We now come to the first motion on privileges. It might be helpful if I explain the procedure to be followed in the debate on the Committee of Privileges.
The motion itself will be moved formally, after which I propose to call, if they wish, each of the three Members whose conduct is called into question in the Committee's report. After that, I propose to call the Leader of the House as Chairman of the Privileges Committee. The debate will then proceed in the normal way. Under the business of the House motion agreed yesterday, the debate has to be brought to a conclusion after two hours.
My provisional selection of amendments was posted earlier today. The amendments that I shall be prepared to call formally when the debate is concluded are amendments (b), (c), (d), (e) and (f). If amendment (b) were to be agreed to, amendment (c) would fall. Similarly, if amendment (d) were to be agreed to, amendments (e) and (f) would fall.
The House may find it convenient to know what action I propose to take regarding access to the precincts if—and I emphasise "if"—any hon. Member is suspended at the conclusion of proceedings on the motion. I am advised—and it is stated in "Erskine May" on page 399—that it is the practice of the House that
A Member suspended from the service of the House on a motion not made pursuant to Standing Order No. 43 is not excluded from the precincts of the House unless the order for his suspension expressly provides therefor.
In interpreting this practice, it will be my intention to order that such access by any Member suspended today shall be confined to access to his office by the most direct route possible.
Finally, I know that the number of hon. Members wishing to speak in the debate is far more than I could possibly call in the two hours available, so I ask for brevity from those Members who catch my eye.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this House—
Madam Speaker, the Committee of Privileges has criticised me for making a serious error of judgment. Last July, I accepted that I had made an error of judgment and I apologised to the House. I willingly repeat that apology once again to the House of Commons this afternoon.
I am grateful to the Privileges Committee for acknowledging that I came to my own conclusion that the proposed arrangement was not appropriate, that I returned a cheque uncashed at the earliest opportunity, and that I did that before I had any idea that it was a journalistic set-up.
I hope that the House will accept that, having made an initial misjudgment, I did then endeavour to behave according to the standards that the House expects of its Members: first, by inquiring how to register the proposed arrangement; secondly, by deciding within 24 hours, entirely of my own volition, not to accept any payment; and, thirdly, by immediately apologising to the House when I realised that my actions, to whatever degree, may have undermined the standing of the House. If the House feels that those endeavours failed in any respect, I can do no more than express my deep regret to the House. There are no other essential points about the Committee's report that I wish to make this afternoon.
I shall make two points in conclusion. First, I would like to express my thanks to many colleagues in the House, who have given me great support and friendship in recent weeks. Secondly, I would like to express my gratitude for the understanding and support that I have received from my constituents. In the eight years that I have been in the House, I have always regarded the work, that I do in my constituency, especially the assistance that I am able to provide to individual constituents with their particular problems, as the most important part of my job as a Member. I rededicate myself to the service of my constituents in the months and years ahead.
Finally, in line with the original tradition of the House, I feel that it would be better if the House were to debate this matter unencumbered by my presence. I therefore intend now to withdraw from the House.
Madam Speaker, I wish to offer my unreserved apologies to you and to the whole House for the error that I made on 7 July 1994. I fully accept that I did not evaluate wisely or correctly the proposition that was made to me. Nor did I seek proper advice. It is a matter of considerable regret to me that I should have done anything that could have damaged the reputation of the House or caused concern in the constituency of Bosworth, which I am proud to represent.
I hope that all hon. Members recognise that I much regret my error. I hope that hon. Members and you, Madam Speaker, will be able to accept my sincere apologies.
In accordance with precedent, and with your permission, Madam Speaker, I intend to withdraw when I sit down.
I have always regarded being a Member of Parliament as a great honour and a great responsibility. I much regret what has occurred and I ask the House to accept my sincere apologies.
I think that the House will wish to acknowledge, in the unhappy situation with which we are all confronted, the clear and unequivocal apologies that my hon. Friends the Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) have expressed. I shall endeavour to ensure that my speech is consistent with the note that they have struck.
The motion is in my name as Leader of the House, but I necessarily speak also as Chairman of the Committee of Privileges, whose report we are debating. To chair the Committee in this instance was a task which I must say was as difficult and as unpleasant as any that I have had in over 20 years in this place. I have little doubt that all those who undertook membership of the Committee will share that view.
I see no need—nor do I wish to do so—to remind the House of the events that led to the report, to describe at length the evidence that we took or to rehearse the Committee's conclusions. The evidence has been published in full. The background and the conclusions reached by the Committee, having considered that evidence, are set out clearly in the report.
The motion that I move seeks the endorsement of the House for that report, including its criticism of The Sunday Times, and its conclusions in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker). The report incorporates the resolutions proposed by the Committee—namely, that my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) should be reprimanded and suspended without salary for 20 sitting days, and that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) should be reprimanded and suspended without salary for 10 sitting days.
In speaking to that, I should make two important points, the first of which is that the report relates to the first half of a two-part remit given by you, Madam Speaker, on 12 July last year, to examine the allegations against the Members named in The Sunday Times and to advise on the law and practice of Parliament in that area. The Committee felt—again, I believe, rightly—that it should deal with the specific allegations before turning to the second and wider part of the remit. Clearly, though, there are wider questions that the Committee will need to go on to consider. In doing that, it may, of course, need to take account of any relevant recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and of any consideration that the House itself might give to any such recommendations.
My second and more important point is to emphasise the fact that this was a unanimous report. Of course I understand that there are differences of opinion in the House, which are reflected in the amendments, just as there were—I hope that members of the Committee will not mind my acknowledging—in the discussion and deliberation in the Committee, but I believe that the Committee has done a service to the House by the agreement that was reached through careful and constructive discussion and which has achieved consensus among 17 senior long-standing Members of the House. Against that background, I would not think it right to advise the House to depart from those unanimous recommendations by accepting any of the amendments tabled.
In considering the report, I seek my right hon. Friend's clarification on something which, frankly, I just do not understand. It relates to what is said in paragraph 48, under the heading Conclusions and Recommendations. It says:
Against this the House will have to put into the balance the letter sent by Mr. Riddick to the Clerk of the Committee on 3rd March after he had given evidence.
So I turned to appendix A and read that letter, and re-read it. I do not understand why it should be set against the evidence given by my hon. Friend, because I find it a helpful letter. It was seeking to correct misleading reports in the press. It is indeed a polite letter; one might even say that it is the sort of letter that a solicitor might encourage one to write in the circumstances. If I am asked to put that with what my hon. Friend said, I wonder why the Committee made such a harsh recommendation in his case.
I think that the Committee simply felt that the further written material that my hon. Friend had provided needed to be taken into account with the oral evidence that he had given earlier and his earlier statement to the House. It was no more, I think, than that.
I can confirm, as I said earlier, that although these are matters for my right hon. Friend the Chief Whip, it is not the norm, nor is it the practice today, for such voting to take place on a whipped party basis.
I conclude by simply saying that the reputation of the House has inescapably been damaged. We all want to do what we can to help restore it. I believe that the most effective step that we can take today towards restoring it is for the House to accept without variation the unanimous report that the Committee has laid before it.
There can be no doubt that the disciplining of hon. Members for breaches of the obligations that we have is one of the most distasteful tasks that the House is called on to perform. On occasions it is necessary, however, and today is one such occasion.
If standards of propriety are to be maintained—in the current climate, some would say "re-established"—it is essential for us to make it clear not only to hon. Members but, just as important, to the public that certain types of behaviour are unacceptable, and that such behaviour must and will result in sanctions from the House. There may be—indeed, I know that there are—disagreements about which sanctions are most appropriate in this case; but our first duty today is to send a clear message to the outside world that the House will take action against hon. Members who, by their behaviour, damage the reputation of Parliament itself. For that is what has happened: the action of a couple of hon. Members has undermined the reputation of us all.
I congratulate members of the Committee of Privileges on the work that they have done to produce their unanimous report. Unlike the Leader of the House, I do not serve on the Committee and am not privy to all its workings; but, given the difficulties involved in its investigation—especially the early, genuine disagreements about the holding of sittings in public—I feel that its members should be congratulated, and thanked for their work.
Let me now deal with the Committee's specific recommendations, and the motion moved by the Leader of the House. I endorse the report as it stands, and I shall vote to accept all its recommendations: I think it important for us to endorse those recommendations, not least because this is a unanimous report from a Committee composed of hon. Members from both sides of the House, including some of our most senior colleagues.
Does my hon. Friend recall reports of a proposition that the Privileges Committee should conduct its proceedings in public, except where there is some compelling legal reason, more especially one that might involve a breach of natural justice? Does she agree with the opinion now widely held in all parties that the Committee of Privileges ought to come into the 20th century and conduct its proceedings—wherever possible, as I have said—in public, and not in secrecy?
The House may recall that when we debated that issue I said that I felt strongly—as I still do—that it would have been beneficial to everyone had the Committee sat in public as much as possible. The motion that we moved then was defeated, but I think that we shall have to consider issues such as that raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) in the future, although I do not think it appropriate to discuss the matter in detail now.
All who served on the Committee overcame their initial disagreements about whether it should sit in public, and performed their work extremely well. My right hon. Friend was among them, and I commend the details of the report to him. Partly because of all that work and partly because the report is unanimous, I do not think that we should set it aside lightly. It shows very clearly that the case made against the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) was strong, and that it convinced all members of the Committee. The House must accept, as does the report and as the motion states, that the conduct of those two hon. Members
fell below the standards which the House is entitled to expect from its Members",
and that a formal reprimand and suspension must follow.
I know that concern exists among some of my hon. Friends, who believe that the sanctions to be imposed are not adequate in the circumstances. They will be able to make their own case, if, Madam Speaker, they are able to catch your eye later. I must admit that I have some sympathy for those who want equity of treatment—[Interruption.] I have some sympathy for those who want parity of treatment for the two Members, but I personally will be supporting the specific recommendations of the Privileges Committee, as in the resolutions.
I heard a Conservative Member ask about The Sunday Times. I endorse—again, I know that some of my hon. Friends will disagree—what the report says about The Sunday Times, but it is extremely important to stress that criticism of The Sunday Times does not detract in any way from the seriousness of the charges against those Members who are the subject of the report.
The Members concerned have clearly breached the rules of the House. Those rules and the obligations that we have as Members of Parliament are serious. I support the Committee's overall conclusions, which is why I am happy to vote for the suspensions this evening.
I want to say a word about The Sunday Times. It obviously felt that it had a legitimate right to act as it did. It felt that because of information given to it by business men saying that Members of Parliament accepted payments for tabling questions. The Sunday Times would be treated more sympathetically and more seriously by many Members if it reported such matters and such individuals to the House so that any necessary action could be taken.
Would the hon. Lady care to comment on the fact that the original allegations made by the unnamed business man to The Sunday Times concerned four hon. Members, and that The Sunday Times chose deliberately not to pursue those four, but, allegedly, to take a random sample of 20? Does she agree that it would have been more appropriate for it to have pursued those four, if indeed they ever existed?
I do not know whether it is appropriate for The Sunday Times to pursue those Members. It is important that, if any individual, inside the House or outside it, has any evidence whatsoever that any Member is breaching the rules, that evidence should be presented in the first instance to the House. That is a straightforward principle that should apply throughout.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the fact that the four so-called Members who were not pursued in any way apparently still exist, and that The Sunday Times said that it knew who they were, throws a bad light on all hon. Members? None of us knows which four it is talking about.
The hon. Lady is right. Some questions are still unanswered. That fact, however, does not invalidate the report's findings and recommendations.
Is not one of the problems with the House's recommendations the fact that the Press Complaints Commission has no sanctions to take against The Sunday Times? Unlike the British Medical Association, the Law Society, or even the Football Association, which can fine people, the commission has no sanctions, except to say, "Tut-tut," and to demand an apology. That is what it is going to do.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. There are many wider issues to which we will have to return on some other occasions. Other issues surrounding the activities of the press will require greater consideration over a long period of time, although some of the issues are not directly related to the cases that we are considering today. For example, the Privileges Committee report shows that there was deception by journalists, entrapment and bugging in the Palace of Westminster. We have seen similar techniques used to intrude into the private lives of hon. Members and others. Actions like that cannot be condoned.
I suggest that it is right to criticise the conduct of The Sunday Times in this instance as well as to criticise the conduct of the two hon. Members concerned who have now left the Chamber. We have many long-term lessons to learn from this unfortunate episode. We will shortly hear Lord Nolan's report, and the House will have a chance to draw its conclusions in respect of any changes that need to be made to our proceedings. The Privileges Committee report is extremely helpful to the House. The clarity of its recommendations is welcome and its suggestions should be supported by the House. I will vote for them this evening and I urge the House to do the same.
These are unhappy occasions for the House of Commons. It is quite clear that my hon. Friends the Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) have, as they said, committed errors of judgment. I might say that they were most breathtaking errors of judgment. However, ever since they have been Members of this House I have been pleased to operate with them as political colleagues. I must say that it is my experience that they have operated with total integrity. I have been pleased to call them hon. Friends, and that is my position this afternoon.
In what will be a very brief speech, I want to consider the broad issue, which is the extent to which outside interests either breach or conform with privilege. That is not something with which the House is particularly conversant. Most of our discussions hitherto have been to do with the reporting of Members' interests. Here we have an evaluation of that interest. As you said, Madam Speaker, you felt that there was an urgent need to clarify the law of Parliament. The Privileges Committee said that it was unable to fulfil that remit because the task that it already had was very considerable and there was the impending likelihood of the results of the Nolan report.
We have an attenuated report against what was originally supposed by many hon. Members. However, it was perfectly legitimate for the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) to complain that two hours is a ludicrously inadequate time to consider an issue of this moment. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House said:
there is an agreement between the usual channels that the time allotted will be two hours".—[Official Report, 18 April 1995; Vol. 258, c. 28.]
I have not come here to be adversarial. However, we have ahead of us the Nolan and Scott reports, which will go to the very heart of what are proper relationships and conduct in this House of Commons. Whatever is agreed by the usual channels is not necessarily appropriate for what is a genuine House of Commons interest—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Gentleman should stand up and say that I used not to say that. I have stood here
and I have stood at the Front Bench and I have conducted whatever task I had to conduct with a very lively commitment and interest in respect of the House of Commons generally.
I will not enter a discussion or make a judgment on what has been proposed in the report because my time is too short. None the less, I am much concerned about whether this Privileges Committee approach is the most appropriate for making judgments in these circumstances. I am talking not about privileges generally, but about privileges where they relate to the outside financial interest of members, as is the case in this instance. If Lloyd George said that war was too serious to be left to generals, the conduct and the investigation of these matters is too serious to be left merely to parliamentarians, however distinguished. I welcome the fact that Nolan is seeking to broaden the terms of consideration of these matters.
I should like to mention three areas in which the remit of a Committee which is investigating such matters could reasonably be widened. First, I have come to the conclusion—not initially, but certainly now—that the Committee should take evidence in public wherever that is practical. Secondly, inspired by Nolan, the Committee should go wider than the membership merely of Members of Parliament. Thirdly, those under investigation should have representation and a right of cross-examination.
I do not say for one moment that a Committee thus. constituted would have come to different conclusions in this instance—I do not make that judgment—but the whole issue of the missing tapes and the whole issue of the letter contained in appendix A, which has been the subject of an exchange earlier this afternoon, would take on a different context and would have helped the House to have made a more balanced judgment.
As this debate proceeds, and with Nolan it inevitably will, there will be a realisation that the legitimacy and the definition of outside interests will mean a clarity that is much more focused than is provided this afternoon. Indeed, I go so far as to say that I believe that, eventually, we will end up with a framework of law for considering such matters. I was very encouraged to hear the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) making that point on the radio this morning.
Sooner or later, such matters will not be sensibly resolved within the arcane and historic practices of this Chamber. They call for a different form of consideration, and the law is the most satisfactory, for at least there is the chance of equity being secured and there is the chance of the scales being held equally. There is not the likelihood of passing political climate being an oppressive factor in the judgment that is made of those under investigation.
No. I have said that I would be brief, and I hope to hold to the promise.
The House is at its best when it is trying to make equitable judgments and not fashion punishment.
I, too, shall be brief in commending the report of the Committee on which I served—a unanimous report of the 17 Committee members. May I say two or three sentences on why it took us so long to produce it?
I regret that, in fairness to the three hon. Members and to the newspaper concerned, we were unable to sit when the House was in recess. The moment we were appointed, we sat until the very hour—3 o'clock—that the House went into recess. We were a large Committee of 17 members. Perhaps in future the House will want to consider whether membership should be smaller.
We were evenly balanced, and every effort was made by the authorities and by the Leader of the House to ensure that every Committee Member could attend. That was not easy. Every member of the Committee attended every sitting of the Committee. It was important, in view of the balance, that that was so. Perhaps in future a smaller Committee could dispense speedier justice and be empowered to sit in the recess.
We also lost some time because of the anxiety of many members of the Committee to sit in public to take evidence. I certainly regret that we did not do so. It might appear very odd to the outside world that Lord Nolan can hear evidence on matters that are not dissimilar to those that we heard, yet we decided not to sit in public. I hope that future Committees will bear in mind our experience and will carefully consider the dangers, if any, of not doing what Lord Nolan has seen fit to do—sitting in public.
I hope that I speak on behalf of all members of the Committee in saying that cross-examining colleagues was not a happy experience: I say no more than that. We took a very serious view, as the report shows, of the conduct of two hon. Members. We considered all precedents and adjudicated on—in my view and, more important, in the Committee's view—proper sentences of suspension, varying in length, and an additional formal reprimand in each case. The Committee found that the conduct of two colleagues fell below the standard expected of hon. Members. We recommend the finding to the House. I for one regard the reprimand as being of particular importance, as I am sure does the Committee as a whole.
We found that the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) acted unwisely and that he committed an error of judgment. He was very frank, however, about his role and conduct, and his evidence epitomised the view that, I hope, right hon. and hon. Members of all parties would take. The hon. Gentleman was asked:
If anyone offered you £1,000 for putting down a Parliamentary Question, whatever way it was dressed up as, either as a straight question or anything of that kind or any talk about a consultancy, you would, in your own mind, think it was a wrong thing to do?
Yes, I do. I think it is very wrong.
That certainly gave me a great deal of assistance in confirming the view that all members of the Committee took of what the Leader of the House described a few moments ago.
It should not be forgotten that 17 other hon. Members had no truck with the proposal put to them, whatever the form of the proposal: not for one moment did they give it a moment's thought. In addition to the frank comments of the hon. Member for Tayside, North, that should sum up the reaction of all of us on the Committee.
I can speak only for myself about the way in which I distinguished between the punishments suggested for the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). We tried as best as we could to act fairly and judicially. It is for the House to decide whether we achieved that. I tried to draw as best as I could from knowledge of other fields as regards a person's manner and to what extent a person is entitled to some discount when he accepts responsibility, pleads guilty and asks for the mercy of the House.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley accepted responsibility and pleaded guilty immediately in a debate in the House in July. He conceded three points: first, his lack of judgment; secondly, that it was unwise even to have considered—I emphasise those words—doing what was asked of him; and, thirdly, he apologised for the trouble caused. If he had left it there, he would been very much wiser. Unfortunately, he wrote a letter to the Committee as recently as 3 March. I hope—this matter was raised a little earlier—that right hon. and hon. Members will read that letter, which appears on page 182 in appendix 13.
The hon. Member for Colne Valley cannot have been advised to write as he did. If he was, it was very bad advice indeed. He expressed the following view:
I wish to emphasise my strong belief that I was not in breach of Parliamentary privilege.
Unhappily, he has been found to be so.
May I put two' points to the right hon. and learned Gentleman about that letter? First, we must draw a distinction between my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) believing himself to be in breach of privilege and accepting that he had acted extremely foolishly. At that stage, he agreed to the latter, but not the former. The House has found otherwise. Secondly, in his letter my hon. Friend asked that the Committee see him again if it were minded to find him in breach of privilege. The Committee did not do so. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain why?
The Committee certainly considered that matter. It is not for me to go further than what is set out in the report, but I can assure the House and the hon. Gentleman that the letter was certainly considered, account was taken of the request and the view of the Committee was that the evidence that we had heard was adequate to reach a decision. That letter, which appears on page xxi of our report, was read very closely and that is why the Committee invited the House to put it into the balance. In my view—I may be wrong—I fear that that letter, taken as a whole, goes a long way to undermine the apology first tendered to the House. It was unwise—regrettably—that the hon. Member sent that letter.
We were then left—certainly as far as I was concerned—with the other point that could have mitigated any sentence proposed for the hon. Member for Colne Valley. The hon. Gentleman had concluded, before he was exposed, that the transaction was improper and he had returned the cheque at the earliest opportunity. In my judgment, although the offence itself was abundantly proved, as set out in our conclusions, the hon. Member was entitled to have those circumstances taken into account in mitigation of any penalty proposed. That was certainly how my mind worked in reaching the view that the hon. Gentleman's sentence should be less than that of the hon. Member for Bosworth.
We took the view that the conduct of The Sunday Times fell substantially below the standards expected of legitimate journalism. I have read many of the comments and leading articles and I suspect that all of them—at least all that I have read, although the list may not be complete—ignored the word "substantially", which was deliberately included in the Committee's report. That word was ignored and it was merely stated what we recommended and that we found that the newspaper's conduct fell below the standards expected. It fell substantially below the standard required and I wish that some comment had been made about that.
While the right hon. and learned Gentleman is on that point, will he explain to me and to the House how he reconciles the failure of the Committee-to insist on an answer from the editor of The Sunday Times to the questions that were put to him about revealing the name of the business man and the four hon. Members against whom the allegations were made, with the statement on page 160, paragraph 11 of the report? That states that the House resolved
'That the refusal of a witness before a Select Committee to answer any question which may be put to him is a contempt of the House and an infraction of the undoubted right of this House to conduct any inquiry which may be necessary in the public interest'".
It follows a paragraph that refers to episodes in August 1947, when journalists refused to answer such questions before the Committee and were summoned to the Bar of the House, publicly questioned by the Speaker in front of the entire House and forced to reveal the information and to give an apology. Why was that not done on this occasion?
I am sure that the hon. Member would have wished to ask each and every one of the members of Committee that, from the Leader of the House down. I cannot go outside the matter before us; it would be wrong so to do. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Simply because the Committee did not sit in public. Had the Committee sat in public, perhaps the answer sought by the hon. Gentleman would have been clear and apparent. I for one fought hard to ensure that the Committee sat in public. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] That is my answer. In accordance with the resolution—
No, I shall not give way again.
In accordance with the resolution of the Committee, by which I am bound, I cannot go outside the terms of the report or reveal in any detail any particular discussion. I am sure that in saying that I would be supported by every member of the Committee.
One of the intriguing aspects is the fact that if The Sunday Times had said to one of the Tory Members, "Here's £10,000 to be a consultant to TheSunday Times," they would have been able to declare that in the Register of Members' Interests and ask questions all year long. About 200 Tory Members are consultants, advisers and directors.
The public outside will want to know why more than 500 jobs are allocated to more than 200 Members, mainly Tories. Some of them have 10 or 11 jobs each, yet nothing is done about it.
If, as a result of the debate today, all those moonlighting jobs are excluded, we shall have done the country a service—one Member of Parliament, one job.
If I may be allowed to continue, Madam Speaker, I can tell my hon. Friend that he has made his point. I am sure that he will want to read the report most carefully.
We were cognisant of the fact that Lord Nolan will cover some of the matters concerned. Secondly, in accordance with your more general remit, Madam Speaker, which goes wider than the particular conduct of the three Members and the newspaper, we intend to return to those matters in due course when Lord Nolan has reported. I am sure that the Committee will wish to consider some of the matters raised in my hon. Friend's intervention.
May I re-emphasise the fact that on more than one occasion the Committee discussed the problem of whether to sit in private or in public? If everything had been done in public, the questions being asked of my right hon. and learned Friend would have been irrelevant. One cannot ask more of some of the members, including my hon. Friends and the Liberal Democrat member, than that they plead with the Committee to sit in public. The Nolan committee was sitting in public, there was suspicion and we claimed transparency, yet still that did not happen. Given that it was forced to sit in private, members of the Committee should not be blamed for not having reached the right decision, and people should not say that we are not prepared to make the right statement.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for confirming what I said earlier.
I want to bring my remarks to a close. Before I gave way, I was saying that the word "substantially" as applied by the report to The Sunday Times had been ignored. Of course The Sunday Times caught the fish in question, based on a line of inquiry emanating from the observations of an unknown business man. The House may wish to pass further comment as to whether the agreement between The Sunday Times and the business man should have been reached at all, and to develop that subject further.
Following those events, if our recommendations are accepted, the two Members are to be punished. They were caught through entrapment. Nothing was known against the 20 Members that The Sunday Times tried to seduce. Two happened to be caught with the bait, yet although five and a half months had passed between the business man's tip and the start of The Sunday Times inquiry, no evidence was found about any other Member. The newspaper went back to other sources, asking business men and people concerned with public relations, yet no evidence other than rumour was discovered. The Sunday Times told us that, by the terms of the agreement, it was forbidden to investigate the four names that the business man had given it. Two of our colleagues were caught by the bait.
I suspect that if a policeman had used the methods employed by The Sunday Times, shock and horror would have been expressed in leading articles in more than one newspaper. An agent provocateur, according to the recent royal commission, is one who
entices another to commit an express breach of the law which he would not otherwise have committed".
The agent provocateur has been disapproved of over the years by judges, even though the fact that a person would not have committed the offence had it not been for the activities of the agent provocateur is no defence in English law. Entrapment through deception should be disapproved of, and I echo that sentiment. The taking of clandestine recordings within the precincts of the House may well undermine the bond of trust built up over the years between Members of Parliament and the lobby. That bond acts as a lubricant to ensure that news reaches the public under many guises. We all value it. I join in placing our report before the House for its earnest consideration.
I am conscious that you want us to be brief, Madam Speaker, and although a lot has been said on which I would like to comment, I shall forbear. I simply say that tribute should be paid to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for his patience and skill in chairing the Committee. We found ourselves in a most unhappy situation, with a most disagreeable duty to perform.
I shall confine the rest of my speech to the conduct of The Sunday Times Insight team and its editor. I shall take as my text the editorial that appeared in that newspaper on 9 April under the headline, "Don't shoot the messenger". It set its own tone at the beginning, by saying:
The whingeing of a small rump of Tory MPs last week over the outcome of the cash-for-questions affair made a sad spectacle.
It continued by saying that Members of Parliament, "predictably", had
sought to muddy the waters with complaints about entrapment and agents provocateurs.
It was fitting, then, that the verdict on the affair came not from us, but from their fellow MPs",
from a body that the editorial described as
The privileges committee, a self-regulating cross-party body".
I am sure that many colleagues will have read that editorial, and will have shared my surprise that it did not say that the Privileges Committee report specifically found that there was entrapment. The right hon. and
learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) has endorsed that fact, and it is not to the credit of The Sunday Times that it suppressed it.
In the 1,000 or fewer words of the editorial I find more cause to take offence at the newspaper's reaction, and at the considered and careful self-justification that The Sunday Times has inflicted on its readers. The editorial refers to
the practice of MPs accepting money for putting down parliamentary questions",
and the newspaper's anonymous business man sought to persuade its readers that that was a common practice.
Anyone who reads the evidence that the Committee attaches to its report will see that there is no support whatever for the proposition that that is a common practice. Indeed, when Mr. Witherow was forced into a corner under examination, he was obliged to admit that all the research that The Sunday Times had carried out with its computer proved nothing of the sort.
However, in spite of our findings, the fiction is still maintained. I find it most regrettable that that respectable newspaper should have brought a stinking mess to the door of the House of Commons and then refused to help the Privileges Committee to clear it up.
The editorial goes on to state that
our reporters and editor freely gave evidence
to the Privileges Committee—"up to a point, Lord Copper", as Evelyn Waugh said. Anyone reading the evidence will see the stubborn refusal of the editor and his colleagues to help the Committee by identifying the alleged anonymous source. When pressed on the matter, witnesses took refuge behind the journalistic equivalent of the fifth amendment. I have sympathy with the anger that has been expressed about that point.
I must also point out that the editorial makes no mention of the Committee's conclusion that the agreement between The Sunday Times and the business man that prevented investigation of allegations against the four Members was not in the public interest. That, too, was carefully suppressed. The editorial claimed that the actions of The Sunday Times
have now been investigated by both the privileges committee and the newspaper industry's own watchdog, the Press Complaints Commission.
The editorial states that the PCC is chaired by Lord Wakeham, a former Conservative Minister. There is no doubt that an inference is meant to be drawn from that statement. However, it is misleading as, at the material time, Lord Wakeham was not chairman of the Press Complaints Commission. That is, at the least, an example of gross carelessness by The Sunday Times.
Although we concluded in the report that the Press Complaints Commission should be invited to reconsider the matter again in the light of the evidence that we took, there is no mention of that in the editorial. I find that surprising, given the movement in the evidence of the editor when he appeared before us and his statement in a letter to the PCC on 13 July. I find it difficult to conclude that this is not another attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of the PCC and the public.
The conclusion of the editorial refers to the
urgent task of rebuilding public confidence in MPs and in parliament itself.
We would all endorse that, and we hope that Lord Nolan's report will contribute to that task. There is no mention in The Sunday Times of the damage that has been done to the reputation of Parliament by its editor. That may be too much to expect from an editor who recently lent his columns to an attempt to assassinate the character and reputation of Michael Foot.
Journalists on The Sunday Times—including Michael Jones, a respected lobby correspondent—will no doubt claim an important part in rehabilitating the reputation of the House. I regard the editorial that The Sunday Times printed on 9 April as nothing more than the editor pouring a bucket of whitewash over himself. He may feel that he and his colleagues in this miserable business deserve our praise and congratulations. No one reading the evidence and the report could possibly share that view.
The right hon. Member for Woking (Sir C. Onslow) spoke for all members of the Committee in his remarks regarding the four Members whose identities were consistently concealed by The Sunday Times during the information that it gave to the Committee. I concur with what he said in that regard.
At the outset, may I commend the motion that is before the House to all Members? May I also thank the Leader of the House for the scrupulously fair way in which he dealt with the inquiry and the way in which he conducted the proceedings of the Committee? It would have been to the advantage of Parliament if the public could have seen those proceedings. If they had seen the fair way in which the Committee conducted the inquiry, it would have done a great deal to restore the reputation of Parliament. I agree with what the former Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen), said on that matter.
The Committee has painstakingly discharged its responsibilities both to you, Madam Speaker, and to the House. I believe that hon. Members would be most unwise to begin to unravel the carefully constructed series of recommendations. The duties of the Committee were twofold. First, to investigate the allegations of wrongdoing by two hon. Members and the methods used by The Sunday Times in gathering the information. Secondly, we had to consider the damage which undoubtedly has been done to Parliament and its reputation, and to see how our procedures might be changed to minimise the risk of a repetition.
The report inevitably deals only with the first part of that remit. The Committee must now go on to consider the referral by the House of Peter Preston and The Guardian, and then to examine the guidelines for future conduct. The Committee will also want to draw on Lord Nolan's recommendations.
What may be usefully said at this stage? First, I would like to refer to the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). I do not think that there is any disagreement in the House, or by the hon. Members themselves, that they fell below the standards which the House has a right to expect of us all. It is right that they should be formally reprimanded.
I also think that it is right that we recognise the degree of culpability involved. That is what the motion seeks to do, by, in one case, talking about 10 days and, in the other case, talking of 20 days. The Committee came to that conclusion because there was an initial apology, although the subsequent letter did not help in case of the hon. Member for Colne Valley. The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) suggested that it was the sort of letter a solicitor might have recommended. I would sack a solicitor who made that recommendation to me if I were his client. To send a letter to members of the Committee at that stage did nothing to assist the hon. Gentleman's case, but the fact remains that the hon. Gentleman returned the cheque and apologised to the House. There is a question of degree which the House must recognise.
Amendments before us seek to expel the two Members concerned. This fails to recognise—as members of the public may do—the seriousness of what will happen to the two hon. Members. Both of them were parliamentary private secretaries, and both may well have aspired to become Ministers. They are surely now in a position where their careers have been gravely damaged and probably endangered beyond repair. The former hon. Member for Winchester, John Browne, faced deselection as a result of a similar decision by the House, and there is no doubt that the seriousness and gravity of what the House may decide to do today in the case of the hon. Members for Colne Valley and for Bosworth will have profound effects on them in their constituencies.
It is a draconian measure to place the sanction of expulsion in the hands of the majority against what may appear to be a troublesome minority, and all hon. Members must think carefully about the use of such a weapon, which may one day be used in other circumstances—perhaps against them. Expulsion is a sanction that should be used by the electors and I do not believe that it would be appropriate to use it in this case.
I turn now to the case of The Sunday Times. Where allegations of financial corruption are involved, the right to subterfuge must be a legitimate weapon for any newspaper to have in its armoury. But there are ways in which that may be used. All of us feel uneasy about the breakdown in relations which has occurred between journalists and hon. Members as a result of people using concealed tape recorders when they come to talk to Members of Parliament.
It was unwise for The Sunday Times to enter into an agreement with its source—although no one would expect it to reveal the name of that source—not to reveal the names of the four Members of Parliament against whom the original allegations were made. That leaves a slur over every Member of Parliament, and those Members ought to have been brought to book. It also ought to be remembered that 17 of the 20 hon. Members who were originally approached refused to have anything to do with the plan whatsoever. That reflects well on the vast majority of Members of the House.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that a Member of the other place stated to the Financial Times that four Members of Parliament had taken cash for questions? I complained—as did Madam Speaker—that that Member of the upper House should be brought to the Bar of this House and forced to name the four Members.
I understand that that Member of the upper House is a lawyer and a Queen's Counsel who has acted for Mohamed Al Fayed. The obvious implication, although we have no evidence to prove it, is that the same four people who were displayed in The Sunday Times are those that Mr. Al Fayed seeks to name. There is not a shred of evidence to prove that the accusation by Mr. Al Fayed and Lord Lester is true.
There are two points here. The first concerns my hon. Friend, Lord Lester. I made it absolutely clear when he made his allegation that it would have been better if he had said who those allegations were being made against. So my view about Lord Lester is precisely the same as it is about The Sunday Times. The second point is about Mohamed Al Fayed. Members of the Privileges Committee—this is not a matter of secrecy because we have motions before the Committee—
As the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) says, the issue is referred to in the minutes of evidence. Members of the Privileges Committee will have a chance to vote on a motion that I tabled requiring Mr. Al Fayed to come before the Committee during the next round of our proceedings, when Mr. Peter Preston of The Guardian is brought before us. I hope that every member of the Committee will vote for that motion so that the questions that have just been raised can be put to Mr. Mohamed Al Fayed and we can get to the truth of this matter once and for all.
The second matter that I wanted to discuss briefly is the damage to Parliament's collective reputation. The issue of lobbying came out in the minutes of evidence, where it was revealed that one of the hon. Members concerned received £12,000 a year from the Brewers Society to act on its behalf. Hon. Members must ask themselves what is the moral or practical difference between receiving £12,000 a year to act on behalf of an outside lobbyist, vested interest or commercial group and receive £12,000 during the course of a year to table,say, 12 parliamentary questions, and receiving £1,000 for tabling one parliamentary question. We shall have to look at that general issue in much greater detail, as we will at the transparency of the Register of Members' Interests. There is no compulsion to reveal in the register the details of the £12,000 to which I just alluded and it is high time that there was such a compulsion.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that not only was £12,000 paid for a consultancy but that, before the hon. Member concerned would reveal how much it was, he said, "Only a small amount"? If £12,000 is a small amount, goodness knows what is happening.
The hon. Gentleman makes the point very well. The fact was that the hon. Member was not prepared to admit how much money he had received. That should be a matter of public declaration as everyone has a right to know.
It is impossible for parliamentarians to serve two masters. We are elected to serve our constituents and our consciences. We are here to pursue causes and I am deeply suspicious of anyone who is here to pursue anything other than a cause. People who are here to pursue vested interests place themselves in an impossible position; we should sever that umbilical cord.
At the very minimum, Parliament should consider requiring all candidates at parliamentary elections to state, in the literature that is delivered free by the Post Office to the homes of all their constituents, details of their declarations of financial interests so that every elector knows precisely who those candidates seek to serve. Secondly, if a Minister resigns or retires from ministerial office, there should be a firebreak between the time that he or she has been in that office and the time at which he or she takes up subsequent financial interests.
Thirdly, we should consider the issue of self regulation. There is a case for an outside body on ethics in public life and penalties should be much tougher. It should be a criminal offence to try to bribe a Member of Parliament, which in many respects would deal with the problem that we have had to face in this case.
There is also a case for much more openness in our proceedings. I was one of those who supported holding the proceedings of the Privileges Committee in public. Everything that has occurred during the course of those proceedings confirms the view that I put, along with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and many others, when those matters were first considered. We said that it would be better for all of us if the issue were dealt with in the open rather than hidden away because that would only add to the impression held by people outside that we are looking after our own privileges and interests rather than their interests.
This whole sorry business has been a tragedy for all involved, and the sooner it is put behind us the better it will be—so long as lessons have been learnt.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) ruled out the option of the sanction of expulsion that has been tabled as an amendment. I wish to go further in the opposite direction and put on record how mistaken—indeed, unfair—I believe the Privileges Committee has been in recommending so severe a penalty as suspension with incidental loss of salary for my hon. Friends the Members for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) and for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick).
The effect of indictment against my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth, whose case I am particularly anxious to support, is contained in paragraph 51 of the report before us, where my hon. Friend is charged with
a serious error of judgement".
I do not dissent from that verdict, as it was a serious error of judgment and my hon. Friend has admitted as much, but we must put that error of judgment in a reasonable perspective.
As we all know, the background to the case was the efforts of The Sunday Times to establish a close and crude cash-for-questions nexus—the alleged going rate of a thousand quid a question. But it is clear from the delphic and convoluted proposals which Mr. Calvert made to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth that he could not bring himself to pop the question crudely, directly and immediately as to whether my hon. Friend would be prepared to table a question for £1,000. It had to be dressed up in such a way as to lead my hon. Friend to believe that he was being offered a down payment for an on-going consultancy.
I admit that that may have been an error of judgment, but I ask the House to recognise that, if the tape recording which Mr. Calvert carried away from his encounter with my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth had been of a crude question as to whether he would accept £1,000 to table a question, and if the tape in that form had fallen into the hands of the Privileges Committee, its verdict would probably have been not that it was a serious error of judgment but that that practice was gross and unacceptable. The Committee did not find that in its verdict, which was based on the clear impression which my hon. Friend received and conveyed in his exchanges with the Committee: that he was being offered something much less crude, draconian, immediate and limited than £1,000 to ask the question.
Under those circumstances, how much more reasonable is it that colleagues might make an error of judgment? [Interruption.] I do not conceal that it was an error of judgment, but I believe that The Sunday Times, by means of an elaborate, deliberate and technically adroit conspiracy to deceive my hon. Friend, had to establish that he was prepared to take £1,000 for asking a question. It could not, under any circumstances, allow the proposition to be dressed up in so crude a form because it knew that, had my hon. Friend been placed in that position, he would almost immediately have said, "You can't be serious. A thousand quid to ask one question?" [Laughter.] In spite of the mirth of Opposition Members, who do not take the approach that one might be considered innocent before one is proved guilty or that there might have been a genuine misunderstanding, which is exactly what the Privileges Committee has concluded, my hon. Friend would not have responded so crudely to such a crude offer.
My right hon. Friend will have heard the mirth of Opposition Members, who always exclaim that they are looking after those who are underprivileged. Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that we have set up rules to protect the public from agents provocateur that would never allow the evidence in the matter that we are discussing to be given and used in any way in a court of law? Why should Members of the House be treated any differently from the ordinary people whom they always try to protect? They seem to care; they do not care a damn.
My hon. Friend has made a fair and reasonable argument.
I return to the essential evidence that the House has to consider—that the verdict of the Committee of Privileges is that what has been found as a fault is a serious error of judgment, not a crude and unacceptable practice. As a serious error of judgment—a limited, but serious fault—I do not believe that it is reasonable, especially in view of the fact that the Committee of Privileges began that consideration as long ago as July of last year, and we are now reaching a conclusion on this case, nearly a year later, that in the light of the indictment that we have levelled at my hon. Friend, it is now fair, nearly 12 months later, to produce a full and unmodified verdict of suspension.
To use an analogy, in many criminal cases—this case is obviously entirely non-criminal—outside the House, where someone has been put on remand against the suspicion that a crime may have been committed, when a sentence is passed, consideration is given to the lapse of time that the individual has already suffered as a penalty in prison. I believe that it is right that the House should take into consideration the fact that my two hon. Friends have had to wait nearly 12 months—[Interruption.]—against the background of suspicion and accusation, to await the verdict of the House. It is reasonable, under those circumstances, that the original indictment should be modified in terms of the penalty that is envisaged, and that we should reduce it to a simple, straight reprimand.
I am trying to follow the right hon. Gentleman's argument. Is he saying that, if his hon. Friends had been offered what he calls an ongoing consultancy, under the terms of which they would have been able, or required, to ask a series of parliamentary questions at £1,000 a time, it would have been perfectly satisfactory? [Interruption.]
In response to the hon. Gentleman's intervention, that would have been a serious error of judgment in my book. However, I do not believe that one can evaluate and make a judgment about what any other hon. Member might take the offer to be until the full offer and all the implications have been fully and properly spelt out, which they obviously had not been in this case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth is guilty of a serious error of judgment; no more than that. He has had to wait for nearly 12 months, with all the uncertainty and pain that that causes. Now that we are delivering the verdict, it is appropriate that we should reduce the penalty, make it a straight reprimand and give him the same fairness that the courts, at the behest of the House, give to prisoners who have been placed on remand and have had to suffer a long time in prison before their sentence is delivered. Let us reduce the sentence and make it a straight reprimand.
Order. Before I call the next right hon. Gentleman, I point out that it is a very short debate and a very serious one. Many right hon. and hon. Members are hoping to speak, and even 10–minute speeches are too long in this particular case.
I wonder whether the House realises the real problem that faces it, which is not two Members who can be disposed of. We have no standards; that is the problem. We talk about Members falling below the standards expected—what are the standards expected? Is it that marvellous phrase, "conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman"? Is that what they mean by standards? What are the standards? The House has no standards. Until we have standards—and I am glad that the right hon. Member for Shropshire, North (Mr. Biffen) endorsed the idea that I suggested about the legal position—we are in difficulty.
The Committee talks about investigative journalism falling below the standard expected. I did not think that anyone could be below the standard of investigative journalism of Mr. Rupert Murdoch. Have other Members experienced conduct far worse than that? I certainly have.
The Committee of Privileges met in secret. It did not want anyone to know what it was discussing. The fact that it is an unanimous report made my hair stand on end. Is there no difference between the two sides of the House on what is acceptable and what is unacceptable? Is there no difference? Was there no opportunity for someone to argue that the standards should be this or that? It was not mentioned at all.
I cannot vote for the report. I shall not vote against it, but I shall not vote for the report because it does not tackle the real question, which is, what should the standards be that we impose—I believe that it should be by law—on Members of Parliament?
The Nolan committee has been mentioned. I gave evidence to Nolan, because we must take our opportunities when they arise. But what the Prime Minister did was to take the matter out of the House of Commons by using the royal prerogative—which gives him the power to set up a commission—and thereby degut the Committee of Privileges, and then Nolan actually heard evidence in public.
I am not a bit interested—as I said from the beginning—in the two hon. Members. A newspaper lied, they fell for the bait and the trouble that was caused for them has already been caused by what has happened. So I have never been in favour of pursuing the two hon. Members—I have said that very many times. But I am interested in knowing what Members of the Committee of Privileges said to one another about standards.
I wanted the report of the debate to be public. I wanted to hear what hon. Gentlemen said, because that is what is of value. We are told that there was unanimous support. There is a theory that, if a thing is unanimous, it must be better. I have never believed that; otherwise we would not have debates and votes in the House. We must offer people a choice. That is the argument that I want to make.
It should be straightforward. Certain things should be legal and certain things should be illegal. I said this in the House—if I pay someone to vote for me in an election, I am guilty of an offence, I am taken to the election court and I may be unseated. We should have similar rules about the work of Members of Parliament.
It is not the moment to discuss what the standards should be, because I promised to speak for two or three minutes, but if the House thinks that it can solve the problem by holding a two-hour debate by agreement between the usual channels, it is an outrage. The matter is of great importance, and it is not about protecting Parliament.
I am not here to protect Parliament. It is not a club that I have joined, which I wish to protect. I am here to protect my constituents, and I want Parliament to ensure, as best it can, that it serves my constituents. The whole thing is the most ghastly whitewash and cover-up of the real question. Until we tackle the real question and put it on a legal basis, we can go on—
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I promised to sit down after three minutes and I shall do that.
We should tackle the real question; we should not leave it to Nolan. I am very disappointed that the Privileges Committee unanimously agreed about something that never really tackled the question.
As for the two hon. Members, I am not a bit interested in them because I think that they have done themselves about as much damage as any two Members could have done by their conduct.
In following the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), I respect his opinions about those matters. I also recognise the amount of time that it took to get the Privileges Committee on the go, in view of the objections of the right hon. Gentleman to our sitting in private. I think that if we sit in private on that matter—or in public in future—we must ensure that proper provision is made for Members to have the type of assistance that is necessary in a normal court of law.
I do not think that anyone on the Committee of Privileges enjoyed the task that was allotted to us by the House. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House for the way in which he steadied our affairs along.
I wish to add three simple arguments to what has been said. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) came first to the House to apologise clearly for what had occurred in relation to what he considered to be falling below the standards of the House. We accepted that then and we accept it now. I am proud to call him my hon. Friend and I look forward to canvassing in his constituency at the next election on his behalf, if he wishes. Having gone that far, it is important that the Committee should be able to set out clearly what it was that occurred and how that apology—if I may put it that way—was rightly earned. But difficulties arose from it.
Throughout the procedures, we have been dealing, not with an ordinary course of accident, deliberate fraud or someone deliberately flouting the rules of the House, but an elaborate entrapment procedure that caught the Members in the net. I fully supported the report, and if I earn the displeasure of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) for so doing, that will give me a touch of credibility. But the fact that we were unable to find a suitable way of dealing with the activities of The Sunday Times is a matter of great personal regret. I recognise that the Committee was wise in trying to avoid the electric scenes of people coming to the Bar of the House. Such scenes would have created more joy and happiness among the press than a more rational and orthodox way of dealing with the matter. However, that issue has to addressed.
A reference has been made to the Press Complaints Commission. A clear sign has been given that such journalism, with professional and well-trained journalists becoming liars for the week, is not acceptable. We must find a way of dealing with that problem to restore the relationship between Members of Parliament and the press, who seek to get whatever evidence they can from us, on whatever issue, to increase the circulation of their newspapers. It is crucial that we address that matter quickly.
The episode has taught us all a lot. I sincerely hope that the House of Commons will regain its self-respect by not trying to elaborate on the problems that it has faced. It must recognise that there was a most unusual series of events caused by an extraneous force trying to find proof of an allegation. The newspaper was unable to find any evidence in support of the allegations against the four Members and the tabling of questions. After six months of computer analysis not a shred of evidence was found, and the matter should have been stopped there. The newspaper should have known that.
I do not agree with the strictures on The Sunday Times. It may be a minority view, but it is only right that another view should be advanced regarding The Sunday Times. Conservative Members have spoken in the debate as though the newspaper were in the dock, as though what it did was wrong and there was no public or legitimate interest involved. That view is clearly strongly held by Conservative Members and some of my hon. Friends—I understand and accept that. But it is not held strongly, if at all, outside the House.
It is interesting that, apart from the Press Complaints Commission, which upheld and justified what had been done, few comments have been made outside the newspaper world along the lines that we have just heard from the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) and others—that what was done was wrong. Like other hon. Members, I read the evidence carefully. Leaving aside the issue of what The Sunday Times said in justification—about what it was told by a prominent business man about four Members of Parliament—if that newspaper came to the view that some hon. Members were tabling questions for money, what should it have done about that?
It could have dropped the investigation and said that there was no way that it could find out the facts. As the editor of The Sunday Times said in evidence, a newspaper reporter could have phoned up the hon. Members, but he went on to ask, what good would that have done? The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) said in his evidence that, if he had been asked by a reporter whether he would take cash for questions, he would have given the answer that one would expect: no. No Member of Parliament, if phoned by a journalist, would give any other answer.
The Sunday Times therefore decided that there was likely to be some justification in the rumours that were circulating and set about its job accordingly. If, ultimately, The Sunday Times investigation had been carried out and found that no hon. Member was willing to take up its offer, we could all be proud of that. We could justify criticism of The Sunday Times and say that what it did was totally without justification. But surely the reason for today's debate is that The Sunday Times found two Members who—the Committee of Privileges has decided—acted wrongly. The two hon. Members involved have apologised for acting wrongly. However much of a minority view it is, I cannot see why The Sunday Times should be taken to task for carrying out an investigation that it believed to be in the public interest and that was justified by the Press Complaints Commission.
I normally give way, but Conservative Members will have to forgive me if I do not give way now. Unfortunately, the debate is confined to just two hours and there is great pressure on time.
It gives me some satisfaction that, of the 20 Members who were contacted, at most three were found to be worthy of investigation—about one of whom the Privileges Committee came to another conclusion. It should give us some satisfaction that the large majority of those contacted would not be involved and made that clear to those who rang them.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The House has rules about the declaration of interest when Members are speaking. If an hon. Member speaks in defence of a newspaper, should he not declare that in the Register of Members' Interests he declares payment by The Guardian and other fees from the media—as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) does?
Having had one article published in The Guardian, I went out of my way to ring up the Clerk of the Committee to ask whether, in view of my position in relation to The Guardian newspaper—which we are not debating today—I should declare my interest. The advice that I received was that it was not necessary to declare my interest in a newspaper as such. I went out of my way to put that entry in the register and I believe that I was justified in doing so. [Interruption.]
I share the concern of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). I think that the gist of his argument was that, in defending his constituents, he was concerned about standards in the House. We are not concerned simply about ourselves; we are concerned about the maintenance of parliamentary democracy. If there is a general feeling that we are all on the make and there is sleaze everywhere, people lose confidence in this place and in the democratic process. That is against our interests.
There has rightly been a great deal of criticism about some of the ways in which newspapers, without justification, have made allegations and published stories about the private lives of hon. Members, whether Conservative or Opposition Members. Only two weeks ago there was a disgraceful story about a Conservative Member that could not possibly involve public interest. Indeed, the newspaper did not try to maintain that there was a public interest element.
We condemn trivial rubbish, for which we know there is no justification, and which is published in tabloids for the most obvious of reasons and, unfortunately, taken up by the serious press. But we must make a distinction between sensational tabloid material that has no public interest and legitimate matters in the public interest—which was what The Sunday Times, justifiably, was trying to find out about. The Sunday Times was trying to discover whether hon. Members were willing to take cash for questions. That was a legitimate investigation and in the public interest, so I hold that there is no justification for taking The Sunday Times to task.
I have tabled the amendment in my name and in that of my hon. Friends because I believe that the punishment of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) should be reduced to a reprimand. The Privileges Committee's report about my hon. Friend bases its case on a single distinction—the distinction between being paid for a question and tabling a question as part of a paid consultancy arrangement. That is implicit when it rightly says that there can be no distinction between being paid for tabling a question and a consultancy arrangement that only involves tabling a question.
I know that I am not alone in my view. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) and other hon. Members on both sides of the House wonder whether there can be such a clear distinction. However, the Committee had no choice but to make that distinction, because it has been accepted according to long-established precedent that hon. Members on both sides of the House have interests about which questions have been tabled from time to time. I have not done that myself, but I am raising no objection now to that practice.
If we accept that premise—I think that there are good reasons for wondering whether it is a sound one—we must then ask what are the facts of the case involving my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley. Did he or did he not think that he was tabling a question as part of a consultancy arrangement? The original meeting at which the arrangement was made took place on the Terrace of the House. Quite conveniently, it is the only conversation of which The Sunday Times has failed to produce a tape recording.
We know that The Sunday Times journalist concerned, Mr. Calvert, alleged initially that the meeting took only five minutes. Upon cross-examination by the Committee, he subsequently admitted that it could have taken half an hour. In such circumstances, I wonder how much weight should have been given to his testimony in my hon. Friend's case.
I shall shorten my case, as my time is limited. It has been alleged that my hon. Friend smelt a rat when he sent back the cheque. In fact, he carried out research first, not, as some hon. Members appear to believe, after he had received the cheque or after he had tabled the question. The hon. Gentleman did exactly what I would have done if, as a former business man, I were assisting a consultancy—although I would not have tabled a question. He went to Companies House to gather information about the company concerned. When I worked on takeover bids before my election to the House, I would begin my investigations at that point.
My hon. Friend agreed to table a question—that is the only point at which I disagree with his actions. I would not have tabled a question if I had a consultancy arrangement with a company—as many other hon. Members who have consultancy arrangements with businesses or trade unions have agreed to do in the past. [Interruption.] I know that hon. Members on both sides of the House want to see justice done and we are currently considering an issue of individual justice.
A cheque subsequently arrived through the post and appended to it was the note, "Your payment for tabling a question." Although there had been an initial half-hour discussion about a consultancy arrangement, it was at that point that my hon. Friend realised that it was not a consultancy arrangement: it involved simply tabling a question. Within an hour or two, he put the cheque back in the post—long before anything was exposed.
My hon. Friend has admitted to an error of judgment, and I think that he made such an error. However, I believe that he is a man of the highest integrity and I am proud that he is one of my colleagues. It is unbelievable that the Privileges Committee should propose to suspend him for 10 days over this matter.
I feel bound to put one final comment on the record. I have been a Member of Parliament for less than eight years and, as such, I do not expect my views to carry much weight. However, I was astonished that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who is the Chairman of the Committee, did not give us any guidance about the substance of the case against my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley. I could not help contrasting his actions with the short speech that my noble Friend Lord Howe delivered in the much more grievous case involving the former Member for Winchester. In a few succinct sentences, Lord Howe gave the House clear guidance as to the substance of that case.
I believe that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House had difficulty giving guidance about the substance of the case against my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley, because there is no substance to that case. I urge all hon. Members to support my amendment.
I tabled the amendment which appears on the Order Paper because I do not believe that the Privileges Committee's recommendations are strong enough. However, I will back the Committee's recommendations if my proposals do not receive the support of the House. I will certainly support the Committee's recommendations against the other amendments which have been tabled today which suggest that at least one, if not both, of the hon. Gentlemen involved should be let off.
On 13 July last year when we debated the issue, the hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) said that tampering, for whatever motive, with the right to ask questions should be dealt with severely by Parliament. I agree entirely with his comments. However, it is not simply a question of journalists or members of the public tampering with parliamentary procedure. As Members of Parliament, we should ensure that we do not tamper with or undermine the credibility of the tabling of parliamentary questions. I believe that the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) have tampered with our right to ask questions in the Chamber, and I agree that they should be dealt with severely.
When we table questions in the House, at public expense, people in the community should be confident that we do so as part of our duty as Members of Parliament and not in order to receive a fee. I am particularly concerned about the nature of the apology that the hon. Member for Colne Valley made to the House on 13 July last year. If hon. Members look closely at the letter submitted to the Privileges Committee by the hon. Gentleman on 3 March, they will see that he seems virtually to renounce his initial apology to the House. The letter states:
I wish to emphasise my strong belief that I was not in breach of Parliamentary privilege.
The hon. Gentleman puts up a robust defence of his actions and says:
A possible breach of privilege could only have occurred if I knowingly agreed to table a question in return for money. This I totally refute.
On 13 July last year, the hon. Gentleman said:
I accept that I made an error of judgment in agreeing to table a question and in agreeing initially to accept a fee".—[Official Report, 13 July 1994; Vol. 246, c. 1026.]
There is no reason why the two hon. Gentlemen should be treated differently as result of what happened on the Terrace of the House or in the parliamentary precincts.
Outside the House, the hon. Member for Colne Valley is telling another story. He recently gave an interview to the Huddersfield Daily Examiner and the article stated that he was
relieved that the Committee did not say he was in breach of privilege, nor that he was in contempt of Parliament".
I do not believe that that is true. We are discussing the issue today because the Privileges Committee believes that the hon. Gentleman was in breach of the privileges that we enjoy as Members of Parliament. I believe that the electorate, and not necessarily the Parliament, should decide the future of the two hon. Gentlemen. The Nolan committee may reflect on whether we should sit in our own judgment in the future.
No talk about set-ups or secret taping by journalists, and no cries of underhanded tactics or entrapment, can justify the hon. Gentlemen's decisions to accept payment for tabling parliamentary questions. I do not defend the actions of the journalists concerned; I think that they were wrong. However, I defend the actions of those Members of Parliament on either side of the House who were also approached by journalists. Six Labour Members and four Conservative Members refused to table questions for a fee.
The hon. Members for Colne Valley and for Bosworth also had that option, but they did not say no. I am sure that the majority of hon. Members would refuse to table questions for a fee and, on that basis, I believe that the two hon. Gentlemen deserve the punishment which will be meted out to them today.
I shall comment briefly on the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper. Almost every hon. Member who has spoken in the debate today has accepted that it is wrong to receive money in return for tabling questions. That principle was also accepted in the generous apologies of my hon. Friends the Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) with regard to this matter.
Beyond that, it is absolutely right that the House should debate our future conduct and that rules, Members' interests and so on should currently be a matter for the Nolan committee.
The motion is not even-handed. Recently, there have been several instances of the decline in the standards of modern journalism in The Sunday Times, The Guardian and others. They work on the principle that the ends will justify practically any means.
One has only to look at the report. It found that
the Sunday Times' conduct of its enquiries fell substantially below the standards to be expected of legitimate investigative journalism.
It also stated:
the taking of clandestine recordings is manifestly a contempt the House.
Another phrase leaps off the page:
This was clearly a form of entrapment through deception.
One Opposition Member used the word "seduction".
I have considerable sympathy with my hon. Friend's views. He will be aware of my concern, as I feel some responsibility for referring journalists to my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). Will he take into account two considerations? The first is the repeated use of the suggestion that a constituent had put the journalist in touch with the Members of Parliament concerned, and the second, which perhaps is not clear in the report, was the journalist's claim to be a friend of many Members of Parliament, including myself, which clearly influenced strongly the reaction of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth.
My hon. Friend's points are absolutely valid. It was not only a deception, but a deception planned in the most infinite detail by the journalist involved and based on a tissue of lies. We are asked to believe a theory that is based on evidence of people who have not been named—the men who never were. The report is redolent with observations and conclusions on the conduct of The Sunday Times.
In principle, I support the Committee's conclusions on the penalties on my hon. Friends, but only if an equivalent penalty is imposed on the newspaper involved. I see no reason why such sanctions should apply to my two hon. Friends, but not also to the newspaper, and that is why my amendment calls for journalists working for The Sunday Times to have their Lobby passes withdrawn for a period of 20 days.
It may assist the House to know that I do not intend formally to move the amendment standing in my name, but on that basis I cannot support the main motion on the Order Paper.
In the past three years we have considered the Calcutt report and the report of the National Heritage Select Committee on privacy and media intrusion, which dealt with the antics of the press. We have also seen what the Chancellor of the Exchequer was spending on his credit card flashed across the papers, Princess Di having intrusive cameras in the gymnasium and the royal family's telephones being bugged. The growth of electronic surveillance is totally out of control.
Even since the publication of the report, there was the incident reported in the News of the World two weeks ago. A woman had a tape recorder in her handbag when she met a Conservative Member of Parliament. Every word was recorded and splashed across the newspapers. There are no ground rules and no controls. There have been recommendations from the Calcutt committee and the Select Committee, but nothing has been done. I am critical of the Government, but the Press Complaints Commission of knows that there must be some self-regulation and some ground rules. That is how every other organisation works.
I am sorry, but there is not enough time.
The press breaks its own embargoes on the Queen's Speech. There is no question of the Press Complaints Commission fining or suspending anyone. There are picket lines on doorsteps as soon as anyone is in the news and an army of freelances invades people's houses.
The tactics of the press and the growth of electronic surveillance cannot be allowed to continue without some control. The British press now resembles the KGB, the Stasi and J. Edgar Hoover, and all the villains use the excuse of investigative journalism.
It could have gone to the police. It is amazing how often the police tipped off The Sunday Times when they were about to raid the house of Bruce Grobelaar when he was accused of taking a bribe. They work and collude together, but the victim has no recourse unless he has £500,000 to spend in the libel courts, which few people have.
In the two or three years since Calcutt and the Select Committee report, the Press Complaints Commission has refused to introduce ground rules in the same way as the British Medical Association and the Law Society have done, or self-regulation stating that it is not in favour of entrapment or of agents provocateurs.
A recent article in The Sun stated:
Colin Stagg, cleared of murdering Rachel Nickell on Wimbledon Common, is suing the police for malicious prosecution and wrongful arrest…after an Old Bailey judge condemned police over a trap set by an undercover girl detective to lure him into a confession.
The girl had carried a tape recorder and when the police produced the tape in court, the judge kicked out the evidence.
We now have one rule for the police and another for the press. The Select Committee report on the press stated that there should be no protection for Members of Parliament or any other famous people. It suggested that wd go into the arena, so we know what to expect, but even in an arena we expect some Marquess of Queensberry rules.
I am sorry, but I do not have enough time.
There are no rules even in the House. Anyone connected with the press who comes into the House should wear a badge. At the Labour and Tory party conferences, members of the press have to wear a badge. How many times do we go into a bar in the House and talk to a strange face? We do not know who those people are and they do not introduce themselves. They have been banned from the Terrace because of the way in which they hounded hon. Members who were in the news, so they now resort to the subterfuge of going on to the Terrace with a microphone up their sleeve.
Why cannot the Committee of Privileges and the Press Complaints Commission get together and say that we shall accept the present method of lobbying, provided that there are Lobby rules in the House so that we know what is happening?
When members of the press ring me, I automatically assume that they have a tape recorder running at the other end of the telephone. I have taken three cases to the Press Complaints Commission—I won twice and lost once—and the telephone conversation was produced every time. Everyone should be aware that the growth of electronic technology is such that it has produced not the freedom of the press, but the unlicensed tyranny of the press, which newspapers abuse regularly to denigrate democracy in the House and increase circulation.
It is important for debates in a national Parliament to reflect the central cultures of the nation that it aims to represent, so today's debate must be reflecting the time-honoured British custom of hypocrisy.
The Sunday Times, once a great national paper, is reduced to gutter reporting. Everybody in the nation and everybody in the House knows perfectly well what those journalists were doing. They used totally different approaches to Conservative and Labour Members. One minute they were talking about offers of a public affairs contract, the next they were having a conversation on the Terrace about consultancy and then, when the Committee asked for a very important tape—the House will not believe this—they lost the tape. They think that we all come out the Thames in a biscuit tin.
It seems, however, that there is a gulf of difference in the way in which Members register how they sell their services. What is the definition of long or short-term consultancy work? What is the definition of consultancy work? Surely those are two of the central questions that we should be asking.
We should consider also establishing a suitable means of adjudicating on alleged cases of corruption and misuse of privilege. If a Member's memory falls foul of the hazy House of Commons guidelines, he must undergo a trial by a kangaroo court. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) returned the cheque on the same day that he received it. He believed that the transaction could be classed as a short-term consultancy. After checking the details of the transaction more thoroughly, he felt, as he put it—this was on reflection—that it would be inappropriate for him to accept the cheque. He made a mistake and he did everything in his power to remedy it as quickly as possible. He apologised to the House at the earliest possible opportunity.
In my opinion, my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley acted as honourably as he could after he had discovered that he had made an error of judgment. Somehow that is not good enough. The Committee of Privileges still wishes to punish him. The Committee classed my hon. Friend's concept of short-term consultancy as a breach of privilege even though there are no clear guidelines.
It is not only Members who sell their services. We know that entire political parties sell their souls and their policies for financial reward. For a start, take that lot over there on the Opposition Benches. Why is it that 175 Opposition Members, including the entire Opposition Front Bench, are sponsored by unions? Why is that? It is done so that Labour Members can table questions on behalf of unions day in, day out, to look after their unions' interests.
Why does the Labour party raise £8.5 million a year? Half of it comes from its unions so that it can look after their interests. That is why Labour Members table questions day in, day out in this place.
Why is the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair), the Leader of the Opposition, who is better known as Bambi or the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Oratory), so eager to explain to the British public that
trade unions will have no special or privileged place within the Labour Party"?
How is it that such wanton hypocrisy is allowed to go unpunished?
Labour does not confine itself to exercising hypocrisy in accepting favours from the unions. The Labour leadership campaign provides an example. Three former London Weekend Television executives paid and fund-raised most of the £79,000 required for Bambi to become the leader of the Labour party. Those executives all made millions out of share option schemes. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) has been trying to make sanctimonious scandal out of share option schemes. Does not that seem a little like double standards? Why was not the £79,000—
The double standards in this place are there for all to see. Have any of us never made a mistake? We have all made mistakes. When we pass through the Lobbies, we shall see the ones who claim that they have never made a mistake. We shall see which Lobby they pass through.
I do not condone the actions of the Members in this matter, but rather than make scapegoats of them so as to brush a problem under the carpet, surely it is best that we think seriously about remedying the nonsense in the rules governing privilege. In that way, we shall all know where we stand. When a Member clearly breaks the rules against that background, I shall be the first to say that he or she must be punished.
I am sure that the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Evans) feels most relieved to have got all that off his chest.
First, if it had not been for The Sunday Times, the truth would not have come out. Let there be no doubt about that. Secondly, can we be clear what we are talking about? We are talking about conduct by Members—
Perhaps more than 100 other Members.
Over the years, Members have been prepared to sell the service of using parliamentary procedures to their clients for personal benefit. That has been going on for decades in the House, and that is what the hon. Members for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) and for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick) stand accused of. Let their punishment be seen in that light.
I have major and deeply-seated concerns about the report of the Privileges Committee. I feel ambiguous about the conclusions that the Committee has arrived at. Paragraph 47 causes me particular concern. It reads:
that is, the Committee—
no sustainable distinction between a payment of £1000 for tabling a Parliamentary Question and a consultancy for which the fee is £1000 and the only requirement the tabling of a Parliamentary Question.
The Committee sees "no sustainable distinction" between the two propositions. Nor do I.
I would go further. I see no distinction between a. consultancy for which the fee is £1,000 for tabling one question over a period of a few days, and a consultancy for which the fee is the same £1,000 for tabling a series of questions over a few weeks. There is no distinction to be drawn. In my view, they are both consultancies.
I understand that the hon. Member for Colne Valley protested to the Committee—this was later in his evidence—and said that he did not believe that it was a consultancy when he realised that he had to table only one question. I do not accept that. The relationship was parliamentary consultancy from beginning to end and indistinguishable from other relationships between Members and their clients in which series of questions are being asked.
The Committee, however, has seen a distinction. Paragraph 48 states that, in the first case, the action
fell short of the standards the House is entitled to expect of its Members, and that the House should take appropriate action to mark this view.
That is in the case of one question for £1,000. When it comes to the issue of a number of questions for £1,000, the Committee fails to take a position and says, in effect, that it may well return to the matter later.
The Committee had a duty to consider consultancy in its widest context before it drew the conclusions that it did in the case of the hon. Members for Colne Valley and for Bosworth. There is a simple reason for its failure to consider the wider issue of consultancy. From the inception of the inquiry, when the Privileges Committee was set up to examine the entire affair, the Committee was riddled or laden down with Members with commercial interests.
Their remit was to protect consultancies. They set out with a strategic aim, which was to isolate two Members, make out that what they did was not consultancy and somehow preserve the position of Members engaged in consultancy and doing precisely the same thing. That was an unacceptable way in which to proceed. I feel that the hon. Members for Colne Valley and for Bosworth must receive some form of punishment, but I shall not enter the Division Lobby.
That this House—