak, which was the disposal of radioactive waste. In the light of what has happened since the leak occurred, the Chernobyl disaster, the public would misunderstand if we were to impose swingeing penalties tonight. I would commend my amendment to the House as a compromise between inertia and showing the House's displeasure but not in such a way as to be punitive.
It is always a pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Bristol, South (Mr. Cocks) and I hope that he will not take it amiss if I say that this has, in some ways, been an unsatisfactory debate. I say that not because I found his speech unsatisfactory, but I believe that this debate is rather like Hamlet without the prince. The debate has been difficult to focus because of the absence of the really guilty party.
Whether here he is absent or silent, the debate has been difficult because of our inability to turn our attention on the hon. Member or other person who is responsible in the first place for the leak and the breach of privilege that flows from that.
I cannot go along the lines advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) that we should not punish a journalist merely for doing his job simply because the real guilty party cannot be identified. I do not know how my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham defines a journalist's job. Although there is nothing heroic about that job, and although it is undesirable that we should make martyrs of them, we should not necessarily take them on their own estimation.
In this case, there seem to be factors which journalists who have given evidence to the Select Committee on Privileges do not see in the same light as the House and others outside. The question that has been begged throughout is what is meant by the words, "public interest"? In answer to question 12, Mr. Wilson said:
My main reason for publishing it was its public interest. I felt that public interest in this subject was paramount".
In other words, he felt that his readers wanted to know. He did not think in terms which most of us think in when we use the words, "the public interest", meaning that there is a broad national matter of policy which has to be addressed. The editor of The Times thought in terms of his paper, his proprietor, perhaps, and his readers. That is confirmed by his answer to question 18. When the second special report of the Select Committee came into his hands through another leak, the story was written by Mr. Evans who said:
the decision was taken not to use it, probably quite rightly, because that was not in the public interest.
When the editor answered the same question, he explained himself in these terms:
I read the story and said, 'I see no public interest in this.' I felt there was no point in flouting or waving a red flag at an albeit dormant bull for an item that was not of sufficient public interest or for which there was no other reason for publication.
Mr. Wilson is quite clearly using the words, "public interest" in terms of what people want to see in The Times. I do not take the view that that is the only, the right or the broad definition of the phrase, "the public interest".
There has been some misunderstanding and ambivalence which I find most unfortunate and which seems to shed some light on the standards of the editor and one lobby journalist of The Times. They define everything in terms of whether it is in the interests of The Times. That being so, we must take some action, but what action is appropriate depends on the gravity of the offence and its effects. The leak did not damage the taking of evidence by the Select Committee, as that had been done. If the leak had had some effect which prevented the Committee from making a proper and thorough inquiry which Parliament had charged it with, that would have been a most serious matter. If the leak had brought into the public domain evidence which had been given in confidence in private, that would have been a serious matter.
The leak has had some effect, which we cannot quantify, on the report. The Select Committee would have produced it anyway, but in a form which, according to its Chairman—we have to accept his word for this—would probably have been different. It is impossible to say what differences there would have been, but there was an interference of some kind. The Times was evidently reckless of the possibility that the leak would cause such an interference. That cannot go wholly without remark. There must be a penalty. We must ask whether the recommendation of the Privileges Select Committee is appropriate or whether something lesser would more nearly meet the case.
Without being disrespectful to the members of the Privileges Select Committee, I think that something lesser would meet the case, although I would not go quite as far as the right hon. Member for Bristol, South. I side with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris).
There is here something of which the House must take notice. The evidence that Select Committee reports are prone to leak is now overwhelming. This sort of occurrence is likely to happen again, and the evidence to that effect is overwhelming, so we had better do something about it. The Select Committee on Procedure had better look at the matter, and decide what changes need to be made in the format of the preparatory work on the Chairman's report, whether in all cases it should be kept so secret as it has been in the past, whether the Committee should be allowed some discretion in the matter or whatever is appropriate. I do not believe that we can in all conscience continue as we are, knowing that leaks are likely to happen, and how much damage they can do if they recur.
The House finds itself obliged tonight to come to a decision which will be momentous in the future for the effectiveness of its proceedings, for it relies and always has relied to a considerable extent on the information and advice which is tendered to it as a result of the work of the Select Committees which it establishes. In turn, that work is essentially dependent on the confidentiality of deliberation which those Committees enjoy.
The right hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Sir I. Gilmour) said, in one sense correctly, that hon. Members are the same people when they sit in this House and when they serve on a Select Committee, but in another and important sense they are different people on a Select Committee. They gain a certain personality and perform a function which cannot be performed in the open House. A Select Committee by its very behaviour provides for the House the composite result of the candid deliberation of hon. Members of different experience and points of view who have listened to the evidence and have, so to speak, lived together, studying the evidence and comparing their respective opinions on it. It is that with which Select Committees serve the House. They cannot do so if members of those Committees are, in effect, in public offering their advice to colleagues, particularly if the basic material of their work, which is and is bound to be the draft report of the Chairman, has become a public document.
It simply is not fair or reasonable to expect hon. Members to pool their opinions and to risk the expression of candid views, as they need to do in a Select Committee, if they cannot be sure that their confidentiality is protected. For that reason it has been the rule of the House that, whatever may be the case with the evidence taken, Select Committees have a right to confidentiality and privacy of debate and deliberation among themselves. I was greatly reinforced in that opinion by the view to that effect expressed firmly tonight by the right hon. Member for Blaenau, Gwent (Mr. Foot). Our only difference is that he believes that confidentiality can exist without protection and I believe that it is a fiction, unless the House defends confidentiality, which its Select Committees need to possess. It cannot defend that confidentiality unless a breach of it is published, and unless it is known that it will be punished.
There are several forms of breach of that confidentiality. There is the breach that can be committed by an hon. Member who sits on a Select Committee, but there is the more essential breach which is committed by the publication of what has passed or been placed before a Select Committee. Therefore, despite the fact that we are not aware whether or by whom on the Committee the information was disclosed, we are not entitled to address our attention to the publication of the information put before the Select Committee. Unless the House proceeds to protect confidentiality by punishing publication, in effect we are deciding tonight that we shall deprive our Select Committees of the opportunity of confidential debate and consultation.
It would be better—this was usefully brought out by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)—and fairer for all concerned to say that, in future, all proceedings of all Select Committees are to be public. The public and the press can come in and hear what every member of the Committee says. That will be the effect, only arrived at by an unfair and fortuitous process, if tonight we do not accept the recommendation of the Select Committee on Privileges.
We need what our Select Committees can give us by using the confidentiality and the privacy of consultation and discussion. The House can have the benefit of that service, on which it has so long depended, only if we defend that confidentiality. We can only do that by punishing, and by being seen to be ready severely to punish, breach of confidentiality in the form of publications.
I do not always agree with every word that the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) says. but on this occasion I do.
There can be no doubt that Richard Evans is a first-class reporter, and there can also be no doubt that his expertise in getting leaks from Select Committees led directly to the prolonged study of the issue by the Select Committee on Privileges. The Committee, after hearing evidence from editors and lobby correspondants and from Chairmen of Select Committees, decided by 12 votes to one—the majority included the Leader of the Liberal party—that the rules of privilege should be maintained, and that the procedures should be strengthened in certain cases.
Without any doubt, this decision by the Committee, which was then endorsed by the House, put The Times in a difficult position. It could give up the task of trying to extract information from the Select Committees. I do not think that it would be reasonable to expect that The Times should behave in such a manner. The Times also had the option of presenting the information that it had obtained in a more circumspect manner than hitherto.
The story that has caused all this trouble was published on Monday 16 December, with the single most important item being the suggestion that the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield was defective, and would be scrapped unless the financial and employment consequences were too enormous. It is arguable that this was information that should rapidly be put in the public domain, and it could be done without compromising the Select Committee on the Environment.
The third option that was available to The Times was to take the recommendations of the Select Committee head on and try to smash them. To my mind, there is no doubt that this is what The Times tried to do. On 16 March, Mr. Richard Evans said that a copy of the confidential report had been obtained by The Times. Nothing could be more flagrant or more open than that. He is putting on a banner the fact that he has chosen effectively to breach the rules of privilege. Therefore, the question is whether or not the House of Commons should respond and what should be done about Mr. Richard Evans. Should action be taken against this individual?
I note that, among Mr. Evans' many talents, he is a first-class golfer. On occasion he has turned out for the Lords and Commons golf side. I hope that in the months to come he will do so again. I do not understand all the rules of golf, but I know that one of the rules is that one is allowed to have only 14 clubs in one's bag. If Mr. Evans went along to one of the parliamentary matches and said, "Look, I have 17 clubs in my bag", he would expect to incur some penalty. That is what he has done to the House.
Whether or not we should stick to the six months' suspension is doubtful. Personally, as an old Telegraph man, I am inclined to side with the amendment of another old Telegraph man, my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), and would suggest that six weeks is long enough. However, I have absolutely no doubt that, if we take no action at all, we shall be treated with contempt and that we shall deserve to be treated with contempt.
One of the interesting aspects of the speeches of the hon. Members for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi) and for Woolwich (Mr. Cartwright) is that they have highlighted the fact that there are leaks all over the place. This is the House of Commons that we know. We have to learn to deal with it as we know it rather than try to pretend that it is something different.
I have been a member of three Select Committees, the Chairman of a couple of Sub-Committees and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. My experience is quite different from that of the right hon. Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) and of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. The difficulty is to establish the identity of the person who leaks. That is the most important question.
Again and again I have witnessed the ritual condemnation by the Chairman of a leaker. Everybody is hushed when they listen to it and everybody condemns it; and the second person to condemn it is usually the person who made the leak. We live side by side with each other in a Select Committee and usually we have a pretty good idea of who the leaker is. I should be surprised if that did not apply to the Select Committee on the Environment.
The question is why information is divulged. It is not because of a bribe, which used to be the problem in the 1940s. The political career of the person concerned may be improved by having friendly relations with certain lobby journalists. Some members of a Select Committee may be anxious to brush aside secrecy and to have a more open debate, a matter to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) referred. Certain members of Select Committees may also hope to achieve certain political aims.
One of the problems is that, although the fingerprints of the leaker are well known, what does one do when he does not own up? Because a person has to have his or her name attached to a story in the press, that makes it easy for the leaker; and as we have a House of Commons of right hon. and hon. Members, we assume that they are still honourable even when they do not divulge the matters that they have leaked.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that if in this case an hon. Member has leaked he will not own up, because he has aggravated the offence by saying to the Select Committee on the Environment that he did not leak? Every member of that Committee, as I understand it, has written to the Chairman to say that he did not leak, so there is no possibility in this case of the person concerned owning up.
No, of course there is not. That is the world in which we have to live. To put the journalist in a special category because his name has to go on the article that he writes when the major culprit goes unpunished make us look extremely hypocritical. That worries me more than anything.
It is not as if we are looking at really secret matters. In my experience, the really secret matters are not leaked. In my Committee we deal with confidential and secret matters and I have known that in a number of other Committees, but those documents are not leaked. It is always those which have no secret connotations, no commercial confidentialities or anything of that kind.
Therefore, we need to look at this matter with a little more restraint. Members used to cultivate the press and, of course, the press cultivates Members. That will continue whatever we say or do here. As long as we can say, as we are able to say, that the Committees operate in an atmosphere where there is no leakage of really important matters concerning our country and industry, perhaps we should calm down and take things a little more easily.
How does the Committee prepare its report? If it is really impeded, this would be serious. My experience is that there is always a great deal of give and take. Everyone realises the advantages of unanimity on a report because if it is unanimous it is more likely to be heeded—not very much more likely but a little. Therefore, Members do not expect too much from their report but think cf it as a service to the House. As a result, they act together and decide what they can agree.
I would have been astonished if I was Chairman of a Committee and felt myself seriously inconvenienced. Of course, I respect the views of the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, but I must give my experience. I would have been able to ride it out without feeling that my report would be gravely damaged.
How will we get hold of the person who leaked the report — bring in the special branch or use spurious devices? All of these matters are an inconvenience. We rely a great deal on trust. However, we know full well that for one reason or another we cannot always claim that trust and confidence. I believe that it is sensible that we should calm down. The work of the Select Committees will continue and it will be to our advantage. Let us leave it at that.
During the debate a number of right hon. and hon. Members have, by inference, represented the Privileges Committee as some kind of pompous hanging and flogging body which is paranoid about secrecy. At this stage in the debate we should ask ourselves whether there is a certain amount of pompousity in an editor of a newspaper who decides that it is in the "public interest" or, as the journalist and editor in this case said, in the interest of obtaining changes and influencing the industry, to publish leaked material on the basis of a draft document when they have not heard any of the evidence or attended any of the meetings.
Are there not double standards about the person who maintains that he or she can purvey the leak but must be provided with absolute secrecy by the journalist because suddenly confidentiality and secrecy become very important?
The hon. Member for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) provided a tour de force in the debate. However, I have one little dispute with his analogy of two burglars being caught. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) that a more correct analogy would be the difference between the punishment of the receiver of stolen goods and the burglar. I believe that the receiver of stolen goods is punished to a greater extent than the burglar if he is caught and brought before the courts.
Is there not a strange paradox, in that there is a third burglar, in a sense—Large and Associates, which received the draft and used it to promote amendments to the Committee? As I understand it, the Chairman of the Select Committee argues that one of the key reasons why he wanted the matter to be dealt with was that it affected the deliberations of the Select Committee. Surely those amendments did so. We know that culprit. Why is that culprit not before the Privileges Committee as well?
The Privileges Committee has considered every aspect, including that point. It has been said several times by right hon. and hon. Members that it is the confidentiality of evidence given that is of importance to the Select Committees, and that there will be a lack of confidence among those providing evidence to the Select Committees. In fact, that lack of confidence already exists and is already damaging the Select Committee system.
I have never been an aficionado of the Select Committee system, but we have it, and, if we have it, we should protect it. If the House votes tonight to take away the little protection that our Select Committees have, it will be voting to open the doors as wide as possible. It will be inviting people to leak; it will be inviting journalists to receive those stolen goods; and it will be a bad day for the House of Commons and the country.
I speak as a member of a Select Committee which has been known for its leaks in the past, but it is also a Select Committee that I do not think will wither and die simply because people are not banned from the House of Commons because of what they have done in the course of their employment.
That Select Committee is not always unanimous. We tend to argue among ourselves. I believe that if Select Committees develop and grow to fruition in the years ahead, it will be simply because they argue among themselves and produce one, two or three reports at the end of the day.
Let us be realistic about what we are talking about. For example, when Tisdall or Ponting leaked documents, it was not the newspaper that was prosecuted, but them. In the Select Committee, apparently we have two leakers. One was honourable and said to the Chairman. "I wrote off for advice." The other was dishonourable and hid wherever he or she—perhaps it is not a member of the Committee—wished to hide. Yet we seek to ban the journalist. It is not the knife that we should prosecute, but the hand that held it.
I respect the journalist, and make no bones about it. I have known Richard Evans since I first came here. and like him very much. I respect him for not disclosing his source. Time and again, journalists have risked going to prison for not disclosing their source. That is a matter of honour. It is a tragedy that whoever told Richard Evans does not have the same honour.
I have great respect for my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore), as I have great respect for the Leader of the House, but the analogy of this whole business to a jury trial makes a farce of the issue. If this is a jury trial of one Richard Evans, two things are absent. One is the words of Richard Evans. Do we condemn, do we cast a man out of his job, without giving him a right to reply here? The other point is that it is the first time in history that the prosecution and its witnesses have formed part of the jury.
So let us put the matter aside. Perhaps hon. Members will learn one lesson from tonight, that if one wants to make a point, if one wants to give a document, at least one should have the courage to put one's mame to it. It gives some respectability to what one does. The House must accept that, no matter what happens tonight, the Select Committee system will continue. It will grow, if hon. Members want it to do so. I commend amendment (a) to the House. I hope that the House will support it.
I agree with the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) that this is a momentous debate and that it will probably have a profound effect on the future and efficacy of Select Committees. The report which the House has been asked to approve tonight deals with two closely related but very different aspects of parliamentary privilege. One aspect is that of parliamentary privilege itself. There has been no dispute or debate tonight that what has been done by The Times was a breach of parliamentary privilege.
It is the second aspect that gives one cause for disquiet—namely, what penalty is regarded by the House as the proper one to be imposed? It would be easy to be dogmatic and to accept what the Committee of Privileges has recommended. There is no disrespect to any party in questioning the propriety and the justice of the penalty, any more than it is disrespectful and improper to question, after a conviction has been found in a court, what the penalty should be.
The most disquieting aspect of the debate is the absence of any readiness by the member of the Committee—if it was a member of the Committee—to own up to what occurred. That is particularly offensive, when one bears in mind the fact that the Chairman of the Select Committee on the Environment took the trouble, as he was required to do by the new rules, to insist on a formal written assurance by the Member that he was not responsible for any leak. One must bear in mind that that was the person who handed to the journalist the document which was ultimately published.
We are entitled to ask: who is to blame—the tempter or the tempted? I think that both are to blame. If we had the information, which we do not have, about who leaked the report, we might take a different view about the punishment that should be apportioned between the journalist and the original leaker.
My anxiety about the severity of the punishment is shared by many right hon. and hon. Members. It was certainly shared by the Chairman of the Environment Committee because he, with others put down an amendment which would allow us to select a less severe punishment. I do not suggest that that could be done. However, I say in all earnestness that we must beware that we do not remove the protection that Select Committees must have if they are to carry out their duties.
I did not like—and I do not think the House would have liked — the evidence that was given by the journalist and the editor of The Times to the Committee of Privileges, because it seemed to me—I do not think that I am misreading it—that there was an implicit threat to do again what has been done in the past. It is right that the House should take all the steps available to it to prevent that.
I have two minutes in which to speak. I believe that the House will commit a grave error of judgment if it takes any action against Mr. Richard Evans. I have been present in the Chamber during the two previous debates on this matter in the past two months. They were poorly attended. They dealt with the report of the Select Committee of Privileges which was published in July last year. It made two recommendations — first, that a Liaison Committee should be set up between the complaining Select Committee and the Privileges Committee to filter references about Members' actions and, secondly, that action should be taken against journalists.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and I divided the House. On the first occasion, we failed, as did the Government. Few Members were in the House that night. On the second occasion, the Government won, but only because Government Members were whipped. The effect was to introduce into our rules a recommendation which we knew in advance would end up in this debate. We make a mockery of Parliament.
I voted against the motion because of my long-standing interest in the confidentiality of Select Committees. I have spent the past 15 months in the Public Accounts Committee behind closed doors, arguing about these matters in the belief that it is wrong for Select Committees, particularly the Public Accounts Committee, to retain documents which are not reported to the House and not allow members of the public and the press access to them. We intend to press on with the campaign. I believe that journalists have a right of access. But it only goes so far. Too much paper work is held in select Committees as unreported evidence and it should be made available. But it is wrong that a draft report should be leaked. The document has no status and Members have not had time to amend it formally. If a Member in his or her stupidity decides to leak that document, the journalist who receives it is free to do what he wishes with it and his editor is free to publish. The sin is the sin of the Member. It is not the sin of the journalist.
I have not trespassed on the time of the House, but it may be appropriate if I use the closing few minutes to bring our proceedings to a relatively orderly close.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) believed that the character of the debate was such that individual contributions could affect its outcome. Undoubtedly, that is true. It has been in every sense a House of Commons evening. The right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell) believed that we were on the threshold of a momentous decision. I do not know whether I would elevate the occasion to quite that extent, but there is no doubt that this matter concerns the future working of the House and of its Select Committees.
I should like to make four brief points. First, as the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has reminded us, we have only recently set down the ground rules of privilege affecting Select Committees. We are not., therefore, dealing with some encrusted inheritance from the last century. It is a matter of the Privileges Committee operating within the requirements of the House of the most recent vintage.
Secondly, the House must address itself to the fundamental problem of whether or not conventions should exist which would encourage a consensual approach to the work of Select Committees. Thirdly, there could be no more dramatic and opposite views than those expressed by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Sir H. Rossi). Fourthly, if we believe that penalties are appropriate I hope that we will not take refuge in believing that token penalties will have an influence upon the subsequent course of events. Either the decision is worth taking or else it is worth ignoring.
In all parts of the House there is a great desire that we should have had the occasion to identify the person responsible for this leak. To that end we have not been aided by the refusal of The Times newspaper. That is in contrast to what happened with The Economist where it was made quite clear that the leak came from a member of the Committee. The debate has illumined the nature of our choice. Let the House now decide.
Amendment (a) proposed, to leave out from 'House' to end and add
'takes note of the First Report of the Committee of Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 376); believes that it would be proper to punish an honourable Member who disclosed the draft report of a Select Committee before it had been reported to the House: but considers that it would be wrong to punish a journalist merely for doing his job.'.—[Mr. Douglas Hogg.]
|Division No. 190]||[1 am|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Vall'y)|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Batiste, Spencer|
|Ancram, Michael||Beaumont-Dark, Anthony|
|Arnold, Tom||Beckett, Mrs Margaret|
|Ashdown, Paddy||Beith, A. J.|
|Bennett, A. (Dent'n & Red'sh)||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Lester, Jim|
|Blair, Anthony||Lilley, Peter|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Loyden, Edward|
|Bottomley, Peter||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Boyes, Roland||MacGregor, Rt Hon John|
|Brinton, Tim||McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||MacKay, John (Argyll & Bute)|
|Brown, Gordon (D'f'mline E)||Maclean, David John|
|Brown, M. (Brigg & Cl'thpes)||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Brown, N. (N'c'tle-u-Tyne E)||McNamara, Kevin|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||McWilliam, John|
|Bruce, Malcolm||Madden, Max|
|Bruinvels, Peter||Malone, Gerald|
|Burt, Alistair||Marek, Dr John|
|Caborn, Richard||Marshall, Michael (Arundel)|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Mather, Carol|
|Cartwright, John||Maude, Hon Francis|
|Cash, William||Maxton, John|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Meacher, Michael|
|Clarke, Rt Hon K. (Rushcliffe)||Mellor, David|
|Cook, Robin F. (Livingston)||Merchant, Piers|
|Crouch, David||Miller, Hal (B'grove)|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Mitchell, David (Hants NW)|
|Cunningham, Dr John||Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham, H'ge Hl)||Moynihan, Hon C.|
|Dewar, Donald||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||O'Neill, Martin|
|Dobson, Frank||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Douglas, Dick||Parry, Robert|
|Dubs, Alfred||Patten, Christopher (Bath)|
|Durant, Tony||Patten, J. (Oxf W & Abgdn)|
|Eggar, Tim||Raffan, Keith|
|Evans, John (St. Helens N)||Raison, Rt Hon Timothy|
|Fallon, Michael||Raynsford, Nick|
|Fatchett, Derek||Ridley, Rt Hon Nicholas|
|Favell, Anthony||Robertson, George|
|Fisher, Mark||Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)|
|Fletcher, Alexander||Rooker, J. W.|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)|
|Forth, Eric||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Foulkes, George||Silkin, Rt Hon J.|
|Fraser, Peter (Angus East)||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)|
|Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Spencer, Derek|
|Garel-Jones, Tristan||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Stern, Michael|
|Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Glyn, Dr Alan||Stewart, Rt Hon D. (W Isles)|
|Gorst, John||Strang, Gavin|
|Gow, Ian||Straw, Jack|
|Greenway, Harry||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Grist, Ian||Terlezki, Stefan|
|Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)||Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.|
|Hampson, Dr Keith||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Hancock, Michael||Thompson, Donald (Calder V)|
|Hanley, Jeremy||Thompson, J. (Wansbeck)|
|Harvey, Robert||Tracey, Richard|
|Hattersley, Rt Hon Roy||Trippier, David|
|Hayes, J.||Trotter, Neville|
|Haynes, Frank||van Straubenzee, Sir W.|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)||Wainwright, R.|
|Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Hordern, Sir Peter||Waller, Gary|
|Howard, Michael||Wareing, Robert|
|Howarth, Alan (Stratf'd-on-A)||Warren, Kenneth|
|Howells, Geraint||Wheeler, John|
|Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Hunt, David (Wirral W)||Wilson, Gordon|
|Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd)||Winnick, David|
|Johnston, Sir Russell||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith||Yeo, Tim|
|Knox, David||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Latham, Michael||Mr. Gerald Bermingham and Mr. George Gardiner.|
|Alexander, Richard||Knowles, Michael|
|Alton, David||Lewis, Terence (Worsley)|
|Ashby, David||Lightbown, David|
|Atkins, Rt Hon Sir H,||Lloyd, Ian (Havant)|
|Atkins, Robert (South Ribble)||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Lord, Michael|
|Baldry, Tony||McCurley, Mrs Anna|
|Bell, Stuart||McGuire, Michael|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor|
|Benyon, William||McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)|
|Best, Keith||Martin, Michael|
|Biffen, Rt Hon John||Mates, Michael|
|Body, Sir Richard||Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin|
|Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)||Meadowcroft, Michael|
|Browne, John||Michie, William|
|Bryan, Sir Paul||Mikardo, Ian|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Miscampbell, Norman|
|Callaghan, Rt Hon J.||Monro, Sir Hector|
|Callaghan, Jim (Heyw'd & M)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Nellist, David|
|Chapman, Sydney||Neubert, Michael|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Norris, Steven|
|Clarke, Thomas||Onslow, Cranley|
|Clay, Robert||Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S.|
|Clegg, Sir Walter||Page, Sir John (Harrow W)|
|Clelland, David Gordon||Page, Richard (Herts SW)|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Patchett, Terry|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (Bristol S)||Penhaligon, David|
|Conlan, Bernard||Percival, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Cope, John||Pike, Peter|
|Corbett, Robin||Pollock, Alexander|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Portillo, Michael|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Powell, Rt Hon J. E.|
|Dover, Den||Rees, Rt Hon M. (Leeds S)|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Sir Edward||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Eadie, Alex||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Eastham, Ken||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Emery, Sir Peter||Sainsbury, Hon Timothy|
|Eyre, Sir Reginald||Sedgemore, Brian|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Sheldon, Rt Hon R.|
|Faulds, Andrew||Shields, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|Foster, Derek||Silvester, Fred|
|Gardner, Sir Edward (Fylde)||Sims, Roger|
|Godman, Dr Norman||Speed, Keith|
|Goodhart, Sir Philip||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Ground, Patrick||Stott, Roger|
|Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Harris, David||Taylor, Rt Hon John David|
|Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael||Taylor, John (Solihull)|
|Heddle, John||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Hind, Kenneth||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N)||Wallace, James|
|Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Jackson, Robert||Watts, John|
|Johnson Smith, Sir Geoffrey||Wells, Bowen (Hertford)|
|Jones, Robert (Herts W)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Williams, Rt Hon A.|
|Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Woodall, Alec|
|Kershaw, Sir Anthony||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Mr. Ivan Lawrence and Mr. Nigel Spearing.|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)|
That this House takes note of the First Report of the Committee of Privileges (House of Commons Paper No. 376); believes that it would be proper to punish an honourable Member who disclosed the draft report of a Select Committee before it had been reported to the House; but considers that it would be wrong to punish a journalist merely for doing his job.