Thank you, Madam Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to say a few words about the report of the Standards and Privileges Committee. I want to begin by saying how sorry I am that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) suffered a serious health problem when he collapsed recently. I am happy to say that he is mending. He has been extremely helpful and courteous to me as the events that we are considering have developed.
I want, for my constituents and my friends on both sides of the House, to try to put matters in context because the report is long, complex and often contradictory.
The complaints deal with events from 10 to 15 years ago, before I even entered Parliament. We all lead busy lives in our job, and I had long pushed many of the events that we are considering to the back of my memory. In my initial discussions with the commissioner, I tried to answer her questions about events of long ago from memory. I do not consider that the answers that I gave her were dishonest, but I admit that some were very muddled. My explanation for that is that memory is sometimes mixed and failing after so long a period.
I accept, of course, that, as a Member of the House, I must deal with allegations made by newspapers or members of the public, but I was quite clear in my own mind that these allegations related to my husband's interests and that I had no beneficial interest in them. That is why I had not initially declared them in the Register of Members' Interests. They were originally raised in 1994 and dealt with by the former Committee, which dismissed them. They were then resurrected, in addition to other matters, by The Independent newspaper.
I strongly resent the amount of intrusion on my husband's life. He is not one of us and is—or at least was, once upon a time—a very private person. He is not in the public eye in the way we are here. I cannot find a single example of a Member who recorded a spouse's job, assets or financial affairs in the register. That may change because, in the post-Nolan period, we live in a completely different ambience in relation to the register. Nowadays, one is in danger of being in difficulty if one does not register having a doughnut at some entertainment or other.
The register says that
the scope of the Register seeks to balance on the one hand what should be publicly known about Members and on the other, the proper degree of privacy to which they and their families are entitled. They are not required to disclose the interests of spouses or children.
Much of the inquiry, and certainly its length, represents, to some extent, an attempt to link me to my husband's property and therefore to justify a complaint that I failed to declare an interest when I introduced a ten-minute Bill in 1990—10 years ago. If I had thought that I had an interest to declare, why would I not have entered that
interest? If I had something to hide, why would I have presented the Bill in the first place? Clearly, in my own mind I did not have an interest to declare and everyone in the House knows that ten-minute Bills are mainly a way of airing a point of view. In this case, I was airing a point of view that I had formed as a result of being a member of the housing committee of a local council on which I saw the problems of housing through the eyes of those young people who were trying to find accommodation, particularly in the private sector. That was my reason for introducing the Bill.
The report says that I failed to co-operate with the commissioner. That is untrue. I dealt, in great detail, with almost 30 letters from the commissioner—many of them relating to long-forgotten events—until I was forced to take legal advice. At that stage, my solicitors called a halt because they considered by then that the inquiries had little or nothing to do with the original complaints. Far from my failing to co-operate, the commissioner wrote to me on 22 July 1999 to say that
I do appreciate the effort and time you are putting into answering my inquiries and I very much share your hope that I will be able to conclude them in the near future.
I have never sought to mislead the commissioner. I have admitted that my earlier answers to her may not have reflected a clear picture of the situation as to those properties, which are the focal point of the inquiry, but once I had obtained the advice and help of a solicitor I was able to discover the original documents, which backed my claim that I was not required to enter those assets in the register. I hope that the House will eventually adopt the recommendation of the Neill committee that Members who find themselves in a similar position should be given legal aid or advice to deal with matters in an orderly fashion. I repeat: we live in a completely different world from 10 years ago, before the Nolan report. In today's circumstances, it is imperative that people who are going to be involved in such a situation speak to a lawyer before they speak to anyone else.
These Benches are littered with barristers and solicitors. Most of them, I am sure, would not approve of the system that we have devised for ourselves. There is no independent judge, no independent jury, no defence counsel and no appeals system. All those are recommended in the Neill committee report for change. I hope that, when the Government introduce the Neill recommendations, colleagues will support them.
In the House, we are here not just to make laws, but to protect the rights of citizens to a fair trial before an independent judicial system. Although I am not criticising the Committee's decision, I believe that, in the long term, it is imperative that we adopt that procedure for our system in the House when we deal with complaints.
I hope, from my experience and from bringing it to the attention of the House, that we will draw some lessons from it. I can see in retrospect that I have handled matters less than satisfactorily. Of course I could have done better, but I draw the line at being called a liar, which the report states. I find that offensive, quite unnecessary and unreasonable.
I quote from an interview in The Daily Telegraph that was given by the commissioner, Ms Filkin, on her appointment to her present role. She said:
I am aware that all of us can make mistakes and look foolish. One can always reflect on how things could have been done better.
I rest my case.
The House will well understand the reason why the Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), cannot be here today. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) for her good wishes. I know that the good wishes of the whole House are with him for a speedy recovery. No one wishes more than I that he were here today, because he understands better than anyone—he has had to do it more often, sadly, from his point of view—how unpleasant it is to move to suspend a longstanding parliamentary colleague. It is not a pleasant experience. I suspect that I regret nearly as much as the hon. Lady the fact that we are in this situation.
I apologise to the House that I am going keep, as the hon. Lady did, rather closely to my remit and to my brief because of the complexity and the personal sensitivities of some of the issues involved.
I am here to ask the House to approve the fifth report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges on complaints against the hon. Lady, and its recommendation to suspend her for one month. That is the longest period of suspension that the Committee has ever recommended in its five years of existence. The sadness is that, as the report says, many of the complaints against the hon. Lady
could have been dealt with swiftly, and without the need for extensive inquiry, if she had co-operated properly.
I should remind the House of the findings of the commissioner and of the Committee and explain why the Committee decided unanimously—I must emphasise that—that such a serious penalty was justified.
The Committee upheld three complaints about registration and declaration of interests. The first is that the hon. Lady failed to register her interest in various properties in south London, which she owned jointly—it is not a point that she brought out in her comments—with her husband and which were let to tenants for rent between 1987 and 1994. Secondly, she failed to declare that interest when she introduced two ten-minute Bills about rented property. Thirdly, she failed to register her interest in an offshore trust. Several other complaints were made about properties in Portugal and Germany, but the Committee has dismissed those complaints.
The hon. Lady's failure to register would inevitably be a source of criticism in its own right. However, the Committee felt that the other complaints against her were far more serious. We upheld four further complaints. The first was that she provided seriously misleading and inaccurate information to the Registrar of Members' Interests, the Parliamentary Commissioner, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Committee itself. Secondly, she made false allegations against a member of the public. Thirdly, she improperly contacted a witness during the investigation. Finally, she failed to uphold the code of conduct for Members by not observing the principles—
Order. I think that tempers must cool. I quite understand why the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) wishes to put the Committee's case before the House. If the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) seeks to catch my eye during the course of the debate, I will try to call him.
The hon. Member for Aldershot may want information, and I intend to give information. That is why I intend to stick closely to my brief.
The hon. Member for Billericay failed to uphold the code of conduct for Members by not observing its principles of honesty and accountability—principles at the centre of our debate. The Committee considered that her behaviour was a breach of the code of conduct and a contempt of the House. It is for that reason that the Committee recommended such a severe penalty.
Let me turn to the south London properties to which the hon. Lady referred. She implied that those properties belonged entirely to her husband. As long ago as 1995, allegations were made that the hon. Lady had owned properties in south London that were let to tenants for rent when she had sought, in 1990, to introduce a Bill to repeal the Rent Acts. There were further allegations that the properties had been sold to offshore companies with which she was connected.
The hon. Lady denied those allegations in the most unequivocal terms. In a letter to the Registrar of Member's Interests on 23 May 1995, she wrote:
It is not true either of the two properties were let to tenants in 1990/91 …
It is not true that I have any connection with an offshore company as alleged.
Four years later, in April 1999, the hon. Lady told the commissioner that there were no paying tenants in either house while she was the owner. Subsequent events have shown all those statements to be untrue.
Despite the allegations made against her in 1995, which led to lawyers being instructed, and despite the matters being raised again by the commissioner and the Committee in April 1999, it was not until June 1999 that the hon. Lady told the commissioner that each of the south London properties had, contrary to her previous assertions, been let to tenants until sold.
There were originally thought to be only two properties. It was not until the commissioner discovered that a third had been owned by the hon. Lady and her husband that she revealed her connection with it. Only when she discovered that the commissioner was preparing to contact previous tenants of the south London property did she admit the existence of those tenants.
One of the papers in the case is a sworn statement from a man who said that he had rented a bedsit in one of the houses. The hon. Lady told the commissioner that neither she nor her husband owned property in which the man was ever a tenant, and that his sworn statement was false. She went further, and told the Committee that the statement had been
falsified for a cash payment.
That is a serious allegation; it is even more serious when a Member of Parliament makes it under the protection of parliamentary privilege, as the hon. Lady did. Later she had to admit that there was nothing in the statement that she knew to be false. She could produce no evidence of any cash payment. We concluded—the House must decide whether we were right—that her unfounded allegations were intended to mislead.
When the south London properties were sold, they were bought by offshore companies, and two flats in Portugal, used by the hon. Lady and her husband as holiday accommodation, were also owned by offshore companies; but all those companies were owned by the Queenstown Trust, itself an offshore discretionary trust, which was established in 1986 on the instructions of the hon. Lady and her husband. There was a network of offshore companies—although she denied any contact or connection with such companies—involved with the properties.
The hon. Lady was deemed to be the settlor of the trust. I had never come across that term before, but we have been assured that the settlor is the person who sets up the trust and provides it with assets. She asked the trustees to regard her husband as the prime beneficiary of the trust but that, should he die before her, she herself was to be regarded as the prime beneficiary. Again, that hardly fits the picture of someone with no connection with offshore companies.
Sadly, the Committee did not get any of that information from the hon. Lady herself. Eventually, we got it last November from the management of the offshore company, who insisted that we apply for it in writing. In April last year, she told the commissioner that she had never had any connection with the offshore companies that bought her properties, and as late as last July she wrote to the commissioner:
I confirm that my husband and I have no connection with off-shore companies.
I will not comment on that: it speaks for itself. The statement was simply untrue in relation to her husband and disingenuous at best in relation to herself.
The Committee expressed the opinion in our report that the hon. Lady's denials of any connection with offshore companies were intended to deceive. Again, the House must make its mind up whether we were right. She claimed in her evidence in January this year that she had no registrable or legal connection with offshore companies. That was not what she was asked about. She was asked about a completely different point. The commissioner and the Committee had asked whether, as alleged, she had any connection with offshore companies.
We were hoping for—it could have foreshortened the whole situation—a straightforward and honest answer. If the hon. Lady had been straightforward and open with the
commissioner and the Committee, she would have explained at the outset the nature of her connection with the Queenstown Trust and its connection with the other offshore companies, and not sought to conceal those connections as she did. I should like to draw the attention of the House to paragraph 40 of the report. Its effect on all Members of Parliament is intended to be cautionary. It states:
Members should not seek to mislead by keeping information from the Commissioner on the ground that they do not themselves consider the interest to which it relates to be registrable. Many of the complaints against Mrs. Gorman could have been dealt with swiftly, and without the need for extensive inquiry, if she had co-operated properly. Mrs. Gorman should have been open and helpful in her dealings with the Commissioner at the time when the complaints against her were first made, especially where a number of these complaints rested on understandable assumptions about Mrs. Gorman's personal circumstances.
It is a sad feature of the inquiry that, with the possible exception of today, the hon. Lady has throughout been quick to assign blame to almost anyone but herself for the situation that has arisen. According to press reports, our Parliamentary Commissioner has been accused of bias. The Committee has been accused of
behaving like the Spanish Inquisition,
and, even more devastating, of being
a tool of the Labour Party spin-doctor industry.
I look at the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) and I wonder whether the hon. Lady sees the same Committee that I see.
I am sorry to go on at length, but I was asked for information and I believe that the hon. Lady deserves to have the case spelled out in full. I hope that the House will allow me to continue and to consider the claims that the hon. Lady is reported to have made. She has claimed that the investigation went unnecessarily into her personal life. We did not want to investigate matters relating to her personal life. Members of the Committee recognise, as would any Member of Parliament, that Members have the same right as anyone else to privacy in their personal life and that that privacy should be protected wherever possible. We, as a Committee, would never want to intrude unnecessarily on any hon. Member's personal affairs.
Our problem however was that the hon. Lady's evidence to the Committee was founded on the proposition that, between 1986 and 1994, she and her husband were separated and she had no knowledge of and no involvement in his business activities. Her entire argument for non-registration rests on the personal and previously unpublicised agreement between herself and her husband. Her claim is that, according to a draft agreement dated 1986, she had no beneficial interest in the south London properties because, she claimed, although she remained the legal joint owner of the properties—the crucial admission—her husband was granted complete control over their use and disposal.
The commissioner and the Committee felt that that separation agreement made no difference. The hon. Lady admits that she continued to be the joint owner of the properties and the land registry entry still listed her as such. Furthermore, the Committee seriously doubted that the agreement had ever been put into practice. No formal deed of separation was ever executed; there was only a draft. During the alleged separation, the flat in Portugal was acquired as a second home for the hon. Lady and her husband. The hon. Lady set up two companies with her husband as joint shareholder; he had only one share, but that is a normal arrangement. Throughout that time, the hon. Lady's husband was on the electoral register and on the community charge register for her Westminster home. The house in the hon. Lady's constituency, which she purchased in 1993, was registered in the joint names of the hon. Lady and her husband.
Perhaps one of the most convincing points, and the final one, was that the tax liability on the sale of one of the south London properties would, if what she has claimed was correct, have been met by her husband, but, in fact, the tax liability was met by one of the hon. Lady's companies.
Therefore, for the Committee—the hon. Lady may say that we have it wrong—the evidence was overwhelming. It took the view that, if the hon. Lady owned the properties, they should have been registered. After all, the main purpose of the Register of Members' Interests is
to provide information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament.
Given that the hon. Lady's arguments for non-registration rested on the document and the alleged separation of assets, the Committee could not in all conscience—I invite hon. Members who have not had a chance to read the evidence to do so—have omitted the evidence, however unhappy it was about disclosing elements of the hon. Lady's personal life. It was a defence that she used; it was a defence that either had to be accepted, or certainly had to be explored, and possibly had to be rebutted. In our case, we did not accept it.
As the Committee stated in its report,
The evidence about their separation is crucial to Mrs. Gorman's explanation for her actions, in particular her failure to register certain interests. Its omission would be misleading and would undermine the basis of this Report.
That evidence—I re-emphasise this—need never have been published if the hon. Lady had sought advice in the first place, and if she had registered the property as early as she could after she discovered that she had an interest.
The hon. Lady has claimed—she has repeated it today—that fresh allegations were raised during the course of the investigation which were not in the commissioner's original memorandum. Hon. Members are too busy to read everything in detail and the document is voluminous, but anyone who has read it will have noted that the Committee's conclusions mirror completely the commissioner's memorandum and do not raise any fresh allegations against the hon. Lady. I shall come in a moment to her knowledge and the nature of the allegations.
The hon. Lady has also said that she wants to appeal against our finding. It is important to emphasise that it is not the facts in the case that are in dispute—the facts, sadly, are clear—but the conclusions to be drawn from them and the propriety of the hon. Lady's behaviour in the course of the inquiry. It is beyond dispute that she remained joint legal owner of the three properties until they were eventually sold. It is beyond dispute that she is connected with the trust in the way described in the Committee's report and as I have outlined. It is for the House to judge whether the hon. Lady has broken our rules, as the Committee believes that she has.
All the evidence that has been relied on in constructing the report has come from, or been confirmed by, the hon. Lady, her advisers or her business associates. We have therefore done everything we can to ensure that she has been treated fairly. However, and this is the most serious allegation, the hon. Lady questioned the fairness and impartiality of the commissioner and the Committee. Other Committee members who are not Labour Members may wish to say whether they think that she was dealt with fairly.
The hon. Lady made play of the recent report of the Neill committee, which makes proposals for the handling of disciplinary cases in the House. Obviously, the Standards and Privileges Committee and the House will have to study those proposals. Importantly, the report states that appeals should be allowed in serious cases—I regard this as such a case—in which facts are in dispute. I do not regard this as a case in which the facts are in dispute, other than by the hon. Lady. Anyone who reads the evidence is forced, however reluctantly, to that inexorable conclusion.
The fact remains that the Standards and Privileges Committee is a creature of this House: it set us up, gave us our remit and laid down the rules by which we have to decide. We can only work by the rules that are in force. Far from being as frivolously arrived at as the hon. Lady tried to suggest, the Committee is only five years old because it was set up in the light of the Nolan committee's recommendation. We have amended—we may not yet have got it right and I am open to discussion about that, as I think that we all are and have to be—but none the less we have done our best to meet what Nolan requested of the House.
The Standards and Privileges Committee has always been acutely aware of the need not only to be fair to the hon. Lady but to be seen to be fair. We bent over backwards in our attempts to do so. Uniquely, we provided the hon. Lady with a copy of the commissioner's memorandum, which is not our usual practice—I am sure that she will acknowledge that we did so—so that she could be fully aware not only of the evidence that the commissioner had received, but of the conclusions that the commissioner had arrived at and was putting before the Committee for it to discuss with her. We also wanted the hon. Lady to appreciate the seriousness of her position.
I hate to say this, but there were times when we doubted that the hon. Lady fully realised how serious her position was. We suggested that, in her own interests, she should take proper advice about how she should proceed. Indeed, when it came to taking oral evidence from her, although we started to consider the allegations made against her, and to her, in June, we agreed to her request to adjourn the hearing until mid-January to give her the time that she wanted to retrieve documents, take legal advice and prepare her arguments.
In January, the Committee received substantial written submissions from the hon. Lady and took oral evidence, which lasted most of a morning and the major part of an afternoon. Throughout those hearings, she was accompanied by a solicitor, who was allowed to advise her. She and her solicitor subsequently had ample opportunity to correct the transcript of the minutes of the hearing and to clarify and comment on the evidence given, which they did at length. The Committee considered those corrections and comments at length.
As far as impartiality is concerned, I can only reiterate that the report before the House is unanimous. It was agreed after careful consideration by every member of the Committee, including two hon. Members from the same party as the hon. Lady. Perhaps it is not fair to single them out in that way, but I do so to reassure her colleagues. The independence of mind of those two hon. Members is well understood and respected throughout the House. Of course, I think that everyone would agree that the Chairman of the Committee is one of the most respected and fair minded people—there are not many of them—in the House.
Members of this House have a duty of accountability, under the code of conduct, to
submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.
We have a duty of honesty to provide full and accurate information to the Parliamentary Commissioner and to the Committee. Sadly, the hon. Lady has fallen short of the standards that the House is entitled to expect. The way in which she responded to the complaint against her was both a breach of the code of conduct and a contempt of the House.
We believe that the House can uphold its standards only by imposing a substantial period of suspension on the hon. Lady. I ask the House to note that, as stated at paragraph 50 of our report—which also was unanimously agreed—the suspension would have been "considerably longer" were it not for the fact that we recognised the embarrassment and distress that inevitably would be caused to the hon. Lady by the publication of "sensitive personal information".
I ask the House to support the Committee and approve our report.
I should like to make only a brief contribution to the debate. I was asked if I would look very carefully at the Committee's report, and I have done so. I have also had conversations with my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). I stand here neither to condemn her, other than in the terms of the Committee's report, nor to make a plea in mitigation. I shall simply give my opinion on the way in which the Committee has conducted its affairs concerning my hon. Friend, and make one or two suggestions for the future. I do not want those suggestions to be thought in any way to be reducing the work of the Committee.
I have read the report very carefully. In my view, the Committee's proceedings were conducted fairly and properly according to our procedures, and the penalty—although undoubtedly severe—is within the range of penalty that reasonably is available to the Committee. Although I thought about it, I do not think that I would have done my hon. Friend a service if I had really considered tabling an amendment suggesting a shorter penalty.
I agree with the whole substance of the comments of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) in summarising the Committee's report. I believe that the report—the House would expect no less—is entirely accurate and balanced.
There is no doubt that, sadly, my hon. Friend—I know that she will understand this—has brought upon herself the great majority of what is said about her in the report. There is no doubt that a Member in that situation, from the very earliest moment, should first have consulted the registrar, and explained privately and exactly to the registrar the background facts. The Member should then have taken the advice of the registrar, who is extremely fair minded and helpful in these matters, on whether the matter was or was not registerable. Similarly, when the commissioner comes along, the Member should take exactly the same attitude.
To be fair to my hon. Friend, if she had done that, she would not really be in a difficult position at all. When it comes down to the basic facts, had the interests been registered, there is nothing very remarkable about them at all. There must be very many hon. Members who own let property, and many hon. Members who hold sincere views on either side of the argument on the Rent Acts in relation to which, 10 years ago, she introduced her ten-minute Bill.
The fundamental problem in this case has been the way in which my hon. Friend has sought to defend herself, and the extra difficulties that she has brought upon herself by the manner of her doing so.
I do not know my hon. Friend all that well as a private individual, but I respect her courage, as most of us do. We know that she is exceptionally combative. It is not just, as the old adage says, the lawyer who represents himself who has a fool for a client. It is very difficult to represent oneself when one is in a spot. Criticisms of a partly political nature inevitably intrude in our business and in the newspapers. Someone of a combative frame of mind can easily go in at the deep end and make matters worse for themselves, although not normally as badly as did my hon. Friend, who managed to go as far as possible and further, plumbing the depths in almost every respect.
To give some balance, there is one respect in which that is not necessarily the case. I do not criticise the Committee, but I have some doubts as to whether my hon. Friend's contact with a particular witness mentioned in the report was improper. I know that that is not a major part of the report, but if someone who is left to defend themselves wishes to speak to a witness, there is nobody else to do it. I say that only to ensure that I give as much balance as possible.
What is the point of my speech? It is simply to ask whether we should consider any reform of our procedures. I shall make some suggestions for further consideration, but I do not wish to deprecate what the Committee has done. I shall not oppose the penalty. According to our present procedures, the whole matter was conducted openly and fairly and I have no criticism to make. It was well done.
I emphasise that it is difficult to defend oneself. I have read what was said in the Neill committee and the report as well as the views of Lord Nicholls—a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary who took particular care to consider the issue. Most of his recommendations are not at all contentious. Everyone agrees that one should know at the outset exactly what charges one has to meet. By and large that was true in this case, although I have one comment to make about that.
I should like to emphasise one point made by Lord Nicholls that deserves serious consideration. Many cases are not serious, but, as the right hon. Member for Swansea, West said, this one developed into a very serious case and is producing the most serious penalty for many years. In such serious cases, there is a strong argument for allowing legal advice and, when necessary, legal representation to be provided by the House. It is incredibly difficult to cross-examine and argue one's case and to give the facts at the same time. The two inevitably get muddled up. Very few people can do themselves justice in those circumstances.
Although we are right not to wish to become over-legalistic, not to over-encumber our procedures with legalism and lawyers and to maintain the maximum amount of self-regulation, we should reconsider our rule about entitling people to legal advice. Once the Committee considers that the case against an hon. Member is serious, as opposed to substantially administrative and routine, a halt should be drawn temporarily in the proceedings. The hon. Member concerned should be warned of the seriousness of the position, be invited to obtain legal advice—and given assistance in that if necessary—and be able not merely to have the legal adviser sitting beside them in the Committee, but to have some representation before the Committee. I think that doing that would improve our procedures.
This is a sad day. A difficult matter has been well handled according to our present procedures. The result is sad but not unjust, and there are improvements that we could make for the future.
Having read the whole report, I regard the penalty proposed by the Committee as disproportionately severe. I do not wish to make party political points of any kind, but there have been a number of cases of so-called sleaze on both sides of the House. One, not very long ago, was connected with a property matter. For us to be told that my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is to be suspended for a longer period than anyone else for what she has irregularly done seems an unfairly severe penalty.
Outside the House, to be suspended without pay for a month does not seem a matter of great severity, but inside the House, even to be suspended for three days involves an element of public disgrace. If that sentence were imposed upon me, I would be deeply mortified. So we must not lose sight of the fact that a very severe penalty is being proposed for my hon. Friend. Unlike my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), I wish—to use his words—to put in a plea of mitigation.
When I first came to the House, and for many years afterwards, we had none of these rules and tribunals. I have always taken the Enoch Powell line that it is very much better to treat each other as honourable people and not have a tremendous number of codes, commissions, and outside bodies looking into things. Unfortunately, many of my colleagues—particularly, I am ashamed to say, in my own party—behaved so disgracefully in the previous Parliament that we were inevitably drawn into the present situation. There is no reversing that, and it is going to get worse. The thrust of my right hon. and learned Friend's speech was that we will gradually move away from the position of controlling our own affairs and hand it all over to judicial supervision.
Let us not lose sight of the object of the exercise, which has been to avoid the corruption of the House and of public affairs. I do not believe that my hon. Friend has sought to corrupt anybody. The offences of which she is accused, although technically correct, are of the utmost triviality. They happened a great many years ago, and she has never been secretive about her interest in property matters. Not long ago, for weeks on end, it was almost impossible to open a newspaper without seeing her defiantly trying to defend a charming gothic porch which she had added to one of her houses and which the philistines in her local planning committee wished to demolish. Everybody knows her views on rent restriction. There has never been any suggestion that she was being corrupted or that she was seeking to corrupt anybody else.
Then we come to the extended nature of the inquiries that were made of her. The discussion about overseas trusts, although not one of the criticisms of her in the report's conclusions, takes up quite a lot of space in the cross-examinations that are published. For the uninitiated, the mere mention of the words "overseas trust" raises the suspicion that some skulduggery is going on.
Unfortunately, I have never been the beneficiary of an overseas trust, but they are entirely legal. There are hundreds of thousands of them. If one visits a lawyer's office on any island in the Caribbean, he will proudly talk of the tens of thousands of overseas trusts that he runs from his little office—including those for some of the world's most famous companies and personalities. Whether such trusts should be more carefully supervised is another matter; they are legal.
One aspect of the report that seemed to throw an element of discredit on my hon. Friend related to the fact that her properties in Portugal were held in an overseas trust. However, it was legal for her to do so. Indeed, if one tries to buy a property overseas, one is invariably advised by one's lawyers—I have always taken the advice of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire and surrounded myself with the highest-paid lawyers before I do anything at all in life—to put such property in an overseas trust.
I have some overseas properties. I hasten to add that I have never let them to paying tenants. I have not put them into overseas trusts, because overseas trusts have two great snares. The first is that one has to trust one's trustees. The second is that one's family cannot always be relied upon to die in the order of precedence that one has laid down in the trust. The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said, as a criticism, that my hon. Friend had included her husband in that sequence. However, it would be automatic in an overseas trust. One's lawyer will say, "If you kick the bucket, old boy, it's going to be inconvenient for me if I don't know who is to inherit the properties." That criticism was thus irrelevant.
Why was that matter raised in the first place? Incidentally, the allegations against my hon. Friend came from two journalists, whose motives were not as closely examined by the Committee as I should have expected. Their allegations related to English properties subject to the Rent Acts—that is what the whole matter is about. By no conceivable stretch of the imagination can it be thought that our Rent Acts apply to a holiday home in Portugal. That matter is irrelevant.
The report slowly turns into a trawling operation. The Committee began by looking into a specific situation. My hon. Friend has admitted to that matter, although she has denied throughout that she benefited from the English properties. The Committee then examined a series of aspects of her life—including her private life.
One part of the report that is offensive is the conclusion. It states not only that the period of suspension is the longest that the Committee had ever recommended, but that it would have been even longer but for the distress caused to my hon. Friend when the fact that her marriage temporarily went through a difficult patch was dragged into public knowledge. Such difficulties are not unknown to many Members on both sides of the House.
The Committee implied that the difficulty in my hon. Friend's married life—now happily overcome, I understand—was part of the punishment, because the punishment would have been longer if the matter had not been exposed. All that is deeply unsatisfactory.
The report does not bring out in any detail how much money it is alleged that my hon. Friend made out of the properties that she should have declared. It talks about a substantial sum and then refers to a figure of between £3,400 and £4,400 from the Portuguese properties. To someone on benefit, figures of £3,000 to £4,000 are substantial, but I warn people who might want to own and let an overseas property that they must spend £15,000 to £20,000 a year on running costs if they want to let it to tenants.
The owners have to pay the local property tax, which is substantial in most overseas countries. They have to pay for a maid if they want to let the property. When guests arrive after a flight and a long drive and are accompanied by screaming kids, they are absolutely exhausted. They expect to find the property in spotless condition and they expect to have a maid to look after them. That maid cannot be appointed for the week or fortnight that the property is let; she has to be appointed and paid for over 12 months.
I am not in any sort of agony—rather the reverse. The hon. Gentleman refers to one of the issues about which I am complaining. He says that the Committee dismissed the question of the Portuguese properties, but a considerable section of the published evidence in the report is about them. He is a long-serving and distinguished member of the Committee and he says that the issue was dismissed. Therefore, it was all a mare's nest, but references to overseas trusts and the Portuguese properties were put before the public eye. That would lead people to suppose that my hon. Friend was involved in a carefully organised and fairly substantial overseas operation in which she avoided paying tax because she had an overseas trust.
I mentioned the issues of staff and tax, because the figure of £3,400 that the report quotes would have long since been swallowed up. The owners of overseas properties find that it is extremely difficult to make a profit out of them because of the overheads that I have described.
My hon. Friend's personality is an important part of the process. From my reading of the report, it seems that what really upset the Committee was not so much what she did, but the way she responded to the questioning to which she was subjected. The right hon. Member for Swansea, West mentioned the propriety of her responses, and my hon. Friend admitted in her speech that she was unwise in the way that she handled the affair and her defence. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire spelt that out in technical terms and was right to do so. However, is it correct that my hon. Friend should be so severely punished because of that behaviour?
My hon. Friend is a combative and zany lady. I have known many such ladies in the course of my life, and indeed I rather like them. I particularly like my hon. Friend, who is a woman of courage, integrity and patriotism, with no malice in her at all. I do not believe that she has behaved in a shabby fashion, although I think that she has behaved unwisely, and I shall be proud to continue to regard her as my hon. Friend.
There are times when I wonder whether all Members of the House live on the same planet.
I want to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) for her outstandingly moderate and gracious speech in what must be difficult circumstances for her.
I regret the absence, through ill health, of the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). He has conducted this investigation as he conducts all investigations—with outstanding fairness and rigour. I also pay tribute to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who is fully living up to the demanding standards set by her predecessor.
As a member of the Committee who sits for no party on the Opposition Benches, it is important that I make the point that the Committee is not partisan; it is not Labour-dominated; it is not Labour-run; and it does not divide on party lines. If it did, I would not serve on it for five minutes—and neither, I am sure, would Opposition Members or Members on the Government Benches.
I know that objections have been raised in the press, and some journalists are suggesting that our procedures have become too rigorous. They are rigorous because they have to be, because we want this Parliament to be held in higher esteem than the previous Parliament. We owe that to ourselves, our constituents and the institution in which we sit.
The report is outstandingly fair, and I hope that the rest of the House will take the same view.
I am exceedingly uneasy. I say to the former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), that when he said that it is difficult to represent oneself, he was wrong—it is impossible to represent oneself.
I say that with some passion because I was in the position of having to try to represent myself in the light of a privileges investigation into chemical and biological warfare, and my talking freely to the late Laurence Marks of The Observer a third of a century ago. I was not allowed to have a lawyer present. When one appears before the Committee and one is not a lawyer, it is impossible to try to defend oneself, especially if one is not used to such situations. I was completely tied up by woolly questions from non-lawyers, and the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), then simply asked me, "Mr. Dalyell, did you really mean that?" I was then reduced to a state of sheepishness.
Will the hon. Gentleman note that the Government have accepted the force of what he has just said in the context of the BSE inquiry? He will know that all those who have had to appear before that inquiry have had the advantage of legal advice beforehand, and of representation, if they chose to have it, at the inquiry itself.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is a QC, and I do not in any way hesitate on the point that he made.
My contribution will be very short, because I only want to ask one question. Will the Leader of the House address the question about legal representation that was properly put by the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman)? Some of us think that prime time or any other time in the House ought not to be taken up with a situation that has, frankly, bordered on the preposterous. This is a matter for the courts, and it should be dealt with by the courts rather than by the House, however well intentioned and conscientious, trying to act as a court of law. In the light of personal experience, I am against any Committee of the House setting itself up as a court of law.
I echo what others have said and wish the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) a speedy and complete recovery from his illness. The House owes a debt to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) for the way in which he presented the report, as well as to his Select Committee.
I am sorry that the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is in poor health. I understand the additional pressure that that has put on her. I hope that nothing that I say about the report will undermine the sympathy that I feel for her on that score.
By comparison with some of the other cases that the Select Committee has recently had to investigate, the original offence—the original offence—of non-declaration was a minor one. Of course my hon. Friend should have declared her interest in private rented property before she introduced two ten-minute Bills. As a Housing Minister in the early 1990s, I was well aware of my hon. Friend's views on the private rented sector, which accorded with her generally libertarian and free-market views on other matters. I did not for a moment believe that her espousal of a free market in housing, and a belief that rent control was wrong, were driven by her own private interests.
If that had been my hon. Friend's only offence, I am not sure that we would even be having this debate. The Select Committee has adjudicated on a number of occasions where interests should have been declared and were not. Hon. Members have survived the usual, rather minor, press interest that ensued, with their reputations intact. Indeed, some on both sides have gone on to hold very high office.
What clearly exasperated the Select Committee in this case was the smokescreen that descended, which caused it to veer all over the road, and to stop and ask a few people for directions before it eventually found a way through. The Committee's strong conclusion in paragraph 42, and the sentence at the higher end of the tariff scale in paragraph 51, flowed from the general obfuscation, and in particular from my hon. Friend's denials of links with offshore companies.
In the present case, three things have happened which have led us to where we are today. First, as I said, my hon. Friend was initially unable to respond accurately to the questions put to her by the Committee, and found herself tangled in the subsequent web.
Secondly, my hon. Friend has not found it possible to accept the verdict of her colleagues, who I think displayed some patience in dealing with the case, or to express her regret for what happened. If she had felt able to do that, she would have found the House to be generous and forgiving.
Thirdly, my hon. Friend has cast aspersions on the neutrality of the Committee and therefore on the roles of my right hon. and hon. Friends who serve on it and on the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell). Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) nor my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would assent to what they believed to be a miscarriage of justice just because they were in a minority. I give away no secrets when I say that both of them are outwith the conventional range of discipline of my party: I cannot imagine that they would have subjected themselves to the discipline of another.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay suggested that the procedure that found her guilty was tainted. A number of those who have spoken have mentioned the relevant report of Lord Neill's committee, "Reinforcing Standards". Of course, we should debate that report, which has been published since we last had a report from the Select Committee. It made recommendations about serious contested allegations. Whether that would cover my hon. Friend is a matter for debate. As I said, I personally do not regard her original offence as particularly serious.
Neill stated in paragraph 3.51:
We considered whether an accused MP should have the right to elect the full tribunal procedure in all contested cases, whether a minor or a serious case. We concluded that they should not.
I agree with what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) said. Once a case has escalated to the extent to which my hon. Friend's case has now escalated, there is a strong argument for the sort of assistance that was mentioned.
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that Members of Parliament who are not lawyers, however well intentioned, conscientious and untainted they are—I am sure that all members of the Select Committee were like that—are the people to handle contested allegations? When he mentioned offshore companies, the hon. Lady's body language suggested that she strongly contested what was said. I do not know whether she is right or wrong, but it is a matter for a lawyer, rather than for Members of the House of Commons.
The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for a debate on the report "Reinforcing Standards", and for a debate on the parallel report by Lord Nicholls, which reached the same conclusion.
No, I am going to finish.
I speak in a personal capacity. I have to say that I think the proceedings were fair. I think the Committee was painstaking in its deliberations, and I support the verdict and the sentence.
I shall speak briefly, really to reinforce the anxieties expressed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell).
I think that the process itself is flawed. There are three stages in the process that we adopt. First, there is the complaint to and investigation by the commission; secondly, there is the hearing by the Select Committee, and the report; and, thirdly, there is the process that we are conducting here today. I make no particular complaint about the first and last stages. I recognise that, when it comes to suspension, it must indeed be a matter for the House as a whole, to be debated on the Floor of the House on the basis of recommendations. The fact that most Members will not have read the report is a misfortune, but many decisions are made without all Members' being wholly informed.
I do, however, feel great concern about the second stage—the investigation by a Select Committee of the facts and the recommendations. I strongly support the views expressed by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). When I make the criticism that I am about to make, I hope the House will understand that I am not making a personal criticism of this Select Committee on this occasion; I am dealing with the generality rather than with this particular case.
As the House knows full well, it is one of the principles of the law of this country that no man or woman who knows an accused person can sit in judgment on that accused person. Indeed, any person who appears before a tribunal is entitled to ascertain whether or not the tribunal has an interest in the matter that is before it. Consequently, judges and magistrates from time to time disqualify themselves from sitting in particular cases because they know the accused person. That is true of every disciplinary committee of which I am aware, and also of every profession of which I am aware.
The reason for that is very sound. If the tribunal sitting in judgment on a person knows that person, there is a risk that the ultimate decision will be affected, either for or against, by that knowledge—or at least it might be supposed to be affected by that knowledge.
I do not for a moment make any criticism of the Select Committee. but the truth is that every member of the Select Committee knows my hon. Friend. Perhaps they know her better than they know many other hon. Members, because she is indeed a very notable figure. In cases such as this, there is a danger that the Select Committee inquiring into particular facts and making recommendations either may be affected by its knowledge, or may be thought to be so affected.
Let me make another point. Again, I am not being critical of the Select Committee, because I have no cause to be. Let us face the facts: the House is an intensely political and partisan place, and when a notable Member appears before a Committee on a disciplinary charge—for that is, in effect, what happened—there is a risk that political baggage will get in the way of a fair hearing and fair recommendations. I am not saying that that happened, because I have no cause to say that it happened; but I do say that the process is flawed, because in other cases it may happen.
Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that although there is a majority of Labour Members on the Committee, only Labour Members have been suspended as a result of its earlier deliberations? That does not imply that the Committee is tempted to move on party lines, as the right hon. and learned Gentleman may be suggesting.
The hon. Gentleman has not fully grasped my point. There is no other judicial process in this country whereby individuals are entitled to try another whom they know, or entitled to try a case in which they may be perceived to have a political interest. Through the Select Committee's composition, its members know the accused person, and they may also be thought to have a political interest. I do not say that in this case they did, but we cannot eliminate the danger that they may have had such an interest.
I accept the thrust of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks, but does he not accept that other circumstances exist in which people in the same group try each other, for example, the local CIU, Labour club or golf club committee? The great saving advantage in those circumstances is the right to independent representation. That may be the answer to the problem in the case that we are considering.
I shall speak about legal representation in a moment. We are considering the point that a person's public reputation is on the line. My hon. Friend will be deeply humiliated by what has happened. The facts have been broadcast on radio, television and in many newspapers. It is wholly different from the proceedings that take place in, for example, a golf club.
Is not the essence of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's point that we are not considering whether those who try an individual are likely to be guilty of bias, but the principle that justice must not only be done but be seen to be done? Any suspicion—even though it is nothing more—means that the forum is not appropriate to deal with the matter.
I agree with the hon. and learned Gentleman. I have tried to make it plain that I do not allege that the Select Committee was biased or that it acted improperly. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North"East Bedfordshire made it clear that that was not the case in the inquiry. However, I am trying to deal with the process, which is deeply flawed.
When a serious complaint has been made against an hon. Member and has been the subject of a report by the Committee, and when it seems likely that such an hon. Member should be suspended or suffer other serious penalties, it would be proper for the House, through the Select Committees, not to adjudicate the facts and not to hear the case.
An external panel, probably comprising three members, which sits under a judicial chairman, should consider the facts and make the recommendation. The recommendation should be made to the House, because I accept that suspension is a matter for the House. However, hon. Members should not make the critical inquiry into fact and consider whether an hon. Member's word can be trusted, or undertake the investigation and the preliminary recommendations. Hon. Members know the accused person.
That leads to my final point. We should adopt the suggestion of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North"East Bedfordshire. In a case of gravity, an hon. Member needs a lawyer to provide advice and represent the person at the hearing. An hon. Member who is the subject of a serious inquiry is not best placed to weigh up the wisdom of a specific course of action, to conduct cross-examination or even to give evidence by themselves. They need legal advice.
That point is reinforced by the fact that in this case it appears that the original offence was fairly trivial. The sentence is severe because of the way in which my hon. Friend conducted herself—ill-advisedly, if she will forgive my saying so—but the truth is that if she had had legal advice before and during the process she would have conducted herself very much more wisely, and the penalty that she would have faced, if any, would have been much less than that which she now faces. That of itself seems to me to be an argument for legal representation.
May I reinforce that? After my 1967 privileges case, I was told repeatedly that I made a pig's ear of it. So I did, but with any kind of legal guidance, that would not have been so, because the case was quite good.
The hon. Gentleman is one of the most distinguished Members of the House. If he, in the absence of legal representation and advice, made a pig's ear of it, what hope is there for the rest of us?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is confusing two very different questions: that of standards, which in this case was minor, and that of privilege, which as far as the Committee was concerned was major. Is he arguing that lawyers should be involved in issues of privilege and represent Members of the House on them? If he is, and as against the issue of standards, he will find little support among those on his own Benches. He is confused.
I am not confused; I am talking about liberties and rights. The outcome of the process is that my hon. Friend will be suspended for a month and her reputation will be gravely damaged. Whether we call that liberties, rights or privileges matters not. She will suffer very severe penalties at the hand of the House, which has to put in place a process that treats Members fairly. I do not believe that we are doing so in the case of hon. Members facing the Select Committee.
The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) is one of the most respected and fairest-minded Members of the House. Then he added—I think jocularly—the words, "one of the few"—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Swansea, West makes a deprecating hand motion. Fair enough, but the point is this: are we certain that the process that we have put in place ensures that Members are tried exclusively by Members who are fair minded and responsible? I am not saying that there was any departure from that principle in this case, but I am saying that the process is suspect. We should reform it.
May I make a particular point at the outset? I commend the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) for the way in which he introduced the report. I also make it clear that I have not the slightest doubt that the Committee spent, as it would see it, an enormous amount of time trying to be fair. It has already been said that, given the number of mavericks from both sides of the House who are members of it, none of those people were in any sense subject to pressure. Knowing the personalities to the extent that I do, none would have thought that they had the opportunity to do something horrid to a colleague.
The right hon. Gentleman was fair enough to say that we must surely take from the process an understanding that we can improve our procedures. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) picked up that point as well. I hope that Members read the report and I urge those who have not to do so. It has to be read; it bears reading for both good and unsatisfactory reasons and we must learn from it in the light of experience.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courteous comments.
For 15 months, the ex-Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), and I sat on a Joint Committee of this House and the other House under the chairmanship of Lord Nicholls, producing recommendations to change and update the position. The hon. Member" for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) was on the Committee, too—my apologies: he was an active member of it. We spent 15 months going into great detail. I doubt whether many Members know that its report exists. I would wager that, even if they know that it exists, not one of them has read it.
What the right hon. Gentleman says is entirely right.
I have read the report extremely carefully on, I think, four occasions. I have studied it over two weekends. I have given at least as much attention to it as I used to give to briefs of clients who were paying me to do so, so I can probably say that I have read the document more carefully than many that I have been called to vote on from time to time.
I did that for the following reason. I realised only relatively recently the trouble that my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) was in. I read about it in the paper as casually, I suppose, as many other people. I thought, "Oh dear, that person's reputation is on the line."
I found that interesting. I do not say that I know my hon. Friend particularly well. We do not live near each other. We share some political views, but there are many that we do not. She is to me an honourable friend in theory; I hardly know her at all, but the one thing that I have come to believe over the years from seeing her operate is that she is straight and fair. She may be zany, but she strikes me as someone who would not have a corrupt bone in her body. Therefore, I was interested in the fact that her reputation was on the line. Let us be in no doubt: her reputation is on the line, although, ironically, probably not in the House.
Members have had the benefit of reading the report—if they have cared to do so—and hearing the speeches of people such as the right hon. Member for Swansea, West, but the following will be said at the Frog and Bucket later today: "Have you seen what they have been up to in Parliament? Someone has done something dodgy"—the person must be dodgy because that is implicit in overseas trusts. "She did not disclose a load of dodgy trusts. They caught her and kicked her out for a month. Well, they are paid too much anyway."
Whatever we say tonight, that will be the way the matter will be perceived by the general public. If we condemn anyone—any hon. Member or member of the public—to such a judgment, we owe it to ourselves and to the people whom we represent to ask whether we could have done it better.
I make it clear: I imply no criticism of the care that the Committee and, indeed, the commissioner have taken when I say that, as a lawyer, I read things in the report that make me deeply uneasy. I will not detain the House for many minutes, but I will draw its attention to one paragraph as an example: paragraph 32 on page xii. After the first sentence, it says:
We agreed with the Commissioner's conclusions, and said: "Although not a requirement, there are occasions when interests of this nature would be better registered, and if a doubt should arise Members ought to seek the advice of the Commissioner. We and our predecessors have made this point on several previous occasions. If a Member feels it necessary to seek professional advice on a matter of registration it is clear that some doubt must exist".
I ask the House to think about that sentence:
If a Member feels it necessary to seek professional advice on a matter of registration it is clear that some doubt must exist.
We seem to have put ourselves in a position whereby, if a Member is prudent enough to say, "I do not know the full implications. I have many other things to do in my life. I had better take advice," and he does so, it must mean that he should register the interest.
I have quoted from it. The hon. Gentleman can go away and look it up if he wants to. It is as if someone is brought to a court of law and, at the end of that process, the judge says, "I have now checked the books and there is not an offence that quite fits your case, but you should be convicted. That is the way of it." That is the effect of such a process. We should be concerned about that.
I speak as a member of the Committee. The quotation that the hon. Gentleman uses is from an earlier report, which talks about slightly different affairs in terms of trusts, but, most significant, it seeks to advise Members to get rid of any ambiguity in the situation. Advice should be sought. If that advice is that Members do not need to register an interest, there is no need to register it, so it is not fair to say that seeking advice confirms that there is a registrable interest.
I see the point that the hon. Gentleman is driving at, but he is wrong. The first part of my quotation was a phrase from the previous commissioner of which the present commissioner approved. My point stands.
The quotation contains a further implication. It has been said several times that my hon. Friend said that she had no connection with overseas trusts. My reading of the evidence is that she made that point after having thought about it—doubtless with the benefit of lawyers—and in the belief that she had no interest that was registrable. Whether she had such an interest is a matter of debate, but we cannot say that someone who felt she had no interest, but who was subsequently held to have had an interest, must have been acting dishonestly.
My hon. Friend is not the only person who felt that way. We are in a remarkable position. One of the charges upheld against my hon. Friend is detailed on page xv as follows:
Mrs. Gorman gave seriously misleading information in 1995 and 1999 about her connections with the offshore companies Partingdale Holdings, Loxhill Investments and Kinloch Investments, owned by Queenstown Trust, and did not specify them in the Register.
However, my hon. Friend had taken advice on the point from leading counsel. At annex A, on pages lix-lx, the opinion of Philip Heslop QC concludes, at paragraph 9:
It follows that, for the same reasons given in the opinion of Michael Beloff QC but a fortiori, Mrs Gorman had, in my opinion, no interest in the Queenstown Trust registrable under category 9, and Mrs Gorman's position as regards non-registration under category 10 is, for the reasons also set out in Michael Beloff QC's opinion, more than arguable.
My hon. Friend has been found guilty of not registering a particular interest when leading counsel had said that she did not have to do so.
The Standards and Privileges Committee—perhaps like many juries—draws on a wide range of experience. I have gone through the relevant entries in "Dod's Parliamentary Companion" and "Who's Who" to find out the backgrounds of those who sat in judgment on my hon. Friend. I detected one non-practising banister and a solicitor who had previously had experience of employment law. That was the sum total of legal experience on the Committee. In effect, we have set up a jury that passes judgment without the benefit of counsel arguing before it or a High Court judge who can direct it on matters of fact or law.
I have on a number of occasions spoken not in defence of lawyers. I am a lawyer, but none of us is perfect. As a species, I do not particularly like lawyers. I do not mix with them, and I am not very keen on them. But even lawyers have their uses. We have set up a judicial process in which someone's reputation may be put on the line. We have given the Committee the impossible task of arguing matters of law before itself on which its members are not qualified to argue, yet no trained lawyer is present to ensure that the right inferences are drawn.
These matters used to be handled better. My hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir P. Tapsell) said that it was probably inevitable that we reached this point because of some of the excesses that occurred in the previous Parliament. Yet it was probably better in the old days when, if one behaved badly, the judgment of one's peers was such that one's life here became untenable. If one did not realise that one's place was untenable, the Chief Whip would telephone the association chairman, and one would find oneself not standing again for Parliament. That is the way it used to be.
I accept that these matters can never be handled that way again, but we have achieved the worst of all possible worlds. We have condemned someone through a judicial process in which that person did not have the benefit of a lawyer or a chance to have someone sit in judgment.
To give one tiny example of what can happen when people sit in judgment on matters that they are not in a position to judge, I refer to paragraph 47 of the report, which says:
Even if Mrs Gorman believed that the beneficial interest had been transferred, she remained the joint owner of the properties.
The last thing that I would want to do—perhaps because I would be doing it for free—is to give hon. Members who are not lawyers a potted history of land law in this country, but I can inform them that nobody owns land in this country apart from the sovereign: everybody else merely owns an interest in land. It is known as an estate. People own either a legal or an equitable estate.
The point that was being made on my hon. Friend's behalf, as any student of law would know, was that she had severed the beneficial interest. If that had been properly understood, with the help of counsel, by those deliberating on it, a different conclusion would have been drawn. It might not have made a huge difference in the end, but it is an example of statements appearing with all their tendentious force that are not properly understood by those who make them.
It would be inappropriate and needless to make this a party political matter. The public, whom we are here to represent, will be concerned to work out the gravity of my hon. Friend's offence, and to do that they will look at the penalty. That is usually quite a good measure—if one weighs up life imprisonment and a 10 quid fine, one assumes that the greater offence attracted the greater penalty—but that is not how it seems in this instance.
For one of the complaints against the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), we read:
Complaint upheld but no action recommended,
and for another:
Complaint upheld, personal statement made.
The right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) felt obliged to resign from the Cabinet, but the verdict on his misdemeanour was:
Complaint upheld … The Committee considered that no action should be taken.
By contrast, the severest penalty of all is being applied to my hon. Friend.
I am worried more than anything else by the fact that the punishment to be meted out is based not on the gravity of the substantive offence but on the fact that the Committee thought that its corporate dignity had been infringed. The most draconian penalty has been imposed for what everyone—including, in fairness, the Chairman of the Committee—accepts is a relatively minor offence.
In the 19th century, Lord Macaulay referred to the way in which the British public can look
in one of its periodical fits of morality.
We have to learn the lessons and say that if we are to impose this procedure on ourselves it must be a fair procedure. If we do not hold ourselves in sufficiently high regard properly and adequately to protect our own, we may ask ourselves why sometimes the general public do not hold us in such regard either.
As a former member of the Committee who then suffered its penalties, I have experience of both ends of its work. When I was on the Committee, a series of hon. Members came before us. If we have a debate about whether we should change our procedures, I certainly hope to be here to defend the Standards and Privileges Committee, which is the most appropriate method whereby we can discipline ourselves and Members of Parliament can be held to account by their peers.
I do not want to invite the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) to enter the debate, but I remind hon. Members of the way in which he demonstrated to a Member of Parliament who came before the Committee that had he taken the option of being truthful in the first instance, the outcome would have been much easier both on him and on the Committee. His attempted refusal to accept the facts made the process far more difficult for him. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) said that had the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) been up-front, honest and more helpful to the Committee, the punishment it proposed might not have been so severe.
Our current system is the best system. I broke the rules of the House, I understood that I had done so and I accepted the authority of the Standards and Privileges Committee. It would have helped the House if the hon. Lady had done the same. Instead, regrettably, we have heard a succession of right hon. and hon. Opposition Members, with one or two exceptions, attack the Committee. They say that they are not attacking it, but they are. That does not help the Committee or help to uphold the standards that we set for ourselves as Members of Parliament. They are trying to confuse those outside this place, who do not understand how we work. They do not further the debate or help the hon. Lady's case by so doing. It would have been far better had she come to the Chamber and apologised. Then, we could have got on with our business.
The matter is a serious one. I rise to speak in this debate because I wish to follow the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir P. Tapsell) and others who have suggested that it is the draconian nature of the penalty that most exercises us. My hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) is right to draw the House's attention to the way in which today's debate and the decision of the Standards and Privileges Committee will be represented outside the House.
We stand in grave danger of trading complaints against each other and placing them before the Committee for partisan purposes. The only beneficiaries of such a process will be the media, to which we provide wonderful copy, and those who want to denigrate our Parliament. All Members of Parliament recognise that there is little corruption here and that the vast majority of Members—probably all—work extremely hard in the interests of their constituents. We would be hard pressed to name one Member of Parliament on either side of the House who we believe represents an interest that is outside his or her political philosophy for the sake of personal gain. By repeatedly dragging out these cases, we supply the media with sticks to bash us with.
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that the reputation of the House was harmed during the previous Parliament? Does he not realise that the Parliamentary Commissioner and the new Committee arose from the scandals of those days? If he is concerned about the reputation of the House—I have no reason to believe that he is not—does he not agree that it is essential to have standards? If we do not set standards or create the means of inquiring into complaints—in the current case, serious complaints—we might as well give up.
I could not possibly dissent from the view that we must uphold standards in Parliament. My point is that I believe that our standards are rather good. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman made a partisan point. It was a feature of the general election—as the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, admits, it was a part of the Labour party's campaign—that the Conservative party was portrayed as sleaze-ridden. The fact is that, since the election, relatively seriously charges have been preferred against Labour Members.
The hon. Gentleman makes my very point. We are neither advantaging ourselves nor doing justice to the institution which most of us hold in great affection by continually trying to score these points off one another. As I say, the only beneficiaries thereof are the media.
One of my complaints against Sir Gordon Downey was that he felt it necessary that people should be able to come to his door to make all sorts of complaints about right hon. and hon. Members. There is a lot of mileage for journalists in doing so because it provides useful copy. The letters "MP" are useful in making short headlines. MP does this, or MP is up to that—it makes wonderful copy and further feeds the public perception that we are not honourable people.
I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) made a rather unworthy comment at the outset of the proceedings when I sought to intervene on him, and I hope that he will accept that.
I shall do the right hon. Gentleman the courtesy of giving way—a courtesy that he did not accord me—but in a moment.
Hon. Members should know that the right hon. Gentleman reserves his venom for me to the Chamber. He is the absolute picture of courtesy outside. We have a fine relationship outside and I do not know what drives him to be so venomous towards me in the Chamber. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes me to give way, I shall do so.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for so doing. I am sure that it helps. But the point that I wanted to ask him was this. He referred to the fact that one of the charges levelled against my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) was that she had sought to interfere—that was the word used in the report—with a former tenant of a property. Yet the report refers to Fran Abrams, who I understand is the journalist from The Independent who lodged one of the initial complaints. She apparently wrote to the commissioner, Ms Filkin, on 28 June and 5 July. On page xxv the report states:
The Independent have contacted 6 former tenants—
not one but six—
who were living at this property in 1990 and paying rent to Mr. Gorman.
If the Committee had genuinely wanted to be fair, it should not only have said that the hon. Lady should not have interfered with the witnesses, it should also have referred to journalists. It is all right for journalists to dig around and find dirt on Members, but it is not in order for Members to warn people that journalists are snooping around trying to make a story. That was why I sought to intervene on the right hon. Gentleman and for no other reason.
Reference has been made to the rules of the House. There is growing acceptance across the Floor of the House that the matter has grown out of all proportion. Our rules have already been quoted, but I wish to do so again because it is important that the public understand them. The main purpose of the register is
to provide information of any pecuniary interest or other material benefit which a Member receives which might reasonably be thought by others to influence his or her actions, speeches, or votes in Parliament, or actions taken in his or her capacity as a Member of Parliament.
Essentially, the accusation made against my hon. Friend is that she moved a 10–minute Bill when she was in receipt of rents from properties which she had not
declared. Whether she or her husband was a beneficial owner of those properties is immaterial. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) made clear, my hon. Friend is known to have been a libertarian and a deregulator, so what she was proposing was entirely consistent with her political philosophy. What the House and the public want to know is when a Member is advancing a cause not because it is one in which they strongly believe and which is part of their political philosophy, but for another reason, namely, that there is some personal advantage to them. I honestly do not believe that many hon. Members could claim to be as politically consistent—indeed, as ideologically consistent—as my hon. Friend. Therefore, it is unfair of the Committee to have taken to heart so seriously and self-righteously the fact that my hon. Friend moved her 10–minute Bill—although I accept that if one has an interest to declare, one should do so.
We need to return to the basic question of the purpose of the register.
In a moment.
In connection with another matter, I had cause to go through some of the speeches of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. I will name no names because that would serve no purpose but I found that many hon. Members who had properly declared an interest in the register—whether they were sponsored by a trade union, working for a company or whatever—regularly participated in associated debates, particularly 10 years ago. Their interest was probably known, but it may not have been.
I could score petty party political points by naming one or two Ministers and saying that on such and such a date in 1988 they participated in a debate but did not declare their interest. I am not interested in doing so, because I do not believe that those right hon. and hon. Members who are now Ministers in this Labour Government participated in those debates 10 or 15 years ago because they were paid to do so. The fact that they were sponsored by a trade union or whatever was incidental.
The idea that my hon. Friend was influenced by her ownership of a property in Portugal to participate in affairs to do with that country in this House is monstrous. We do ourselves a disservice if we try to pretend to people outside that my hon. Friend had such a serious interest in some property in Portugal, or even two properties, that it influenced the way in which she behaved in the House. We would be telling the public that this place is behaving in a way that none of us intended.
Does the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) still wish to intervene?
The hon. Gentleman read out the rule of the House and the test that has to be applied. It is not a subjective test as to whether the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) felt that she was moved by her role as a landlord to take a particular view of the Rent Acts; it is an objective test to do with pubic perception. In making his case, the hon. Gentleman seems completely to have lost sight of that fact.
I am sorry, but I do not think that public perception is such a readily identifiable objective test.
I do not believe that, given my hon. Friend's consistently proclaimed position on the matter in question and on deregulation in general, one could possibly suggest that her ownership of properties in south London—whether she did own them or not—was a factor that influenced the way in which she behaved in the House. I used to represent a mining constituency and participated in many mining debates in which coal miner after coal miner spoke passionately on an issue in which they clearly had an interest. Of course, they declared it, but no one sought to belittle them because they spoke with passion about an industry in which they had a close and personal interest.
I am reluctant to speak, but I am saddened by the tenor of the debate. Hon. Members who have decided to participate are doing so for the best reasons—to sustain a Member of the House who is in trouble. I appreciate why they are doing it. However, although I am relatively new Member, I also appreciate the fact that the House created a procedure providing for a Committee to investigate such cases. I ask the House to recognise not only that such a Committee was established in this case, but that it attempted in fairness to ensure that justice was done. I ask hon. Members to accept that the Committee should be treated with the respect that its deserves.
Order. I have been indulgent to the hon. Gentleman, who is a new Member, but he should remember in future that interventions must be brief.
I quite understand why the hon. Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) wished to intervene. He is a new hon. Member, and I am sure that we all welcome him as Lord Robertson's successor.
I appreciate that the Committee is an all-party one. I have made the point before that, formerly, the Committee was presided over by the Prime Minister of the day and composed entirely of very senior hon. Members. That is the way it should be. I do not believe that new hon. Members should be members of the Committee. However, I do not wish to deal with what we should do about the future, but simply to consider the specific case and the dangers that might arise if the House were to approve the Committee's report.
As I said, the proposed penalty is draconian. We have to ask ourselves what damage has been done to the House by my hon. Friend. Perhaps the real damage is that she failed to take advantage of the assistance of one of my right hon. and learned Friends, who—for a very small fee, or perhaps a very large fee—might have been enabled her to deal more expeditiously with the Committee.
The proposed penalty is not only draconian, but wholly out of proportion to any damage. It also sits very uncomfortably with decisions made in cases involving prominent Labour Members. As for perceptions, the danger for Labour Members is that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the right hon. Member for Hartlepool—who is a very senior man—was able to preside in investigations of the company affairs of another Minister without declaring to his own private secretary that he was in receipt of a very substantial loan from that other Minister—
I shall not give way.
Within a year, the right hon. Gentleman was not only back in the Government, but in the Cabinet. However, my hon. Friend—who had a lapse of memory, did not remember all the details, and perhaps gave the Committee a bit of a hard time as well—will have imposed on her the most draconian penalty that the Committee has dished out since the general election. That is unfair, and that is why the House, should it decide to support the Committee on the proposed penalty, will be making a grave decision.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) was on the Committee, and I know him to be an extremely fair man. I also appreciate that the Committee takes its decisions on an all-party basis. Nevertheless, on the proposed penalty, I think that he and his colleagues are quite wrong.
I had not intended to speak in the debate—I am the newest member of the Standards and Privileges Committee—but I have become extremely concerned about the tone of the debate. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) asked what damage the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) has done to the reputation of the House. I tell him that Conservative Members, in this debate, are doing more damage to the reputation of the House than the hon. Lady has done.
The speeches by Conservative Members—with the honourable exceptions of the shadow Leader of the House and the former Attorney-General, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell)—have been made in the manner of Mark Antony, suggesting that the Committee was honourable, but then seeking to undermine not only the Committee's judgment and work, but the process. We should be very cautious on that particular point.
I dissent entirely from the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell). This is not a judicial procedure, and a suggestion that it should be treated as such is quite contrary to the purpose of the Committee and the way in which the House judges its business. The suggestion that people do not sit in judgment on their peers is a denial of what life is mostly about. People are always sitting in judgment on their peers. How on earth do people get promotion, demotion or the sack other than by being disciplined by their peers and people with whom they work?
The House has determined that we wish to establish standards of conduct by which we judge ourselves. The last thing that we want to do is put that process in the hands of barrack-room lawyers outside the processes of the House.
The issue in this case was whether the hon. Lady had a registerable interest to declare and had failed to declare it. It is that simple. The Committee concluded that she had and that she then tried to hide the fact.
This is the first report in which I have been involved. I was very impressed by the time and the trouble that was taken to ensure that every fact was considered objectively and in detail and that everybody had their say. Where there were doubts, we went back over the ground to ensure that we did not proceed until we had secured agreement.
I do not know. It was the hon. Gentleman who wanted to bring in the lawyers. My suggestion was that the procedure was best kept within the House and not handed over to judicial process. Some of the senior Conservative Members who have spoken were disingenuous if they were seriously suggesting that that would be an appropriate way forward. They have done a disservice to the House, the Committee and our proceedings by suggesting that, because they know that they were trying to throw up a smokescreen. I hope that the House will move to a decision on the basis of this appropriate and detailed Committee report, which has been considered very carefully and has the support of hon. Members on both sides.
Like the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan), I had not intended to take part in the debate. I just want to say a couple of things and I promise to be brief.
Many Labour Members have a deal of affection and respect for the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). I remember the time when she and I—in the company of others—were almost involved in a plane crash in South Australia. In those dreadful minutes before we crash-landed, she behaved with immense courage. I was white-knuckled at the time. However, she has been ill served by her defenders this afternoon.
If the motion is passed, I know that the hon. Lady will behave with the same dignity and rectitude as were shown by my hon. and old Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) when he was rightly suspended for what he has admitted this afternoon was a transgression.
I have complete confidence in the integrity of the members of the Committee. I pray to heaven that I shall never appear in front of them, but I know that I would get a fair and just hearing. One Conservative Member kept talking about the audience outside. There are a number of audiences, including the two devolved Assemblies and the Scottish Parliament, which are dealing with legislation on ethics and standards. The Scottish Parliament is doing that at the moment. I hope that they all learn from how we conduct ourselves. This sounds very self-regarding, although I am not a member of the Committee, but much of what we do in dealing with Members of Parliament whom we believe have transgressed and broken the code of conduct is admirable.
If the motion is passed, I know that the hon. Lady will behave with the same dignity as my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West. Her defenders this afternoon have served her badly.
May I join my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) in wishing the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) well? We pay tribute to the woman concerned and to Duncan Goodhew for taking action immediately when the right hon. Gentleman was taken ill a week ago.
My views on the matter before us are reflected in the Committee's report, and I will not rehearse them. However, published with the report are the minutes of evidence that were taken before the previous report on my hon. Friend. I should like to quote from one of the replies that she gave on page 4 of the evidence given on 18 May 1999. In answer to a question from the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), my hon. Friend said:
But I perceived the Members' interests Register as a document listing income which I was receiving from elsewhere and where I was not receiving income I did not consider that was a matter that needed to be declared. I acknowledge again that that was an error of judgment on my part for which I am extremely apologetic and sorry, and that is what I want to say.
I think that the memory from this debate and from the second report should be those words—my hon. Friend was right then. I think that the learned counsel who was quoted in one of the letters is wrong. I believe that the learned counsel and others who may follow these debates and consider what to do, especially if we get close to adopting the Nicholls recommendations, should consider paragraph 39 of our report on page xiii, which states:
Members have a duty of accountability under the Code of Conduct and "must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office".
The relevant footnote 61 refers to the House of Commons paper 688, Session 1995–96, page 3.
No one in this debate has challenged the commissioner's fact-finding. That is a good thing. The first question is whether my hon. Friend should have registered information to begin with, the second is whether she should have made a declaration.
When a complaint is made, the commissioner has to ask whether there is a prima facie reason to investigate it. When complaints are put formally to an hon. Member, that hon. Member would have a duty to give the commissioner all the information available so that the commissioner can easily find out the facts. On some complaints, the commissioner finds that there is no case to investigate. On others, there is a case to investigate, but responses show that there is no need to take it any further. If there is a difference of view, or an hon. Member's view has changed, the hon. Member should say that it would have been better to register, do so, and say to the Committee, as my hon. Friend did on 18 May, that she had changed her view.
I do not necessarily agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), but he challenged neither our procedure nor our conclusions. I disagree with the suggestion of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that such matters should go to a tribunal or a court of law. I should like my voice to be taken into account. We are capable of considering the findings of fact by the commissioner, and I believe that we have got it right. Things would have been very different if this inquiry had received the same co-operation as the previous one.