Let me tell the House that I have no intention of putting a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches. So many Members wish to speak, however, that I expect Members to discipline themselves.
I have selected the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), which can be divided on, if necessary, at the end of the debate.
I think that the House should first understand the difficulties facing my colleagues in finishing the business of the former Committee. Doing that is always difficult, but it is even more difficult in such a complicated case.
The reports that we are considering originate in a statement that you, Madam Speaker, made to the House on 14 October last year, after Mr. Neil Hamilton withdrew from his libel action against The Guardian You pointed to the serious allegations that had been widely made about the conduct of a number of Members of Parliament. You said that those matters must be resolved as soon as possible, and you called on the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges to make an early special report to the House so that the full nature and scope of any investigation that it undertook could be made known.
On 20 October, the former Committee reported to the House that it had asked the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, to investigate the allegations as a matter of urgency. The Committee arranged for the Commissioner to have the additional legal and administrative assistance that he asked for. It went on to say that, when the Commissioner had established the precise allegations and had assembled the supporting evidence, he would
determine whether there is prima facie evidence of a case to answer and, where possible, reach conclusions on whether the allegations have been substantiated.
I emphasise those words. The task that the former Committee gave the Commissioner was not simply to find out whether there was a prima facie case, but to go further and, where possible, to reach conclusions on whether the allegations had been substantiated.
When the new Committee met for the first time after the general election, Sir Gordon Downey presented us with his findings on the allegations against 25 Members and former Members. The Committee published his findings, with the oral and written evidence on which they were based, as its first report.
I am pleased to say that the majority of Members against whom allegations have been made were completely exonerated of any wrongdoing and I need make no further reference to them. Five former Members—Sir Andrew Bowden, Mr. Michael Brown, Sir Michael Grylls, Mr. Neil Hamilton and Mr. Tim Smith—were criticised by the Commissioner. They made written representations to the Committee, which were published at the same time as the Commissioner's findings. Apart from Mr. Neil Hamilton, with whom I shall deal separately, those Members challenged the Commissioner's interpretation of the facts, rather than the facts themselves.
Having considered the Commissioner's findings and what the Members concerned said in their defence, the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges considered whether the rules of the House had been broken and to what extent the conduct of the former Members had fallen short of the standards expected of them.
In the cases of Mr. Brown and of Sir Andrew Bowden, the Commissioner found failures to register or to declare financial interests. We concluded that their conduct fell below the standards that the House is entitled to expect of its Members. Had Mr. Brown still been a Member, we would have recommended a period of suspension from the service of the House, and we would have considered recommending a similar penalty for Sir Andrew Bowden.
In the case of Sir Michael Grylls, the Commissioner found that he persistently failed to declare his interests in dealings with Ministers and officials. Moreover, he deliberately misled the Select Committee on Members' Interests by seriously understating the number of commission payments that he had received from Mr. Ian Greer and by omitting to inform the Committee of other fees received from Mr. Greer. In doing so, he committed a contempt of the House. We found that the conduct of Sir Michael Grylls fell seriously below the standards that the House is entitled to expect of its Members. If he were still a Member, we would have recommended a substantial period of suspension, augmented to take account of his deceit.
In the case of Mr. Tim Smith, the Commissioner found that he had accepted substantial cash payments from Mr. Al Fayed in return for lobbying services and that he had concealed those payments. The Commissioner also found that the form in which Mr. Smith had registered his interest in the House of Fraser was totally unacceptable, and that he had persistently and deliberately failed to declare his interests in dealings with Ministers and officials. The Committee found that his conduct fell seriously below the standards that the House is entitled to expect.
We noted that Mr. Smith had admitted a substantial part of the allegations against him and made a full public apology. Nevertheless, if he had still been a Member, we would have recommended a substantial period of suspension from the service of the House.
Therefore, of the 25 Members, 20 were exonerated by the Commissioner and the conduct of five was found to be unacceptable. Only one of those 25 has sought to overturn the Commissioner's findings—Mr. Neil Hamilton.
The Commissioner concluded that there was compelling evidence that Mr. Hamilton received cash payments directly from Mr. Al Fayed and that the way in which those payments were received and concealed fell well below the standards expected of Members of Parliament. The Commissioner also criticised Mr. Hamilton for failing to register hospitality received from Mr. Al Fayed at the Ritz and elsewhere, for failing to register two introduction payments from Mr. Ian Greer, for deliberately misleading the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) about his financial relationship with Mr. Greer, for failing to register a consultancy fee from Strategy Network International, and for persistently and deliberately failing, in dealings with Ministers and officials, to declare his interests.
The Commissioner did not uphold other allegations against Mr. Hamilton. In particular, he found no evidence that Mr. Hamilton received cash from Mr. Al Fayed indirectly through Mr. Greer, and he found that there was insufficient evidence to show that Mr. Hamilton received Harrods vouchers. Mr. Hamilton has now admitted, and apologised for, many of the failures to register and to declare interests, but he denies that he received any cash payments from Mr. A1 Fayed.
The conclusion s that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges reached in Mr. Hamilton's case deal, first, with the issues of non-registration and non-declaration. We concluded that
cumulatively this list of omissions adds up to a casualness bordering on indifference or contempt towards the rules of the House on disclosure of interests. Mr. Hamilton's conduct fell seriously and persistently"—
I repeat: seriously and persistently—
below the standards which the House is entitled to expect of its Members.
That is the only occasion when we have used the words:
seriously and persistently below the standards".
The Committee goes on:
Had Mr. Hamilton still been a Member we would have recommended a substantial period of suspension from the service of the House".
I emphasise that that is the view of the Committee as a whole and that we formed that view irrespective of whether Mr. Hamilton took undeclared cash payments from Mr. Al Fayed.
That issue—the cash payments—was the most difficult that the Committee had to deal with. As I have said, the Commissioner found the evidence compelling. It included Mr. Al Fayed's first-hand account, with corroborative evidence provided by several of his employees, in particular Alison Bozek, a key witness, who provided evidence that she put the £50 notes in brown paper bags and wrote Mr. Hamilton's name on them, to be collected by Mr. Hamilton. She had been out of Mr. Al Fayed's employment for two and a half years when she gave the evidence to the Commissioner. At that time, she was in training to become a solicitor in a leading firm of City solicitors.
In his report, the right hon. Gentleman's Committee said:
This was a parliamentary inquiry and there was no attempt to replicate the procedures of a court action.
Surely the point of a court action and of our procedures, which have been built up over hundreds of years, is to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done. Many people cannot understand why his Committee did not give Mr. Neil Hamilton a chance to cross-examine his accusers. That is an absolutely elementary part of natural justice and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will explain why Mr. Hamilton was not given that opportunity.
I will come to that, but it was not a court action. In fact, as the House will know, Mr. Hamilton withdrew from the court action because his colleague withdrew.
Alison Bozek was interviewed by the Commissioner two and half years after her period of employment with Mr. Al Fayed, when she was training to be a solicitor at Allen and Overy Solicitors. A partner, Mr. House, said this about her:
I am very happy to provide a reference for Alison, who is currently working as a trainee in my department.
Alison applied for a training contract in September 1992. Her application was not given preferential treatment because of her position with Mohamed Al-Fayed. She was interviewed in February 1993 during our normal recruitment season and offered a position as a trainee solicitor on her own merits. After completing law school, she joined Allen and Overy on a two-year training contract in February 1996.
In November 1992 we took up a reference from Birkbeck College, University of London, where Alison studied for her BA as a part-time student. The reference is very positive in all respects and includes the statement 'I can vouch for her integrity'.
During her year with the firm Alison has met the high standards we expect of our trainee solicitors. I have never had the slightest reason to doubt her honesty and reliability.
I have formed a high opinion of Alison. She has been working for some time with me and other lawyers on a demanding case, and our regard for her is such that we have extended her period in the Litigation department, when in the normal course she would have moved on to another part of the firm.
She is mature, sensible and reliable. I do not believe she would lie in order to support her former employer's contentions. I hope this is sufficient for your purposes, and I will be happy to provide any further information you require. Once again I apologise for the delay in replying.
Is it not rather curious that the right hon. Gentleman should read to the House a long testimonial for a witness whom he prevented us from calling to the Committee? I was never able to put any questions to Ms Bozek. The right hon. Gentleman prevented the Committee from seeing that witness and forming its own view about her.
The Committee decided differently from the hon. Gentleman. I am giving the evidence that was received and acknowledged by the Commissioner.
She came when she was called by the Commissioner and Nigel Pleming. I shall deal with some other points when we come to the hon. Gentleman's amendment and if he wants to ask questions at that stage I shall be happy to answer them. I have outlined one part of the evidence which, in my view, is important. Other evidence is documentary and it has been tested forensically in private one-to-one meetings between Mr. Al Fayed and Mr. Hamilton, apparently at Mr. Hamilton's request.
Mr. Hamilton's letter to Mr. Al Fayed on 23 July shows a commitment strongly suggesting a financial relationship. Paragraph 142 of the report states:
In his letter to Mr Al Fayed Mr Hamilton explained that he had now been elected Secretary of the Conservative backbench Finance Committee and Vice-Chairman of the backbench Trade and Industry Committee, which, as he put it, 'gives me a better position from which to act on your behalf', adding: 'Previously, as a PPS, it was less easy'. Mr Hamilton concluded by saying that he would shortly be writing to Mr Francis Maude, the new junior Minister at the DTI.
It is not a matter of one man's word against another. Mr. Hamilton submitted a lengthy memorandum in which he challenged the Commissioner's findings. We asked the Commissioner for his comments on Mr. Hamilton's submission, and he gave them to us. Mr. Hamilton then appeared before us. He continued to deny the charge and questioned at some length the credibility of the witnesses but did not present relevant new evidence that might have formed a basis for further examination.
We had to consider whether it might be appropriate for us to take the matter further by calling the witnesses whom Mr. Hamilton sought to discredit. For reasons that I understand and respect but do not share, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) argued that we should, but we decided not to do that. If we had called further evidence, in my view and in the view of the Committee, we would inevitably have been drawn into reopening the whole of the Commissioner's inquiry.
The Commissioner's findings were based on the evidence of more than 60 witnesses and documents consisting of about 14,000 pages. A considerable proportion of that evidence related to Mr. Hamilton. If we had attempted to re-do the Commissioner's work, I do not think that we would have been able to take the matter any further than the Commissioner had done.
In the context of the amendment that has been tabled by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), the hon. Gentleman is naive to think that calling Mr. Al Fayed would be the end of the matter. Mr. Hamilton accuses many people of lying. He accuses of lying Mr. Al Fayed, Mr. Macnamara, Mr. Webb, Mr. Cole, Ms Bond, Ms Bozek, Mr. Bromfield, Mr. Preston, Mr. Hencke and Mr. Mullen. Mr. Hamilton says that all those people are liars and he is not.
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Commissioner did not take any evidence on oath? In paragraph 72 of his report, he gives his reasons for not taking evidence on oath and says that, in part, it was because he understood that the Committee was in a position to take evidence on oath. The result of the Committee's decision not to do that is that no evidence has been taken on oath or, to put it differently, none of the evidence was given on oath.
The Commissioner had with him Mr. Nigel Pleming QC and, as I have said, they conducted the investigation by calling more than 60 witnesses and having submitted to them documents consisting of more than 14,000 pages. They produced 900 pages for the Committee to examine. That was the consequence of the Commissioner's undertaking. As a result, our report concluded:
We are satisfied that the Commissioner has carried out a thorough inquiry which took the evidence presented to him fully into account. The Committee did not arrive at a practicable way of reaching a judgment which adds to or subtracts from the Commissioner's findings. So the Commissioner's findings stand.
Our problem was that, if we had taken just bits of evidence rather than the evidence of the 10 who have been accused of lying, each of those witnesses would be involved in other accusations and, as a result, we would have to do not only the work of the Commissioner all over again but even more.
I want to see the Committee succeed. It is difficult to take over a problem that was being dealt with by an earlier Committee, but that was the task before us. Our problem was to conduct an investigation through a Committee which, by its nature, reflects political party strengths. The Commissioner, a man of repute and high standing, conducted his affairs extremely well and thoroughly.
Three misapprehensions have been given currency since the Committee's report was produced. The first, which Mr. Hamilton himself has put about, is that the Committee has found against him on a series of trivial complaints and has been unable to reach a conclusion on the only complaint that matters. Mr. Hamilton has used the term "parking offences" and has compared the allegation about cash payments to a murder charge. That is disgracefully wrong. The other offences are not trivial and, taken as a whole, they are serious breaches of the rules of the House—serious enough to warrant a substantial period of suspension.
On the matter of the cash payments, the Committee decided by nine votes to nil that it could neither add to, nor subtract from, the Commissioner's findings. That is a clear majority for the Committee's decision. On that basis, as I said before, the Commissioner's report stands.
The second misapprehension is that the Commissioner has somehow exceeded his proper role. It has been suggested that the Commissioner's task is merely to find whether there is a prima facie case of a breach of the House's rules and that, if his finding of a prima facie case is contested by the Member concerned, it is for the Committee to hear the case and reach conclusions. I remind the House of the wholly exceptional complexity of this case. Allegations were made about a large number of Members.
The right hon. Gentleman has said that, when we reached a conclusion, we had no practicable method of adding to, or subtracting from, the Commissioner's findings and that that meant that the Commissioner's findings stood. Is it not true that, when an amendment was proposed by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell—Savours), I explicitly told the Committee, "If this is a concealed endorsement and that is the agenda, I will not support it"? I was assured by the hon. Member for Workington that it was not a concealed endorsement. In view of what the right hon. Gentleman has said, I believe that I was grossly misled. Let me put it plainly on the record. I do not endorse the Commissioner's findings.
That is a matter for the right hon. Lady. I am saying that if we neither subtract from, nor add to, a report, the report stands. I found no other way to handle the matter.
We say in our report that there was no other practicable way. That is a sensible observation. We accepted that we could not add to, or subtract from, the Commissioner's findings. I have only one interpretation of that—even though the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald, whom I greatly respect, thinks differently—and it is that the Commissioner's report stands.
I listened with interest to what the right hon. Gentleman said. It appears to me, and I hope that he will agree, that the procedure adopted by the Committee will stand up only when the essential facts are not in dispute. When they are in dispute, the procedure that he described does not stand up and provide a satisfactory outcome. When the facts are heavily in dispute, as they are in respect of the brown envelopes, should not those making the allegations and those seeking to rebut them be cross-examined and heard, on oath, by the Committee?
The problem remained that a vast amount of information was available. If we had proceeded along the lines the right hon. Gentleman suggested, we would have done more than just copied the work in the 900-page report and the 14,000 pages of documents because further allegations would have been made. We could not cancel out some of the evidence, because it would take too long. I could find no way to deal with such a procedure.
I am sorry, but I must make some progress. I shall try to give way later.
As I have said again and again, the major problem was that of a major investigation replicating the work of the Commissioner and carried out by a Committee that reflected party strengths. It was an inevitable problem. We gave the task to the Commissioner—an Officer of the House of Commons. We had confidence in him. He was not a prosecutor. The offences were not trivial and, taken as a whole, they were serious breaches of the rules of the House.
The second misapprehension is that the Commissioner has somehow exceeded his proper role. It has been suggested that his task is merely to find out if there has been a breach of the rules of the House and that, if his finding is contested by the Member concerned, it is for the Committee to hear the case and reach a conclusion.
I remind the House of the great complexity of the case, with the large numbers of witnesses to be examined and the huge bulk of documents to be examined. I also remind the House that the matter originated not with a complaint where the onus was on the complainant to submit the supporting evidence, but from Madam Speaker's statement. The Commissioner had to define the allegations and assemble the evidence.
The former Select Committee asked the Commissioner not merely to assess whether there was a prima facie case but, where possible, to reach conclusions on whether the allegations were substantiated and to report his findings to the Committee. That was the task an Officer of the House of Commons was given and he did it. Any other course would have left the Committee with an impossible task to perform.
The third misapprehension is that Mr. Hamilton has somehow been denied natural justice and that the Committee has failed to give him an opportunity to appeal against the Commissioner's findings. The procedures adopted by the Commissioner were inquisitorial, not adversarial. He was not a prosecutor; his aim was to arrive at the truth, not to secure a conviction. The procedures were shown in advance to the former Select Committee and to the hon. Members whose conduct was under investigation. They are described in full in the Commissioner's 900-page report. Not many people will have read all 900 pages, but they should at least read some of the most relevant parts.
The parties to the investigation were given the opportunity to comment on evidence produced by other parties which was relevant to the allegations against them. The Commissioner did not discuss his findings with those being investigated, at the request of the former Committee. I believe that the procedures adopted were fair to all concerned.
The Committee considered a great deal of material from Mr. Hamilton. The written and oral evidence that was before the Commissioner is all on the record. There is also a lengthy memorandum from Mr. Hamilton in which he challenges the Commissioner's findings. In addition, he appeared before the Committee and addressed it for two and a half hours in a public session. The Committee has bent over backwards to give Mr. Hamilton every opportunity to put his case to it and to respond to the Commissioner's findings. Had he presented new evidence that was not available to the Commissioner, I have no doubt that the Committee would have examined it carefully. He did not introduce relevant new evidence. Had he persuaded us that the Commissioner's proceedings were flawed in some way, I am sure that the Committee would have reopened the inquiry. He did not persuade us that the manner in which the Commissioner's inquiries were conducted was at fault. Had Mr. Hamilton persuaded us that the Commissioner's conclusions were such that no reasonable Commissioner could have reached them, we would have reopened the inquiry. He did not persuade us of that. His case was, in essence, that the Commissioner had heard all the witnesses and read all the papers, but came up with the wrong answer.
I have explained to the House that, in the unique circumstances of the case, a Select Committee is wholly unsuited to undertaking the investigative role which a full rehearing of the inquiry undertaken by the Commissioner inevitably would have involved. However, the Committee recognises that this case has highlighted the need to consider some of its procedures and to define them more clearly, in particular the Commissioner's responsibilities and those of the Committee. It is our intention to report to the House on those matters in due course.
I want to place on record the fact that this House owes a great deal of gratitude to an Officer of the House, Sir Gordon Downey, for the skill and care with which he has carried out an inquiry of enormous complexity. He served this House well as Comptroller and Auditor General and he has now served it extremely well as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. I also thank Mr. Nigel Pleming QC, who acted as counsel to Sir Gordon's inquiry and as a specialist adviser to the Committee.
When Mr. Hamilton withdrew from his libel action in the courts, he said that he would accept the Commissioner's judgment on the allegations. On the "Today" programme he said:
I'm going to put all the material which relates to me in this libel action, before the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Sir Gordon Downey, who used to be the Comptroller and Auditor General, who is perfectly capable of assessing this evidence".
In another part of the interview, he said:
I will seek the opportunity to have this matter considered by the Commissioner for Standards in the House of Commons, who will be able to take a measured view".
Finally, he said:
I have absolute confidence that I will be vindicated in a matter of weeks by Sir Gordon Downey".
Neither the Committee nor the Commissioner has vindicated Mr. Hamilton. He now seeks to discredit the findings of both the Committee and the Commissioner. I ask the House to uphold our conclusions and to approve the seventh and eighth reports of the Committee.
It is clear that there are extremely strong feelings about this matter on both sides of the House, not least within the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges itself. I congratulate and thank all members of the Committee for their work. They have had to conduct their examination in the glare of publicity and media interest, but they were not distracted from their responsibilities. The responsibilities have been heavy, because nothing less than the reputation and the integrity of the House is at stake. Important as is the reputation of individuals, the House's reputation and integrity and its ability to regulate itself are also important.
I want to make it clear from the outset that Conservative Members absolutely do not condone any conduct that falls below that which the House is entitled to expect from its Members. The work of the Committee, in its various reports, has shown that some hon. Members on this side of the House, and on the other side, engaged in such conduct. It is true that Conservative Members have paid the price for their conduct, but their behaviour has affected the standing of the House, of the Conservative party and of public life. I wish to place it on record that we most sincerely regret that consequence.
I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that Labour Members had to face investigation by the Commissioner and by the Committee. That is a matter of record. It is true also, of course, that one of his colleagues is currently suspended by the House. His colleague has appeared before the House, and other hon. Members remain suspended. It is therefore true that hon. Members on both sides of the House have had to be investigated both by the Commissioner and by the Committee.
It is perhaps worth pointing out that we would not be having today's debate without the establishment of the Committee on Standards in Public Life in July 1994, by the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). That Committee was given the following terms of reference:
To examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities and to make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life.
Subsequently, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has stated his personal determination to ensure the highest standards of behaviour in the Conservative party. As part of the wider reform and renewal of the Conservative party, we shall ensure that no one individual will ever again demean the reputation of either the House or the party. We shall establish an ethics and integrity committee—the full details of which will be announced next year—to rule on cases of misconduct. Conservative Members intend to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life at all levels—including, of course, in local government and public bodies.
In the reports, the Committee itself recognises the limitations of its own role. When the conduct of those who are not hon. Members has a material bearing on judgments made on those who are, the Committee is clearly not empowered to act. As the Committee states in its seventh report:
We recognise that, in practice, the powers of the House to punish non-Members are limited. In a future report we shall offer advice to the House on appropriate penalties and sanctions for Members, former Members and other persons involved in unacceptable behaviour.
The Committee also makes it clear, in paragraph 10 of its eighth report, that the scale and scope of the report are
wholly unlike anything envisaged by the House when it created the new system for examining complaints against the conduct of Members and appointed a Commissioner for Standards.
Normally—if one can use that word in this context—the onus would have been on an individual complainant to submit evidence supporting any complaint to the Commissioner. In this case, however, the Commissioner—following a statement to the House by Madam Speaker—was asked to define the allegations and assemble the evidence.
The Committee has consequently concluded that it will need to examine further whether there should be an appeal against the Commissioner's findings or the Select Committee's conclusions, except in consideration by the House. That is welcome. The fact that the Committee was unable to produce a unanimous report on that vitally important matter, despite the very best efforts of all its members and its Chairman, poses the question whether it has been the most appropriate vehicle for the task. That is a question that will have to be tackled by the entire House, because, as I said, at stake is not only the reputation of individuals but the principle of natural justice, and the House's ability to regulate itself.
Before the right hon. Lady deals with the particular case, will she endorse the view expressed by the Committee Chairman, that the Commissioner is the proper person to conduct the inquisitorial proceedings that were conducted in this case, and that no Select Committee would be appropriate for that task?
I shall quote later in my speech from the Committee's report, which seems to call into question the inquisitorial process. I will therefore not answer the right hon. Gentleman's question now, but will tackle the issue later.
In paragraph 7 of the eighth report—which the Chairman has already quoted—the Committee has ruled that Neil Hamilton's
conduct fellseriously and persistently below the standards which the House is entitled to expect of its Members. Had Mr. Hamilton still been a Member we would have recommended a substantial period of suspension from the service of the House. These conclusions are justified by paragraph 6 alone.
The report makes it clear that Mr. Hamilton accepted that he had failed to register a number of interests—which, of course, were serious breaches of the rules of the House.
The Committee's clear statement puts an end to what has been a difficult matter for the House and a personal tragedy for Mr. Hamilton. The former Member for Tatton has endured considerable public opprobrium, and he now faces the end of his chosen career. He will not stand on the official Conservative party candidates list again.
The Committee has been able to draw a line under the affair, and both sides of the House are indebted to it for that. However, the case of Mr. Hamilton—in respect of Mr. Al Fayed's allegations against him—precisely highlights the limitations of the Committee's role.
In paragraph 3 of the eighth report, the Commissioner is quoted:
This was a parliamentary inquiry and there was no attempt to replicate the procedures of a court action … The approach was inquisitorial, not adversarial. Its sole purpose was to arrive at the truth, not to achieve a `conviction'.
Given the effects on Mr. Hamilton's life and future, however, he would have had more rights in calling witnesses and producing evidence to support his case
against the allegations made against him by Mr. Al Fayed had it been a court action. He would also have had a right of appeal—something that he has been most specifically denied by the entire procedure.
The right hon. Lady has told the House that Mr. Hamilton will not appear again on a list of Conservative candidates. By what inquisitorial method within the Conservative party has that decision been reached?
I do not have to answer the hon. Gentleman about matters that take place within the Conservative party.
The House will wish to examine the important questions raised by the Committee's own limitations. It cannot be right that anyone is denied simple natural justice by a procedure of the House or the Committee, and the House itself should be concerned so to reform matters that that cannot happen again. That is something for the future.
The Committee will have drawn its own conclusion on that matter. I think, however, that no weight should be attached specifically to Mr. Hamilton's decision on the matter. I am concerned about the way in which the Committee's procedures reflect upon the House's ability to deal with matters affecting its own reputation.
Should not some weight be given to that fact in so far as two people—Mr. Greer and Mr. Grylls—lied in 1989 and 1990 to the Select Committee on Members' Interests, in writing in the case of Mr. Grylls and during oral evidence in the case of Mr. Greer?
I have no comment to make on that. Any kind of dissembling or lying is obviously regrettable and not acceptable. That is one of the things that the Committee uncovered.
I have accepted that certain Conservative Members have fallen below the standards of conduct appropriate for Members of Parliament. Without exception, they have paid a heavy price, but it should not be forgotten that such conduct is not the prerogative of this party.
As I said, there are very strong feelings on both sides of the House and on all sides of the argument. While recognising those and the effect on individuals of the limitations of the Committee's role in this case, we accept the reports, but we expect that the Committee and the House will bend their efforts to a reform of their procedures, so that those limitations will be corrected.
I served on the Select Committee on Privileges for 10 years, and I greatly regret to have to tell the House that I am unable to support the recommendation before us. I shall explain why.
My uneasiness about the report centres on a number of matters, some of which have been aired. The first is the method of inquiry, which was secret. However one looks at it, it was in many ways a judicial inquiry into the conduct of a Member of Parliament who was denied representation. Thirty-seven years ago, I appeared before the Privileges Committee and sought to be represented. That request was denied, because the Committee does not work that way.
Secondly, I am uneasy because the Committee sub-contracted its judgment to the Commissioner. It is no good saying, "We have found nothing to add or subtract," because by doing that, the Committee sub-contracted its judgment to the Commissioner, who also sat in secret.
Thirdly, the scope of the inquiry is far too narrow. It does not deal with wider questions that I shall outline, and the recommendations are too limited.
Before the right hon. Gentleman passes over that point, saying that the Committee has somehow sub-contracted its work, I should point out that what the Committee did was follow exactly the terms of the resolution passed by the House in the previous Parliament. That is the fact of the matter, not the construction that the right hon. Gentleman has put on events.
It is a matter for the House to determine whether the Committee would have been entitled to go further. I was thrown off the Committee three years ago because I was not prepared to sit on a secret Committee considering matters of this kind. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman voted for my removal—I would be surprised if he had not. I have held the view for a very long time that Committees dealing with individual cases should not meet in secret. That is a view that I now reaffirm.
I have no brief for Mr. Hamilton. What he did was utterly disreputable, so I have no complaint about what was said about him, but one thought occurs to me: did he break the law? I say that because the one thing that the House of Commons has totally failed to deal with throughout this matter is its own failure to lay down standards for all Members of Parliament. That is the issue that I wish the Committee had found time to consider.
What Mr. Hamilton did may or may not be widespread; I do not want to go into that. It may or may not extend to all parties; I do not want to go into that. Certainly, the sale of peerages has been known. It is a problem that has to be viewed in a very broad context. However, the whole debate has been overtaken by a wider question—not just cash for questions but cash for politics. On what condition should money be made available for political action, either by an individual or by others?
We have heard all the arguments about self-regulation. Self-regulation means, in effect, that we decide on an arbitrary basis instead of laying down the law as to what should or should not be acceptable and leaving judges to determine it. If Parliament passes a law saying what is and is not acceptable, that is self-regulation, but the determination falls to the judges, not to the House. There was always a problem with this in election cases which were transmitted to an election court instead of an election committee. A majority party always has a sort of interest in protecting its own members, which is why election cases are no longer handled in that way.
I am not in favour of Sir Patrick Neill being the man responsible for making recommendations of this kind. It is for the House to decide, on a considered judgment based on draft legislation. I shall take only a minute or two to try to identify what the law could have been that could have prevented this happening.
Just as a corrupt practice is defined in an election, so a corrupt practice should be defined for a Member of Parliament. What the House determined to do in legislation would be a matter for it to decide, but if someone were charged with a corrupt practice as a Member of Parliament, the matter could go to a court to determine. The person concerned would be able to present his case.
I have committed every known offence. I have been thrown out by an election court, but at least I had the opportunity to present my case, which I was not allowed to do to the Privileges Committee. I spoke for a week, which is the longest speech I have ever made in my life, the House will be glad to hear. At the end, two judges said that I was disqualified, as I had committed an even more serious offence—my blood had gone blue.
Has anyone ever looked at the list of disqualifications? It is as long as your arm, as we are always adding to it. Certain relationships should be disqualifying relationships. If it turned out that a Member of Parliament was working for Al Fayed or someone else and that was listed as a disqualifying office, that Member would be out, but it would be determined by law and not by the arbitrary proceedings of a secret Committee that operated without protection for those who were charged.
I should like to finish. I know that many hon. Members wish to speak, and I think my hon. Friend will agree that I have a long interest in this matter.
There must be transparency. The complaint about Mr. Hamilton is straightforward. If it had been known what he was up to, he would have been dealt with years ago. Indeed, the real remedy for Mr. Hamilton was his electorate, who dealt with him. That is the proper way to deal with people who have not done anything illegal but who have done something unacceptable.
I have never believed that the House had the right to throw out Members—none of us is here because the House wanted us, but we are here because our electors sent us here. The proper remedy for inappropriate behaviour is the electorate, and the proper remedy for illegal behaviour is the courts. Somehow, in the middle of all this, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton—under—Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), a distinguished body of people and a Commissioner hanging around to help him, have fallen between two stools.
I shall outline briefly what I think should be done. There should be a public register of gifts from individuals and organisations. Organisations and companies should have a ballot before they give money, just as trade unions do. Why should a company be able to give money without consulting shareholders when trade unions have to have a ballot? Companies should register any gifts and services that they offer to parties and to individuals.
Similarly, individuals and parties should be required to register the gifts and services that they have received—the amount and the recipient. I have said this before, but I repeat it now—this information should appear on the ballot paper. Voters should know the interests of candidates. The electorate are the proper remedy for inappropriate behaviour.
If the people of Tatton or anywhere else want to vote for someone engaged in something that is not illegal and that person has listed all his relationships, it is up to them to decide whether they want him. If it says on the ballot paper that the candidate is a director of 15 companies or is sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union, they will decide whether or not they want him. We are really discussing the rights of the electors, not the rights of Parliament. There should also be a cap on election law.
I am broadening the argument a little, but it is obvious in the light of what has happened recently that the question of cash for politics is more interesting and relevant than the issue of cash for questions.
It is not a matter of trust—I have never been inclined in my life to distrust people—but a question of law and responsibility. As a member of the Labour party, I would like to know who gives money to the Labour party, what they have given and when they gave it. That does not require legislation, but is a matter for me as a member of the Labour party. The shadow Leader of the House said that Mr. Hamilton would not be on another Conservative candidates list, and that is a matter for the Conservative party.
We are dealing here with transparency and the law. If we had had a combination of a clear statement of the law, judges to determine whether the law had been broken and transparency in financial relations, the Hamilton case would never have occurred. I regret that my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee, whom I deeply admire, has moved his report. I shall not vote against it, of course, but I cannot support what I regard as a classic failure by the House of Commons to do its proper job—to lay down the proper and improper things that a Member of Parliament can do.
I can start by agreeing with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) on at least one point. I have always regarded cash for politics as infinitely more significant than cash for questions. Anyone who understands parliamentary procedures knows that cash for questions was much closer to money by false pretences, implying without much substance that some influence had been bought.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield has always believed—very consistently—that this House is quite incapable of regulating itself and that these matters should be taken away from it. He believes that the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges—or any successor—is incapable of discharging these responsibilities. I stand here as a member of the former Nolan committee, but I am speaking today in a personal capacity and not on behalf of any other member of the Committee. However, anyone reading today's edition of The Times will have seen the views of Professor Anthony King—also a member of the Nolan committee—which did not come across as a wholesale endorsement of the approach taken by the House so far.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Chesterfield on another point. As the House chose to divert significantly from the Nolan committee's unanimous proposals as to the structure that the House should establish, I shall not support the motion. I do that with some sadness.
We are debating the seventh and eighth reports of the Standards and Privileges Committee. Until now, the structure of the Committee has worked well in dealing with different sorts of cases. I except from that the case dealt with in the sixth report—that of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing), who claimed that he twice asked to appear before the Committee before the judgment was made against him and before he was suspended. I do not know why the Committee refused to hear him. I hope that a member of the Committee will tell us why, because I am uneasy about that.
We sought to establish a system to replace the previous, manifestly inadequate system. The previous Privileges Committee was, at one stage, 17 strong with no investigative functions in support. Two hon. Members found themselves facing a sort of star chamber, and one spent more than five hours without representation appearing before 17 colleagues. Obviously, that was most unsatisfactory. The Nolan report unanimously recommended that a system be constructed which could be seen to accept the differences in the nature of Parliament. That system would need to be capable of dealing with many issues that are not crimes outside this House, but which are breaches of the standard of conduct that this House ought to expect of its Members if it is to continue to be entitled to claim the privileges which you, Madam Speaker, rightly claim for this House at the opening of each Session.
The committee set out not to put the matter in the hands of the courts—for the reasons that I have given—nor to appoint a new regulator who would be totally independent, sovereign and outside any control of this House, with one exception. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield touched on one important matter. One of the weaknesses at present is that we do not have adequately defined crimes of bribery of a Member of Parliament and corruption. I am glad that the Government have responded to the recommendations that those crimes should be established, making them a matter for a court of law. However, to deal with matters that fall short of crimes but which are totally unacceptable in a Parliament of our standing, reputation and credibility, another structure should be established.
We recommended the establishment of a new Standards and Privileges Committee and a new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. We proposed that the Commissioner should have security of tenure, but should report to the Committee, which would be sovereign. We recommended that the Standards and Privileges Committee should be a small but very senior Committee—we recommended that it should consist of up to seven very senior Members. Historians here may know that the original Privileges Committee was chaired by the Prime Minister, with the Leader of the Opposition representing Opposition parties.
The situation has changed. The Leader and shadow Leader of the House served on the previous Privileges Committee, and for the first reports of the present Committee. We recommended that that should continue. It is no secret that there is great disappointment that the Leader of the House has decided not to continue to serve. A unique feature of the job of Leader of the House is that it is not a party political appointment. The Leader is the one member of the Government who must speak for the whole of Parliament. It is important that we have someone in that position on the Committee. When the right hon. Lady previously served as shadow Leader of the House, she found that she could discharge her responsibilities, recognising her duty to Parliament as well as to her party.
I have heard it said that some of those involved in previous Committees believe that, in the final analysis, it will be impossible for this Committee not to end up on political lines. I hope that that is not true, but one of the weaknesses of the present Committee—here I am critical of the Government—is the inclusion of no fewer than three new Members. I did not know who the three new members of the Committee were until they were pointed out to me. I met one last week, and I believe that the hon. Members for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) are also members. I have never seen them before—they are new Members. I wish them well, but this is not fair to them, nor right for the House. Not only do we not have very senior Members; we have three new Members who have never been in the House before. Part of the Committee's task is to command confidence in the House among colleagues, and part of that comes from the reputation that hon. Members have established over the years among their colleagues.
The first weakness in the previous structure was the lack of proper independent investigation, and we proposed the creation of the post of Commissioner. I pay tribute to Sir Gordon Downey for the way in which he has discharged his duty. We never envisaged that the Commissioner would make a major finding—certainly, he might do so in cases where a malicious and unjustified complaint had been made, or in minor cases, but we never envisaged that he would be the final arbiter of major cases.
In that situation, we envisaged that if there was a case to answer, the Commissioner would put the case to a Sub-Committee, which would take it from there. The Sub-Committee would produce its findings and there would then be an opportunity for the Member to appeal to the full Committee. The House decided not to accept the recommendation to have a small Committee, although the Standing Orders indicate that there should be a Sub-Committee. My understanding is that the Sub-Committee still has not been appointed. The Standards and Privileges Committee is in breach of the Standing Order, which is a mistake. It would provide these tiers: the Sub-Committee, an appeal to the full Committee and then, if necessary, a final appeal to the whole House.
In this case, Sir Gordon Downey was instructed to reach a conclusion—I understand the remit to which he worked. He then said that his
duty was to arrive at the truth and not achieve conviction".
If the Commissioner arrives at the truth with what he describes as compelling evidence, but says that he has not arrived at conviction; and if the Committee then says that it will not add to or subtract from what he says; and even if one has read the full text and the amendment, in which the Committee deletes the statement "endorse the finding", it is not difficult to see why many people,
both inside and outside the House, begin to become worried about natural justice, especially as there was no opportunity for cross-examination or appeal as was recommended.
The House must now decide. I have made some critical remarks about the Committee, but I have considerable sympathy for its members, because I would be sorry to be faced with the awfulness of this case and some of the characters involved in it. The main witness had already been accused and convicted by the Department of Trade and Industry report of not being a reliable witness, yet he was the main prosecution witness against Mr. Hamilton. It was an appallingly difficult case, but no matter how difficult the case, the Committee has to reach as far as it can to be seen to achieve natural justice. It is also essential that, out of this case, we ensure that we maintain a system that commands public confidence.
It is true that some of the events, some of the happenings, some of the standards, some of the practices and some of the consequences of the vast invasion of lobbying that hit the House in the 1980s posed many problems—there were uncertainties and grey areas in which people were not sure what was expected of them. Now, because of the work of the Nolan committee, the House's response to that and the work of Sir Gordon Downey, we have cleared up a great deal of murky territory. Many perfectly honourable Members of Parliament who did not know what was expected of them now have a far better understanding.
I was pleased—and I am sure that new Labour Members are, too—by the acceptance of the Nolan committee recommendation that there should be proper induction training for new Members of Parliament and a proper code of conduct, so that hon. Members should be told what is expected of them. You, Madam Speaker, gave warm support to that because you understand its importance. Those improvements have meant—God willing—that we shall never see a case like this again and that most future cases will be of a minor correctional nature. None the less, in case there is another such case, the House must be ready and ensure that it has a system that meets the need.
If I may echo the words of Professor Anthony King, the House has to decide whether to have
an investigative or a judicial review function".
Is the Committee to be only a rubber stamp to the Commissioner? If the Commissioner submits a report, is the Committee's vote one of confidence in the Commissioner? Is the Committee to be faced with the resignation of the Commissioner if it does not accept the report? Or does the Committee have to accept that—no matter how complex, difficult or controversial the case—it has not a judicial review function but an investigative function and therefore has to spend time on difficult cases?
I believe that we must adopt that approach. In the face of this most difficult case, we must not abandon the structure, but I beg the House to look again at the Nolan committee's recommendations. They were made on an all-party basis, and the politicians and non-politicians serving on the committee tried genuinely to find what we thought was the fairest system, but the House departed from our recommendations. With no disrespect to those who gallantly served in difficult circumstances, I beg the House to look at the membership of the Committee and to raise the seniority of the Committee back to its proper standing. We need the structure of a Commissioner to investigate; a Sub-Committee to carry out further investigation if necessary and to reach conclusions; and the Committee and the House to provide the court of appeal.
I have been a member of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges since the start of the new Parliament. I thought that both the speech of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) and that of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) contained a great deal of wisdom after the event. The Committee faced the difficulty of operating under clear guidelines laid down in a resolution of the House, yet it appears that the complaint from several quarters, both inside the House and among members of the fourth estate, is that, in interpreting that remit in as fair-minded a way as we could, we have not come up with a conclusion that people feel is circular, tied up and completely to their satisfaction.
That comment underlines my point that the House has made a mistake. I said that when I was expelled and when I gave evidence to the Nolan committee, but I absolutely failed to persuade the House that the matter should be tackled on a broader basis.
I acknowledge the right hon. Gentleman's point, and I do not necessarily dissent from it.
My other point, by way of a brief response to the right hon. Member for Bridgwater, is that, although I acknowledge the sincerity and seniority with which he delivered his remarks about the Committee's membership, it has been my experience that the Committee comprises a group of impeccably fair-minded people. I say that especially in respect of the two members who happen to be Conservative Members—that is not how I think of them in connection with their membership of the Committee—but who have nevertheless been at odds with certain of the procedures and certain of the decisions. Therefore, I do not feel that the right hon. Gentleman's comments about seniority in terms of membership of the House of Commons are particularly apposite.
What we are looking for in a Committee of this sort is commonsensical judgment. I remember a journalist telling me a few years ago that we did not need all the paraphernalia—we just needed to apply the Private Eye test. I asked what that was and was told, "If it appeared in Private Eye, would you be embarrassed by it? If so, you should not be doing it in the first place." There is much common sense and wisdom in that remark, but it is not, unfortunately, an approach available to the Committee.
As one of the two Scots on the Committee, I would have to say that, in Scots law, the not proven verdict is one that has its critics. It is now invariably taken to mean, "Guilty, but unable to stick it on the accused." Not proven was essentially the verdict arrived at by the Committee on the central question of the cash-for-questions controversy. Although not a lawyer, I happen to be a defender of the not proven verdict in the Scottish legal context, and I would also defend its applicability in the context of the report that we are debating. However, it should not have to be defended in quite the same way on a future occasion.
As I understand the hon. Gentleman, he is saying that the Committee was not satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Hamilton was guilty of taking the money. If that is what he is saying—incidentally, I would agree with him—the House should not support the Committee's recommendations tonight.
As the hon. Gentleman is saying, I would have to refer the right hon. and learned Gentleman to the clear parameters set out by the Parliamentary Commissioner himself when he set about his task. He stated that we were not looking for the burden of proof as if it were a legal case heard in court, as Mr. Hamilton has argued for; in Sir Gordon's telling phrase, we were looking at "the balance of probability". That is what led him to conclude that there was a clear decision to be reached, and it was on the balance of probabilities that the Committee decided to endorse that decision.
Leaving aside the central issue of cash for questions, which is what the media descended on but was not the sole object of the Committee's remit, I should stress that Mr. Hamilton has admitted to a number of omissions, including the failure to disclose Harrods' hospitality and various introductory commissions and consultancy fees. That is what led the Committee to the conclusion that his behaviour fell "seriously and persistently" below the standard that the House can expect of its Members. The Committee said:
Had Mr. Hamilton still been a Member we would have recommended a substantial period of suspension from the service of the House.
What led the Committee to that decision were the facts—quite apart from cash for questions—to which Mr. Hamilton admitted in the full public gaze.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) has just pointed out, between 1985 and about 1990 the culture of the times was such that many Members accepted hospitality from companies without declaring it. The practice was widespread. Indeed, our own Prime Minister has accepted hospitality at Gleneagles and a trip on Concorde, the Deputy Prime Minister ditto, and the President of the Board of Trade likewise. What is more, our Prime Minister recently accepted hospitality at Silverstone—yet none of that was declared in the Register of Members' Interests. Hamilton's was hardly a unique case; what he did was not unreasonable in the culture that prevailed at the time.
I am not so sure about that. We all make mistakes from day to day in terms of what we do or do not disclose or accept as hospitality. That is mere human fallibility. If, however, the hon. Lady will look at the report in detail and read up on the sequence and successive nature of what Mr. Hamilton was accepting,
she will see that it was an open and shut case. I do not think that it bears comparison with what a great many other Members, let alone the Prime Minister, get up to.
It was clear to those of us who served on the Committee—we heard it from the horse's mouth—that the pattern of accepting certain things and not declaring certain things persisted for several years. Had I been a junior Minister in the Government of the day, and had I had a pointed conversation with the Deputy Prime Minister about allegations that had appeared in The Guardian and other newspapers, I should have been a fool not to be up front about my activities at that point. Yet it is clear that there was a fundamental lack of candour—
My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) made it clear in his letter that he was not seeking information from Mr. Hamilton about what had gone on in the past; he wanted to know whether anything was going on in the present. Disgracefully, Sir Gordon Downey reinterpreted my right hon. Friend's letter to imply that my right hon. Friend had asked Mr. Hamilton whether he had ever had any such relationships. I do not think the hon. Gentleman is being fair on that point.
I think that I am being fair. Anyone questioned in such circumstances about his activities, given the national media interest that had developed, should not answer simply in respect of the here and now. He should answer with details of past relationships with certain people. Still, the hon. Gentleman's point is a telling one, because it goes to the heart of the difficulty that faced our Committee.
Anyone can look at evidence and form any conclusions he likes. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has made a harsh comment about Sir Gordon Downey with which I would not agree. The crucial issue is that it was upon cash for questions that Neil Hamilton was being judged, yet it was the Parliamentary Commissioner appointed by the House and the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges that ended up, perversely, in the dock.
The conclusions that we reached were therefore neither the "political stitch-up" alleged by Mr. Hamilton, nor the "fudge" pronounced by his successor as the Member for Tatton. The Committee merely recognised Sir Gordon Downey's description of his role and remit, which was as follows:
This was a parliamentary inquiry and there was no attempt to replicate the procedures of a court action … Its sole purpose was to arrive at the truth, not to achieve a `conviction'.
As the right hon. Member for Chesterfield said earlier, anyone who complains about that now should have complained about it a long time ago, when the process was set in motion.
Although I hope that the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) will have his say in the course of the debate—we shall listen to him with great interest—does the hon. Gentleman agree that the electors of Tatton rejected Neil Hamilton so overwhelmingly at the general election because of cash for questions—which issue has not been proven in the report? So a man's reputation has been shattered.
That election was contested on the issue that became known as sleaze, of which cash for questions formed a major part—but it was not the only component. It is perfectly clear that an awful lot of other wrongdoing had been going on for quite some time as well. As for the psephology of Tatton, I do not want to go into it this evening, for reasons that the hon. Gentleman will understand.
I am clear in my own conscience about the decision that the Committee reached, but I am less clear about the procedures within which we operated. There must be a rethink, not least about the issue of an appeal mechanism.
In his recent Dimbleby memorial lecture, Lord Nolan pointed out how his committee had recommended a three—stage process: the initial inquiry by the Parliamentary Commissioner; consideration of the report by the full Committee; any subsequent appeal to be handled by a small Sub-Committee. As the Chairman of the Committee has pointed out, the Hamilton case is but the first of two dozen to have triggered the appeal process; and for reasons of complexity and of the resources available to us, most of us felt that we were simply not equipped to conduct such a process. That is not an abdication of responsibility: it is a recognition of reality.
Like the Committee, I hope that further consideration will be given to finding a procedure allowing a satisfactory appeal against the Commissioner's findings. My experience on the Committee is that such a procedure is unlikely to be discovered within Westminster alone. We should consider moving away from parliamentary self-regulation. The pre-election Privileges Committee was riven by party politics and partisan advantage. The post-election set-up was fair minded and cross party, yet its conclusions seem to have satisfied few.
In future, the Commons may have to refer any alleged breaches of parliamentary standards to an outside judicial system of inquiry with its own independent and in-built appeal mechanism. Only when that process is complete can a definitive verdict be reported to you, Madam Speaker, with the House then resolving upon the appropriate course of action. Alternatively, Members of Parliament, like local councillors, should be made subject to the usual course of criminal proceedings.
Either way it is hard to see how Parliament can much longer avoid legislating on what constitutes unethical or illegal behaviour on the part of its Members. The status quo may simply yield more not proven verdicts of this type—verdicts unique to the Scottish legal process and, I suggest, best left there, where they properly belong.
First, I want to consider in whose interests the Committee operates. I put it to you, Madam Speaker, that the Committee operates in the best interests of the House. Our brief was to ensure that the House benefited from our judgment, and I believe that we have fulfilled that brief.
For that purpose, it was necessary for us to be representative of the House. By being a cross—party group and by including old established Members—I am sorry, older established Members—and new Members, the Committee reflected the make-up of the House.
Arguably, we should have included more new Members to reflect the make-up of the House more accurately. I shall not argue that strenuously, but in my opinion it was beneficial that those of us who served on the Committee as new Members had, until only a few weeks before our appointment, been members of the public. We had watched what was going on. We had made our judgments about this place and at the time we were talking to our respective constituents and gaining their impressions of this place and of the damage that was being done to its reputation by the things that were being said and done by Members whose cases came before the Committee.
We have started to perform our role of setting standards and of rooting out abuse of privilege. In the report, we commented on our proceedings and suggested ways in which we might make progress. The system is not perfect and the proceedings are not yet fully tried and tested, but we operated within the rules set down to guide us.
As the current hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) said a few days ago, the appearance of wrongdoing can be as damaging as wrongdoing itself. He said that in a different context, but how right it is regarding our investigation into former Members. When one Member of the House is caught out in the way that those former Members have been, a process of corrosion starts which affects all of us. That means that we must demand the highest ethical standards. The worst offence that a Member can commit is to disgrace the House.
I shall now discuss our eighth report. We said in earlier reports, considering others of the five former hon. Members who were particularly found by Sir Gordon to warrant our judgment on them, that accepting cash for questions was wrong. It was done in various ways, but in every case we said that it was wrong. Where it was proven, to the satisfaction of the Committee, that Members had accepted cash for questions, there would have been suspension from the House had they still been Members, and most of those Members who were found to have done so accepted that judgment. One did not, and we asked Sir Gordon Downey to carry out the investigation.
Sir Gordon spent hours in cross—examination, read volumes of evidence and produced a report many hundreds of pages long. He found compelling evidence of the acceptance of cash for questions. He did not establish absolute proof. Perhaps he did not establish what had happened beyond all reasonable doubt, but we were not applying a criminal standard of judgment because we were not operating as a criminal court. Mr. Anthony King, who has been mentioned more than once in the debate, says in The Times today that
the committee would … exercise a broadly 'judicial review' function and reject the Parliamentary Commissioner's report only if his procedures had been seriously flawed or his findings manifestly unsafe and unsatisfactory … It has clearly concluded that Sir Gordon Downey's procedures were not seriously flawed and his findings not unsafe and unsatisfactory.
He says that we were reluctant to use that form of words. I am happy to use that form of words because that is what we found.
I accept some of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) said about making bribery of Members of Parliament a criminal offence and making the acceptance of bribes by a Member of Parliament a criminal offence, but that is not the situation that we are in and that is not the background against which we made our judgments and Sir Gordon carried out his investigation.
I repeat that this was not a court of law, so we did not have to apply legal standards of proof. In fact, the House changed the law to allow Mr. Hamilton to test his case against legal standards of proof in a court of law. The fact that he did not eventually do so is not the Committee's concern. That was where the law came into the case.
The nature of the allegations regarding cash for questions was such that it would always be difficult, if not impossible, to establish absolute proof. Conclusions were reached only on the basis of the testimony of individuals close to the event, and in that case, in order to move further and further towards an absolute standard of proof, we would have been obliged to open a procedure that was potentially indefinite. We might always get closer and closer, but we could never reach an absolute standard of proof because of the nature of the allegations. Nevertheless, as Sir Gordon said, the evidence was compelling.
As hon. Members have said, however, it does not matter whether the proof was absolute in the specific case, given the Committee's role, for two reasons.
The first reason is that, as the hon. Member for Tatton said last week, the appearance of wrongdoing was bad enough. When that wrongdoing is "seriously and persistently" carried out—the phrase used in our report—it is even worse.
However, let us put the cash-for-questions issue aside for a moment. Sir Gordon Downey's report and the Committee's report set out 11 allegations against Mr. Hamilton, only two of which relate to cash for questions. Sir Gordon found two of the remainder "not proven". That leaves seven allegations that were substantiated, over and above the cash-for-questions allegations—allegations of misrepresentation, of failure to register interests, of taking commission payments without declaration and of being disingenuous, to say the least, in attitude towards a Minister of the Crown and the Cabinet Secretary.
Those were offences against the House, and the decision of the Committee outlined in paragraph 7 that
Mr. Hamilton's conduct fell seriously and persistently below the standards which the House is entitled to expect of its Members … we would have recommended a substantial period of suspension from the service of the House
was passed unanimously. The report shows that there was no dissent or abstention: there was agreement without division on that paragraph as it related to the allegations other than those concerning cash for questions.
The hon. Gentleman is going on about a red herring. The whole point about the procedure was that when the Commissioner could agree on the facts there was no appeal. Clearly, in this case the facts were not disputed. Mr. Hamilton and all the others accepted that they had not observed the rules and we simply left that matter aside. The sad issue that the House must confront this evening, whether it likes it or not, is that there was a procedure for an appeal against the Commissioner's verdict when the facts were not agreed.
Mr. Hamilton was entitled to exercise that appeal. He did so and his appeal was never properly heard. He appealed on the vital issue of whether he took money from Mr. Al Fayed. As a result of the behaviour of the majority of the Committee, no one will ever know whether Mr. Hamilton took money from Mr. Al Fayed and no one has ever been in a position to question Mr. Hamilton about it on behalf of the House, or to question Mr. Al Fayed, who would have been equally guilty had money passed hands in that way.
That is not the point. The Committee was set up to serve the House and we said what standards of behaviour we expected. Whether or not all the allegations are proven to an absolute standard of proof, we said that Mr. Hamilton's behaviour was wholly unacceptable and he would have been suspended had he still been a Member. That is not in dispute. When we had the death sentence, someone could be found guilty on six charges and beheaded; it was immaterial whether they were found guilty on a seventh charge.
The Standards and Privileges Committee carried out its work diligently and at great length. Sir Gordon Downey went to painstaking lengths to produce a huge and utterly convincing report, which we examined for several months. We had three written rebuttals from Mr. Hamilton at various stages of the report and a lengthy two-and-a-half-hour contribution from him in person. It was an experience having Mr. Hamilton make a presentation before us that day. It was entertaining, skilful, slick and seductive, but it was empty. Nothing during those two and a half hours gave me or the majority of Committee members any reason to want to reopen the debate on Sir Gordon's report. Nothing that Mr. Hamilton said made us feel that Sir Gordon had the wrong end of the stick or had misinterpreted what was going on.
The House commanded us to carry out our deliberations within a reasonable period of time. That form of words appeared when the Committee was set up. We took more than a reasonable amount of time. Had we reopened the question and taken witnesses, we would not have seen an end to our deliberations. We had no reason to do that because we had no reason to doubt Sir Gordon's report.
As the hon. Member for Tatton said last week, the appearance of what was going on was what mattered. The appearance of wrongdoing in this case was total, and I stand by the Committee's report.
I intend to speak briefly without the help of interventions.
Something that is not in our report is the fact that no one has accused Neil Hamilton of doing anything as a Minister that would have made Mr. Al Fayed happy. In practice, most of the Al Fayed accusations were made because Ministers would not do what he wanted.
The eighth report clearly draws a line under paragraph 7. Of the broadsheets, excluding the Financial Times, The Guardian was the only newspaper to reflect in practice what the Committee had agreed. Most of the other commentaries, especially in the press, were on the basis that the eighth paragraph had been used for the conclusion of paragraph 7. As the Committee Chairman said, the report says clearly that what we would have recommended for Neil Hamilton was based on paragraph 6, which is not the contentious part of the allegations taken through by the Commissioner or the Committee.
In simple terms—although this is a complicated matter—the Committee did not find Neil Hamilton guilty on paragraph 8. We did not overturn the Commissioner's work, but neither did we say that Mr. Hamilton should be recommended for punishment under paragraph 8. The fact that it is not material has been missed by many people.
Like the hon. Members against whom allegations were made in the seventh report, Neil Hamilton would have been acceptable as a Member of Parliament had he served a period of suspension, substantial or not.
Had the Committee wanted to recommend that someone was unfit for public life or that they should be struck off by their professional bodies, I have no doubt that we were capable of saying that. Because we did not, people in the House and outside should not believe that the Committee's recommendations went further than they would have done had those Members been re-elected at the last election.
My next point may be controversial. It relates to the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell). I think that he has rightly stayed away from these issues up to now. If he speaks tonight, I shall listen with great interest. When the House has disposed of our reports Nos. 7 and 8, I hope that the House authorities will consider whether the hon. Gentleman should be nominated to join the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, as he is not likely to be a Member for a number of Parliaments—he said that he would stand only once—and he should be able to bring a point of view that would be of value to the Committee.
To those who want to understand what has been going on, I commend the early pages of the first report, which spells out how the matter started and why it is an unusual case. I do not believe that in future we shall have to deal with general accusations thrown about by someone like Mr. Al Fayed—to whom I say, not in passing but specifically, that I extend my sympathy on the loss of his son. Mr. Al Fayed will not be repeated many times. He made accusations, a number of which were extremely serious. Some were untrue.
I also want to draw attention to what the Commissioner says on page 5 of the first report. He states in paragraph 33 that he wants also
to acknowledge that, but for The Guardian's persistence in pursuing its original investigations, many of these serious allegations would never have been brought into the open.
He goes on to say in paragraph 34—and this, I believe, the Press Complaints Commission should call for and invite The Guardian to comment on:
I cannot, however, view in the same light The Guardian's action in leaking extracts from the transcripts of oral evidence given to the inquiry. I repeat what I said in a press statement on 21 March 1997, namely that the selective publication of incomplete evidence was both inimical to the principle of natural justice and a gross breach of the trust placed in The Guardian as a party to the inquiry.
Those are not matters that the House should take up, but The Guardian and the Press Complaints Commission should consider them together.
On the issues before the House, I believe that the House is perfectly capable of considering recommendations from Sir Patrick Neill, as we did from the Nolan report. We are capable of coming to conclusions and, if necessary, taking further evidence for the Committee after investigation by the Commissioner. The number of cases where Members or former Members seriously dispute facts after inquiries by the Commissioner will be non-existent or very limited. [Interruption.]
Order. I should be glad if hon. Members would desist from arguing with me at this time simply because it is doubtful whether they are going to be called. They are challenging the hon. Members whom I have called. [Interruption.] Yes, you are. You are looking at the list to see who has been called. You will desist from coming to my Chair.
Order. You have been challenging who I have called and complaining that I have called the Chairman of the Committee. The Chairman of the Committee has every right to be called, and to be called first. I will hear no more. Resume your seat and we shall continue with this debate.
The most important issue for us is to try to work in this House, not in the expectation that there will never be a time when any of us will transgress, but in the knowledge that we have a method of investigating complaints. I believe what has been said already—that the commissioner is the right person to test whether complaints need to be taken further.
My final major comment relates to the procedure of the Committee and the options open to hon. Members on it. During our deliberations, I pushed one issue to an oral vote, but not to the taking of names. The way in which the report came out reflects the contributions made by members of the Committee together. Those who put too much weight on the fact that we did not accept the words about endorsement in the draft Chairman's report are building too much on that. We could have arranged matters in such a way that the word "endorsed" never appeared in our deliberations or in the vote. We did not do that.
I believe that we are capable of raising the standard of behaviour of Members of Parliament. I believe that what happened during the 1980s was excessive. I believe that from now on, when hon. Members speak in the House it will be because they are saying something that they believe, although they may be wrong, or because they are saying something that is in the interests of their constituents, although they may be wrong, or something that they believe to be in the national interest, although they may be wrong, but it will not be because they have been getting benefits from people outside.
I make one final plea: could I please be invited to any meetings of Transport and General Workers Union members in this place? I have been a member of the union and of the House for 22 years, but as I was not sponsored by the union I have never been invited to a single meeting.
; I beg to move, as an amendment to the motion, in line 1, to leave out from "House" to end and add:
notes that, on an amendment proposed by the honourable Member for Workington, the Committee on Standards and Privileges resolved, nemine contradicente, not to endorse Sir Gordon Downey's findings in respect of Mr. Neil Hamilton; expresses its deep concern that the ultimate author of the grave allegations concerning cash payments, Mr. Al Fayed, was not called to give evidence before the Committee on oath in public; and believes that justice cannot be done until Mr. Al Fayed has been so called.
I must declare an interest in the debate at the outset: Neil Hamilton is a friend, and has been for many years, and I will not stand by and see an injustice done to a friend without speaking my mind. I hope that I shall not face too many serious consequences for so doing—but if one cannot speak one's mind in this place, where in the world can one do that?
I believe that Mr. Hamilton has been subjected to the most wicked, vicious witch hunt in the media—particularly in The Guardian newspaper, whose journalists have something to answer for. Nobody knows better than me that he has conducted himself throughout the past extraordinary months—which have been incredibly difficult for him, his wife and family—in a manner that is nothing short of magnificent. He has shown great courage and great determination—in part, it is his determination that got him into such trouble as he is accused of protesting too much. I think that he has acted with great dignity. To those who are concerned that he appears too much on television—on perhaps slightly down-market programmes—I would say that that illustrates the point that he made to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges: Neil Hamilton is unemployable. He has lost his seat in this place and has no prospect of employment elsewhere. The only way that he can keep a roof over his head is by diverting those talents that he displayed with such excellence in this place.
I am conscious that many hon. Members wish to speak in the debate, so I shall endeavour to be brief—although I must confess that it will be difficult. This business is known to the public as the "cash for questions" affair. It is, therefore, proper that I should concentrate my remarks on the specific allegation that Neil Hamilton received cash, in whatever form, from the proprietor of Harrods, Mr. Fayed.
In answer to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for Ashton—under—Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), I assert that Mr. Hamilton has apologised. He is deeply apologetic for some of the errors of judgment that he made, and I have not heard him refer once to "parking offences". I do not dispute that Mr. Hamilton may have said that—if the right hon. Gentleman says he has, I shall leave it at that. However, I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that Mr. Hamilton is extremely contrite and apologetic for his lapses of judgment.
It serves no purpose the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) claiming that Mr. Hamilton has committed the most heinous offences. The Prime Minister also has a catalogue of non-declarations. I do not wish to be too partisan, but I suggest to the House that it is not fair to criticise a former Member for taking hospitality when the Prime Minister did so also. The Prime Minister's response to not registering was to say, "They saw me on television." It is no use hon. Members bickering about it; that is a fair point.
I have sought to amend the motion before the House to draw attention to two important and connected issues. The first is the injustice to Neil Hamilton and the second is the cumulative damage done to the House by Mohammed Fayed, the proprietor of Harrods. I remind the House that the story began when The Guardian newspaper alleged that Neil Hamilton was paid £2,000 a time by Ian Greer for tabling parliamentary questions. The fact that he tabled rather fewer parliamentary questions—certainly fewer early-day motions—than the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is relevant only in the sense: why pay Mr. Hamilton if the hon. Member for Workington will do it for nothing? Which he did, I hasten to add—
And more effectively, the hon. Gentleman says from a sedentary position.
It is an important point. However, the most important point is that an analysis of Ian Greer's accounts disproved beyond doubt that Neil Hamilton had received payment from Mr. Fayed via Ian Greer, and that charge, which was the essence of The Guardian's charge in October 1994, was dismissed by Sir Gordon Downey. The accusation that Neil Hamilton had received gift vouchers from Harrods was also dismissed.
As the legal action was proceeding, Mr. Hamilton sought the permission of Parliament to change the law so that he could take the case to court. He took it to court, and Mr. Fayed then changed the allegations about cash and said that, rather than being paid by Ian Greer Associates, it was paid face to face. Neil Hamilton pointed out that at one of the meetings where these cash payments were supposed to have been made by Mr. Fayed, Timothy O'Sullivan, a man of undoubted integrity, was also present. Mr. Fayed had forgotten that one, so it was no longer possible to argue that Neil Hamilton had been paid face to face. What happened then? Ah, we come to the brown envelopes. The brown envelopes were the means by which the payment was made. Mr. Fayed is a man most familiar with the transmission of cash through brown envelopes. I know because I have a constituent who used to be in his employ, and he tells me all about it. It is not all dishonourable stuff. It is the largesse of the man. He has much of it. Nobody knows where it comes from but he has much of it.
We found that Neil Hamilton had not been paid through Ian Greer. Sir Gordon agreed with that. He had not been paid face to face, because an independent witness proved that that could not have happened, at least on that particular date, and therefore must have undermined Mr. Fayed's credibility. Finally, at the door of the court, at the 59th minute of the 11th hour, we had the third allegation: that the cash in the brown envelopes was collected from the desk of Fayed's Park lane offices and couriered to Neil Hamilton's home. That is the changing scenario against which the judgments were to be made.
The hon. Member for Ross, Skye and inverness, West referred to the verdict in Scotland of not proven. I say to the Chairman of the Committee, it is a cardinal principle of English law—not Scottish law—that a man is innocent unless and until proved otherwise. In its report, the Committee has failed to produce the evidence that Neil Hamilton received money from a very powerful business man.
My hon. Friend and I sit on the Home Affairs Select Committee. He will recall that he has heard the Home Office Minister arguing in terms that where policemen face dismissal for serious disciplinary offences, the standard of proof should be the criminal one—beyond a reasonable doubt. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is the appropriate approach to take with hon. Members of the House?
I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. He has made a most important point. It is a most cavalier attitude if the House is saying that in this case a former Member of Parliament's entire life can be destroyed, completely shattered, simply on the balance of probabilities. That is not good enough. I do not think that Sir Gordon Downey's compelling evidence—his words—is compelling in the least. He has failed to say how much Neil Hamilton took. He has failed to say when he took it. He has failed to say how he took it. Above all, he has failed to say what happened to the money when he had taken it. As to how much he had taken, Sir Gordon is instructive. In volume I of the first report, at page 122, he says:
The total amount received by Mr Hamilton is unclear, but it is unlikely to have been less than that taken by Mr Smith (between £18,000 and £25,000).
It is a lot of money, but it is no basis upon which a former Comptroller and Auditor General should charge a Member of this House and say
it is unlikely to have been less than
while also saying,
The total amount … is unclear".
I do not believe that a servant of the House—the Chairman of the Committee tells us that that is what he is—has any business making that kind of accusation.
The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Leslie) has said from a sedentary position that it was a lot of money. Sir Gordon also charged Mr. Hamilton with failing to declare a one-month consultancy, which added up to £667 and which he described as a material sum of money. So Mr. Hamilton has been stuffed both ways—£667 is judged a serious amount of money when it comes to non-registration of a consultancy, but between £18,000 and £25,000 is a cavalier amount of money.
It is instructive to read what Sir Gordon says in the report about what happened to the money. The hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) said that we must deal with the appearance, but that is absolutely breathtaking. To suggest that just because the public think that something wrong was committed, we must therefore go along with that, is a most extraordinary attitude. It is gravely damaging in one who is a member of the Committee, which should operate on the basis of fact alone and not on the basis of conjecture.
The Chairman of the Committee has said that it has not been possible to find hard evidence either way. Of course, it would be possible because Sir Gordon has gone through
Mr. and Mrs. Hamilton's bank accounts, building society accounts and all other accounts. He cannot find the money. What does he say about that in the report? He uses the following words:
I am unable to shed any light on what became of this money … Given the relatively modest sums involved, and the fact that the payments were spread over a period of more than two years, the absence of such documentary confirmation of their receipt is perhaps not surprising.
That is not an acceptable judgment on which to condemn a man who has given great service to the House; a man who has given great service as a Minister; and great service to the country. He should not be condemned on the basis of such cavalier behaviour. The House ignores those facts at its peril.
Is it also right that the House should also ignore the corroborative circumstantial evidence which is in the Commissioner's report, such as that provided by the telephone message pads, which suggest that Mr. Hamilton was, to use the words in the report, "soliciting" for the preparation of payments? Should we also ignore such evidence or should we regard it as compelling circumstantial evidence?
The hon. Lady does not need to get too excited because I was about to deal with whether that evidence was compelling or not. [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Lady would be interested in considering what was the corroborative evidence. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I am dealing with it. As for the message pads, the messages were taken by staff, and I want to deal with the staff.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the exchange between him and the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) provides an ample demonstration of the reasons why at least two of us on the Committee wanted to go through the evidence and test it thoroughly? Surely it amply demonstrates the exact problem that we faced — there was one piece of evidence followed by another, another and another, which we wanted to test.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, with whom I agree entirely. That is why some of us on the Conservative Benches at least, and, I believe, elsewhere in the House, are concerned about the findings of the Committee because there has not been an opportunity to test Mr. Hamilton's arguments, let alone those of other people who have not been called at all. Sir Gordon has no direct evidence that Mr. Hamilton received the cash, or what he did with it if he did receive it. He has to rely on the evidence of witnesses who are Fayed employees.
It is interesting that, in the case of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), Sir Gordon said:
They cannot all be telling the truth and this has underlined the crucial importance of seeking independent corroboration for the allegations.
Sir Gordon did not explain why Al Fayed's employees were not independent in the case of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe, but suddenly became so in Mr. Hamilton's case. It is up to Sir Gordon Downey to explain that.
These events occurred 10 years ago, and these witnesses have a recall about Neil Hamilton that they have about nobody else. I do not want to bore the House with the details, but I shall give a couple of examples. Mr. Philip Bromfield sat at the desk in Park lane. He apparently remembered giving envelopes to Tim Smith, who we now know did not receive any envelopes from Park lane, so Mr. Bromfield's evidence should be questioned. Tim Smith was paid on seven or eight occasions, but he never collected an envelope from Park lane.
Mr. Bromfield remembered Mr. Hamilton, but failed to remember Francesca Pollard. Those of us who have been in the House for a while will know that Francesca Pollard was being paid by Fayed to write nasty things about Tiny Rowland. Every month for over four years she collected £2,000 in brown envelopes, but Mr. Bromfield could not remember her collecting those 40 envelopes. How can we rely on that evidence? There is plenty more where that came from, but I shall not trouble the House with it.
Does my hon. Friend accept that the point of this debate, which will last only three hours or less, should not be to argue the toss about these detailed aspects of evidence? The question that the House should ask is whether this accused man should be allowed to cross-examine his accusers. Is it right for the House to abrogate that role, and for the Committee Chairman to say that we do not have time? That is what we should be arguing about.
My hon. Friend is right, but it is also important to draw attention to some of the detail, given some of the comments that have been made in support of Sir Gordon Downey. There is considerable evidence that Fayed employees were not suitably independent to be relied on in this important matter.
I think that Mr. Fayed has done immeasurable damage to the House. He congratulated Neil Hamilton on his appointment as a Minister, but was galled because of his failure to buy Mr. Hamilton, who acted with total propriety, unlike the Minister for Public Health. When he was told by his civil servants that he could handle House of Fraser matters, he handed the papers over to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). Miss Bozek gave the game away when she wrote of Mr. Hamilton in The Mail on Sunday:
We thought he would be tremendously helpful to us. We were very disappointed that he wasn't prepared to help. … When he obtained a position that could have been really useful he opted out. He never even replied to Mr. Al Fayed's letter of congratulations.
Mr. Fayed was fed up because he could not buy a Conservative Minister. He could not get his case overturned at the European Court of Human Rights, he could not get the Minister to do his bidding, and he could not get a meeting with the Prime Minister, so off he went to The Guardian. He is the source not only of this problem, but of the cash-for-questions allegations, which was the scam that The Sunday Times ran about Mr. Graham Riddick and my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Tredinnick). He is the man who accused my right hon. and learned Friend the former Home Secretary of having taken £1 million in bribes. Twenty-four other Members have been victims of this man Fayed.
I believe that Sir Gordon Downey gave too much weight to what Fayed said. He was prepared to take the word of a man proved by Department of Trade and Industry inspectors to be a liar; a man who has not stopped short of raiding someone's safe box; a man who even said of the late Princess of Wales that he had heard her dying words. I believe that there is a catalogue of shameful activities on the part of this man, and that he is responsible for bringing the House into disrepute. The House may well decide tonight that it wants to accept the report and get it out of the way—my colleagues on the Front Bench may say, "We have other things to do in our careers, and we ought not to become involved in this business"—but I tell the House that, if we do that, we shall be in serious trouble. This man will not go away: he will stop at nothing.
I also believe that there are beginnings—there are rumblings. People outside the House are already concerned about the way in which the matter is being handled. They feel that there has been a miscarriage of justice. I cite just Mr. Anthony Bevins—talking about "the Tatton one"—Mr. Chris Moncrieff and Mr. Paul Johnson.
I hope that the House will have second thoughts, and will feel able to support my amendment.
I do not want to rehearse the evidence given in the Hamilton affair this evening, for the reasons set out by the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) in her intervention. We can go back and forth, and we shall get nowhere. We cannot retry the matter on the Floor of the House.
I shall follow what was said by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), because I want to know what will happen in the future. How are we to change procedures? We are dealing with a matter of natural justice. I believe that I can endorse Sir Gordon's report—I have no trouble in doing that—but that is not the issue. The issue is whether, having endorsed the report personally, I, as an individual Member of Parliament, am satisfied that Mr. Hamilton has been heard on appeal. He has not received an appeal, and my view is that we must find a way of providing for that at some stage in the future. I shall say more about that later.
Let me trace the background to what has happened, and show why we are in our present quandary. Nolan recommended that post-prima facie inquiries should be carried out by the Committee. In other words, he set a threshold: once an inquiry had reached the prima facie stage and it had been established that there was a case, the matter should go to the Committee. The Select Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended that as well, in paragraph 5 of its first report; but it was never implemented by the Committee.
We have been in default of the first report of the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life since the beginning of the operations of this Committee. In only one case have we stopped at the prima facie point, as far as I can recall: I refer to the case of the gentleman whom I believe is now the shadow Home Secretary. In nearly all our inquiries, we have repeatedly asked the Commissioner to pass the prima facie stage. In doing so, we have compromised the Nolan recommendations, and also compromised the recommendations of the first report on standards in public life.
This particular case was complicated by a reference from the Speaker that wore neither a standards hat nor a privileges hat; but the same procedure was applied. The first special report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges recommended:
The Commissioner will then determine where there is prima facie evidence of a case to answer and, where possible, reach conclusions on whether the allegations have been substantiated.
Those words "reach conclusions" are all-important. The moment we asked the Commissioner to reach conclusions, we were in default of the recommended procedures, and were effectively negating the requirement that the Committee itself carry out an inquiry.
The House might ask why that happened. The answer is simple: it was for the convenience of the Committee. Members realised that it would be impossible to sit and adjudicate on all those cases as if we were a court of law. Members of Parliament do not sit on juries and I presume that one reason why is that we simply do not have the time. I am not a juror. I am not in a position to sit and to hear a whole case and nor was any member of that Committee.
Lord Nolan's original recommendations were fundamentally flawed in that area and I take my share of responsibility because I was one of those people who went to the Nolan committee, asked for an ethics registrar, as I called him, and referred to the need for the committee to be the appellate body. I was wrong and I should have learned from my experience.
A House of Commons Committee cannot sit in a quasi-judicial form and carry out the function of an appellate body. My reasons for saying that are controversial.
Let me finish just the next stage and then I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I have six examples as to why those Committees can be meddled with politically. Last week in my office, during an interview with a professor of politics from a famous university, I learnt that he had interviewed a prominent Member of Parliament on those matters, who had told him that the John Browne inquiry in the late 1980s, which came before a quasi-judicial Committee, the Select Committee on Members' Interests, was the subject of influence by the Whips. That prominent hon. Member also alleged that the Aitken inquiry was influenced by the Whips. Those were in quasi-judicial conditions.
I know for a fact that the Grylls inquiry of 1990 was interfered with. Why? Because I was there and I watched it happen. I called for him to give evidence to the Select Committee on Members' Interests. I was blocked by a Conservative majority on the Committee, yet that evidence was critical during the libel case of Mr. Hamilton; indeed, it was one of the reasons why the Hamilton trial collapsed. That is well established. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) is agreeing with me. That Committee was meddled with and my attempts to have Sir Michael Grylls brought before the Committee to answer detailed questions were blocked. Clearly, in so far as I was not able to bring him before the Committee, the result was that justice was not done.
In the case of the Hamilton report, the Select Committee on Members' Interests was manipulated. That was what led to my complaint in the case of Mr. Mitchell, the former hon. Member for Gedling. I can reveal for the first time that we had absolute, clear and incontrovertible evidence from a member of the former Select Committee on Members' Interests, which, if it had been brought before the Committee, would have clearly shown that Mr. Mitchell was acting for the Tory Whips office during that inquiry. It came from one of the Tory members of that former Committee. That Committee was meddled with.
Early this year, the Mitchell inquiry came before the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. The Committee, which is supposed to be manned by people of independence, was blocked when it came to calling additional witnesses—a list of witnesses had been submitted by Committee members to its Chairman. We were prevented from calling additional witnesses in the Mitchell inquiry into what happened in the Select Committee on Members' Interests in 1992. The hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) joined with others to block additional evidence being given to the Committee. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head: perhaps he would like to intervene. Does he recall what happened in those debates? He was one of those who said that we could take no more evidence in the inquiry into Mr. Mitchell. By doing that, he further proved that quasi-judicial proceedings in Parliament do not work in the way that they should.
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is trying to divert attention from the subject under discussion because he is worried about the role that he played on the Committee. I shall answer his extraordinary charge against me. Under no circumstances was I a party to trying to suppress evidence on any Committee on which I served. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, if there had been any further material evidence—I do not remember him presenting any—I should certainly not have blocked it. There is no justification whatever for the hon. Gentleman's extraordinary and wild accusations against me.
Perhaps my final example will convince the House. It relates to the inquiry that some members of the Committee tried to get into the blind trust of the Leader of the Opposition at that time, now the Prime Minister. The conversations in Committee at the time were remarkable. People wanted a show trial, although they knew that my right hon. Friend was complying directly and to the letter with the recommendations that had been given to him by the Commissioner for Standards and Privileges. They knew that my right hon. Friend's private office had been advised.
The right hon. Gentleman tempts me to reveal yet another matter which we agreed never to speak about outside the Chamber. He acted thoroughly politically and had to apologise to the Committee. That is the procedure that we are told is quasi-judicial and operated by independent people. The Committee cannot carry out that function.
No, I will not give way.
The Standards and Privileges Committee could not carry out an appeal inquiry because it is not competent to do so in its appeal form. It was capable of accepting an independent report from the Commissioner and treating it in the way that it should be treated. However, it was not capable of acting as an appellate body without turning into a political forum, as happened before the last general election.
I want to be constructive. What is the answer and what is the way forward? The answer is not to go to the courts because people with large pocketfuls of cash will make sure that their cases are never heard. That will carry rich Members through general elections and there will be no justice because those people will bring about delay by using the money that is available to them.
Those matters must always be settled within the procedures of the House. I have two recommendations. The first is that we implement paragraph 10 of the recommendations from the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life. That recommends that we legislate on the functions and duties of the Commissioner. The post should be made statutory in the same way as that of the Comptroller and Auditor General was made statutory under the National Audit Act 1983.
I believe in an appeal procedure and some people think that the Commissioner's role should be strengthened by the use of added assessors while the Committee would adopt a quasi-judicial review status. That is not my view because it still does not provide for the appeal procedure to which the likes of Hamilton and those people who think that they have a right to contest the Commissioner's judgments are entitled. They should not bring spurious appeals and I do not think that Mr. Hamilton would bring a spurious appeal. However, he would believe that, in terms of natural justice, he has a right to be heard.
My provisional recommendation is that, where an appeal is sought against a judgment, and where the Select Committee is prepared to support such an appeal by way of a Committee resolution, assessors should be appointed to review evidence and to take further evidence if necessary. It might be possible to include the Chairman of the Committee, with the judicial assessors, in the review procedure. The Commissioner and any counsel appointed to the original inquiry could be available to advise that appeal inquiry on the reasons for the Commissioner's original findings. The review body would report its findings and conclusions to the full Committee.
That is my provisional view. That is what effectively, and without going into detail, I have been arguing over with the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford for months. I wanted an appeal procedure; he wanted to use a Committee that I do not believe could be relied upon, in any circumstances, to act as a proper appellate body. I wanted a different procedure. That is what I have argued for tonight.
I appeal to those people who have formerly sat on the Nolan committee and now sit on the Neill committee to look at these matters again because I do not believe that Parliament is capable of deciding them. We need the voice of those outside, presenting their recommendations. We need a proper appeal system that is not politically adulterated.
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I have been accused of some peculiar things this evening. The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has just made a vague accusation about my suppressing evidence. I do not know what he is talking about. I hope that you, Madam Speaker, can advise me on some way in which I can have redress on this matter or at least find out precisely of what he is accusing me. The hon. Gentleman's emotional attack on me may possibly have something to do with the fact that he put down 55 early-day motions on behalf of Mr. Al Fayed and vociferously and vituperously tried to prevent me from calling Mr. Al Fayed before the Committee. [Interruption.]
Order. That is not a point of order, it is a point of frustration. I understand the hon. Gentleman's frustration because I have not been able to call him. I regret that I have not been able to call all hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), who had a right to be heard this evening. We did not start the debate until 7.30 pm and I now have to take the winding-up speeches.
I shall be brief, as I know that the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) wants about 10 minutes for her remarks.
Tonight's debate underlines one thing above all others—that we are suffering from the untidy consequences of our own actions in this House. I am very glad that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the Chairman of the Select Committee, agrees with me on that point. It is important that we look again, with great care, at our procedures.
The two words "natural justice" have cropped up time and again during the debate and in the publicity leading up to it. There is not a single right hon. or hon. Member in any part of the House who would not wish to see natural justice done. It is therefore important that we look at the matter again. The Opposition will want to give careful thought to making constructive proposals and to discussing them with the Government and with you, Madam Speaker, to try to ensure that we come to a tidier solution.
The other thing that we must recognise is that one former hon. Member's name has dominated the proceedings this evening. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) made an impassioned speech. He has no need to apologise for friendship. He has no need to apologise for speaking in defence of his former hon. Friend and his friend still. However, we must all recognise that the admitted actions of Mr. Hamilton, for which he has apologised, did themselves justify the report that we are discussing.
The House has to realise also that Mr. Hamilton has not been found guilty of corruption, of fraud or of any other criminal act. It is important that that message goes forth today from the House.
Mr. Hamilton can no longer be dealt with by the House. Had he still been an hon. Member, the Committee would have recommended his suspension for an appreciable time, which is a significant punishment. The Committee did not, however, say that it would recommend his expulsion from the House. It is important that the House recognises that fact. It is important that Mr. Hamilton, as he attempts to pick up the tatters of his career, recognises that fact. Moreover, it is important that those who might be in a position to benefit legitimately from his talents—he has many of them—recognise it.
In the debate, the House has had to examine the report that has been produced by the very right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and his Committee. I cannot pretend that I would necessarily agree with everything that the members of the Committee said in that report, and I fully understand why my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) felt that they had to dissent from some of the report's major recommendations. Like you, Madam Speaker, I understand their sense of frustration at not being able to speak in the debate.
What is at stake is the integrity of the House and of all those who attempt to serve within it. For that reason, if there is a Division, we shall support the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. We support him with a heavy heart, however, believing that our procedures—recently evolved—are very far from perfect and that they need immediate attention and significant reform.
Tempers have at times been heated in this debate, which, nevertheless, has been of value to the House. Some very important points have been made in it, which may have long-term implications for our future proceedings. I hope that all hon. Members will agree that we should thank the members of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges for their time and effort. It is not easy to serve on such a Committee, as it bears a heavy responsibility. Moreover, very serious issues were raised in the inquiry. The House should also thank Sir Gordon Downey and his staff for their work on the report.
At the beginning of his speech, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) said that he thought that—as a Committee and as a structure—the Standards and Privileges Committee had worked well in most of the cases that had been referred to it. Speaking especially as a former Committee member, I completely concur with him in that belief.
Hon. Members should think carefully before we introduce changes in our procedures. Certainly, we should think carefully before we change our procedures on the basis of, I hope, the worst-case complaint about an individual hon. Member, which the House will have to deal with. Perhaps changes are necessary, but we should not rush into them on the basis of what is, I hope, the worst case.
The right hon. Member for Bridgwater made a point also about the Committee's membership. In his speech, and in representations made to me privately, he said that I should have chaired the Committee. I was flattered by his comments, and by those of the Nolan committee. He said that the Committee's chairmanship should not be political, and I agree. Although I think that it is possible to wear two hats—as Leader of the House and as a member of the Government—it was extremely important that the Committee should be seen to be free from political interference. I know that that view was shared by the former Leader of the House, who, in the previous Parliament, had to chair the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I had to deal with that important consideration.
Nevertheless, the remarks of the right hon. Member for Bridgwater on the Committee's membership were patronising. To members of the public, the fact that we have new hon. Members on the Committee might be regarded as a very good thing. Members of the public might even say that we needed some new members on the Committee and some new influences in dealing with the matter. I also remind the right hon. Gentleman that the present Chairman of the Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), is an extremely senior Member of the House, more so than me.
The shadow Leader of the House reminded us why we are discussing these issues. She went back to the establishment of the Nolan committee. Obviously, many hon. Members were not keen on implementing Nolan's recommendations, but the basic question at that stage was whether there should be self-regulation or whether we should hand over such matters to the courts. The fact that we opted for self-regulation is still justified, and I believe that the general framework of a Select Committee on Standards and Privileges can work. We have made progress with the new procedures and in cases when complaints have been made. For the first time, the House has a code of conduct and if all Members follow that code, we shall have fewer problems in future.
I went along with self-regulation. I took the view that the House should be in a position to regulate its own affairs, and I rejected the call made by people such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that an outside body should do the job. However, having listened closely to this evening's debate without intervening, I am coming to the view that if the issue produces such controversy and, indeed, if it is largely along party lines, self-regulation might not work and we might have to go to an outside body.
That may be the case at the end of the day, but we are not at that stage yet. There are things that we can do to make self-regulation work.
I should like to say a few words in response to some of the general points raised, especially those in connection with bribery and the law on corruption. Nolan said that the Government should clarify the law relating to the bribery of, or the receipt of a bribe by, a Member of Parliament. I remind the House that the Government have said that they will clarify the law on corruption, and the Home Secretary has published an options paper with a view to legislation. That document is to be considered by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which is due to have its first meeting next week. I hope that the House will accept progress in that direction.
I remind the House that when the appeals procedure was first put to the Select Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Clerk of the House told us that there could be problems in adopting such a procedure because the members of the Sub-Committee would also be members of the main Committee.
As I said, we are talking about a new system of self-regulation. Until this case arose, there were no complaints about the procedure. I do not think that there are general grounds for complaint tonight.
Mention has been made of the degree of evidence required in the Hamilton case. Sir Gordon's memorandum said:
Indeed, the substance of the case stemmed from the abandoned civil libel action where the standard of proof would have been `balance of probabilities'. In practice my approach was more stringent than this".
The part of the eighth report of the Standards and Privileges Committee that was accepted unanimously stated:
We have carefully examined Mr. Hamilton's representations. Essentially, these repeat the evidence he gave to the Commissioner for Standards. We do not consider that Mr. Hamilton has brought forward relevant new evidence.
That was what the Committee said after it had heard from Neil Hamilton.
Tonight, the House has been asked to approve the seventh and eighth reports of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I hope and trust that the House will do so, because the reputation of this House and its ability to regulate itself are at stake. The shadow Leader of the House said that the Committee had been able to draw a line under the Hamilton affair. The House can do that this evening if it agrees with the report that Mr. Hamilton's conduct fell seriously and persistently below the standards that the House is entitled to expect of its Members.
I hope that the House will reject the amendment and support the motion. Such a decision will help to repair some of the damage done to the reputation of this House by the actions of Neil Hamilton and others.