HC Deb 17 November 1998 vol 319 cc808-24

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That Ms Elizabeth Filkin be appointed Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the retirement of Sir Gordon Downey, KCB, on the terms of the Report of the House of Commons Commission (HC 1143), dated 9th November 1998.—[Mr. Kirkwood.] 6.57 pm
Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)

It is only right that we should welcome the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and pay tribute to the retiring commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey. One of the advantages we have in this country is that a number of individuals have come up through the public service and have felt it right to dedicate themselves to public service, even though the financial rewards are not as great as they may be elsewhere. Gordon Downey is an exemplar of such an approach.

After the war, there was a common feeling among some people that they should repay the work that was done for them by their predecessors. In the 1980s, that attitude did not receive high favour. It was almost mocked, and it was felt that those who did not make use of their talents and make a lot of money were failing the country and themselves. That was an appalling attitude. Some people were scorned for their work for the country and for the community. The idea that society was not as important as the individual failed to take account of the enormous value that we get from people who devote themselves to raising and maintaining standards of public life.

Gordon Downey is an outstanding public servant. It is a great privilege to be in public service: it is not a job like any other. The fact that we have so many such people is a tribute to the dedication that they have brought to the public service and to the civil service. Sir Gordon also worked with the Public Accounts Committee for some years. When I was asked whether he would be a suitable Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, I was delighted: I could not imagine that anyone else could do the job as well as he could. My judgment has been borne out by events.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

Does my right hon. Friend feel that Elizabeth Filkin should be given more resources than have been given to Sir Gordon Downey in order to carry out the work as effectively and comprehensively as possible?

Mr. Sheldon

Sir Gordon never claimed to be short of resources, although few were available. He carried out his duties with great dedication and, through his ability, was capable of dealing with every question that arose. Of course, he had a superb background for the job. He was in the Treasury—I knew him there more than 20 years ago—and then became Comptroller and Auditor-General of the old Exchequer and Audit Department before it became the National Audit Office. He retired from there to become chairman of the Financial Intermediaries, Managers and Brokers Regulatory Association. As he says himself, he retired from numerous jobs to take up ever more jobs that fitted his experience and abilities.

Sir Gordon retired from that job to become ombudsman for two newspapers. He retired from that job to become a regulator of hospital authorities. If we ever wished to appoint a "conscience of the nation", Sir Gordon would clearly be a prominent candidate. He has undertaken his work splendidly. Following his examination of more than 40 complaints that were brought to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, the results were unanimous. Unanimity flowed from the work that he produced for the Committee. When he eventually retired, we asked him for his views, which are contained in our 19th report.

A growing tradition is for an outstanding public servant to be asked, at the end of his service, to describe the lessons that he has learnt, so that they can be passed on. That was done on a number of occasions in the Public Accounts Committee, and—as can be seen from our 19th report—it was done in the case of the retiring parliamentary commissioner. Sir Gordon told us that the disciplinary system had worked well. He also told us that he would like to see a statute of limitations—that in too many instances people had delved far into the past, when attitudes were rather different, and that such actions might not have been in accordance with the standards that we now expect.

If the public perception of the work of the House of Commons has improved—as I hope it has—much of that improvement must be due to Sir Gordon's work. That, I think, is the finest farewell tribute that could be offered. We should be judged according to whether the public perceive us in a way that would be recognisable 20 or 30 years ago—allowing for some criticisms; the House will always receive criticisms.

When Elizabeth Filkin appeared before the Standards and Privileges Committee this morning, we were able to discuss her role. She will be taking on the kind of work that Sir Gordon did so well. It is intended that she should work four days a week, but that may not be necessary: we hope that the amount of work, which was initially large, will diminish as new standards are more widely recognised. People now accept standards that were produced two or three years ago, and I trust that that will mean that far fewer representations will be made to the commissioner.

We thank Sir Gordon Downey for all the splendid work that he has done. He laid down a road for others to follow, and that is one of the great tributes that we can pay him.

7.4 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

I want to say two things, very briefly. First, let me join the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) in paying tribute to Sir Gordon Downey's work. The first holder of any post has a huge responsibility, because he establishes the framework within which the post develops, and maps out a way forward. Sir Gordon found himself in the middle, between two of the most powerful forces in a democratic society—a sovereign Parliament and a free press—at a time when relationships between the two were deteriorating. He discharged one of the most difficult jobs in the public sector with patience, diligence and tact. As the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said, he has helped to begin to restore the House's reputation, and we all owe him our gratitude.

Secondly, I want to support the appointment of Elizabeth Filkin. As Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I encountered her when she was adjudicator for the Inland Revenue. I was impressed by her commitment to her job and her staff, but, crucially, I was impressed by the fact that she retained the confidence of the Revenue, the body that she was investigating. That showed that she was fair, and that her work commanded respect. I looked at her latest report, which was commended for good plain English and clear strong messages"— a welcome contrast to the legislative prose with which most of us deal for most of the time.

I support Elizabeth Filkin's nomination, commend her to the House and wish her well.

7.5 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)

I promise to be brief.

I add my grateful acknowledgement to Sir Gordon Downey. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said, Sir Gordon's integrity and sterling work have helped to restore the reputation of Members of Parliament, which was at a low ebb when he was appointed.

I hope that Elizabeth Filkin will be given the resources that she needs. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said that Sir Gordon Downey never complained about what might have been seen as sparse resources and facilities. Let us hope that Elizabeth Filkin's work load diminishes over time—that would be a fine reflection on this place—but I hope that, if she needs more resources, the House will ensure that they are provided.

Let me repeat my thanks to a fine and honourable man.

7.7 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

I cannot promise to be as brief as the other speakers, but I consider this to be an important debate. I think that the House should take the appointment of a new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards very seriously, because it is a sensitive appointment. Apart from anything else, it commands a salary that is almost twice what Members of Parliament receive, for four days' work a week. I invite any hon. Member who works for only four days a week to put his or her hand up. I doubt that I shall see many hands rise.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

They are the ones who are not here.

Mr. Howarth

They have been sent on an away day by the Labour Whips.

When Sir Gordon was appointed, his salary of £72,000 was more than double that of a Member of Parliament—then about £33,000. In an article written in 1995, Lord Renton, then Member of Parliament for Mid-Sussex, said of the discrepancy: This is like paying the company night watchman twice as much as the sales director. He made a valid point. It needs to be taken into account when we consider these matters.

Sir Gordon Downey's appointment unquestionably reinforced in the public mind the idea that the House had something to be ashamed of. The vast majority of hon. Members work extremely hard. They are diligent. They generally pursue issues in the way in which they believe they need to be pursued, promoting not a partial interest, but one that they have formed out of conviction, so it is unfortunate that Sir Gordon Downey's appointment—far from helping to reduce the public disaffection for the House, as the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) believes—helped to reinforce the idea that there was something deeply dishonourable about the House. I do not believe that to be true. Of course there have been problems, but they did not warrant the sort of attack that was made on the honour of the House.

I do not know Elizabeth Filkin; I have not had the privilege. I was not on the House of Commons Commission. I am not a member of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, so I have not met her. Therefore, I have relied only on what I have read in the newspaper. Last week, I read an interesting article in The Times that suggested that her credentials were excellent: For the past five years she has gained a reputation as an investigator of complaints made against the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Contributions Agency. It was also suggested that The world of Westminster may seem a fitting job for a former social worker and childcare expert who has written several academic books on dealing with errant charges. I hope that she has left all that behind her, because we are not errant charges in need of being taken in hand by a schoolmistress.

One of the things that I noticed on returning to the House after a five-year absence is how much we are now employees. I felt like an employee rather than an hon. Member: the number of forms one has to fill in; we have to do this, that and the other. Therefore, I hope that Elizabeth Filkin will not regard her task as primarily to bring people to book.

I draw some comfort from something that Elizabeth Filkin was quoted as saying by Valerie Elliott in The Times: 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 hope that she will bring that outlook to the discharge of her responsibilities. As every right hon. and hon. Member knows, we have immense pressures on us. There is no spare time in the day, and hardly any at night. For what it is worth, I was telephoned at a quarter to 6 this morning by Talk Radio and invited to give my views on an issue.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

Did Talk Radio pay you?

Mr. Howarth

Talk Radio pays, does it? Well, it did not pay me. I put the telephone down, but I shall be looking for a handsome apology for having been roused from my slumbers, having got to bed at 2.30 am, after working late in the House.

Hon. Members work hard. There are great pressures on us. There are many competing priorities: our duties to our constituents, in the House and to our families. It is possible that, being frail and human, occasionally we will make mistakes. I am sure that all hon. Members think that there are things that they have done or omitted to do that may have been better not done or done, and that they regret. I hope that, in acknowledging human frailty, Miss Filkin, or Mrs. Filkin, whatever she is, will be good enough to understand our frailties in this place and not encourage those elements of the media who are sitting up there like vultures, seeking to trip up Members of Parliament at every turn.

The other day, I was rung up by a newspaper, not a radio station, that suggested that I had tabled three questions on which I should have declared an interest. The whole tenor of the conversation was that, somehow, I had behaved, "Of course, not improperly, Mr. Howarth," but that I had been in breach of the rules.

I checked with the Registrar of Members' Interests and I was not in breach of the rules, but there are journalists sitting there, some aided and abetted by Labour Members, who do not like the idea of Members of Parliament having outside interests, and who seek simply to trip up Members of Parliament for some minor omission that in no way reflects on their integrity or the way in which they conduct themselves in the House. Therefore, as I say, I hope that Elizabeth Filkin will bear those points in mind.

I hope that Elizabeth Filkin will learn some of the lessons of the past few years. It is going to be her responsibility, if the House is minded to approve her appointment, to uphold the dignity of Parliament; that is one of the charges that will be upon her, but I urge her to regard that as a two-way street and not simply a question of investigating complaints against Members about things that they may have omitted to do.

I hope that Elizabeth Filkin will regard it as her duty to protect the integrity of Parliament by ensuring that those who bring unfounded and serious allegations against Members pay some penalty, once it is decided that their charges are baseless. That is why I shall not join those right hon. and hon. Members who wish to salute the departure of Sir Gordon Downey; I do not. I think that he has been a disgrace—[Interruption. The House may not like to hear it, but we have free speech in this place and I believe that he has behaved, in some respects, disgracefully. I shall tell the House why I am particularly exercised.

Soon after returning to the House last year, I went to see Sir Gordon Downey in respect of one investigation that he had recently undertaken and concluded, a serious investigation where allegations were made against the then Home Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), that he had been guilty of taking bribes of no less than £1 million from Mr. Tiny Rowland—the complaint was made by Mr. Al Fayed.

That was duly investigated by Sir Gordon. Shortly before the general election of 1997, he dismissed the allegations as baseless, but they had all been paraded all over the newspapers, and Labour Members could revel in the idea that there was no smoke without fire and that a senior Minister was involved; it was great stuff for the sleaze machine and all the rest of it. When Sir Gordon found, of course, that there was no case to answer, that appeared as a footnote in the newspapers, but the damage had been done.

I said to Sir Gordon, "Having found that the accusation was baseless, why did you not require that Al Fayed be summoned to the Bar of the House to apologise?" "Oh, Mr. Howarth, we could not possibly do that," he said. "Why not?" I asked. "Because that would deter other people from making complaints," he said.

That was an absolutely disgraceful dereliction of the duty of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. He should have been far more robust. A grave charge was made against an hon. Member, which reflected on all of us, at least all of those who were in the House at the time. Sir Gordon failed miserably in upholding the dignity of the House by failing to require, or at least to recommend to the Committee, that Mr. Al Fayed be brought before the House to answer for what he had done. It was on the basis of that conversation with Sir Gordon that I felt deeply depressed about the way in which he had conducted his business.

The House will know, because I have raised it here before, that I believe that the manner in which Sir Gordon dealt with the case of Mr. Neil Hamilton was also a dereliction of duty. Sir Gordon's whole case was based on compelling evidence that Mr. Hamilton had taken money. He could not determine how much money Mr. Hamilton had taken from Mr. Al Fayed, how he had taken the money, when he had taken the money and, despite having crawled through his accounts, what he had done with the money. Nevertheless, it was good enough for Sir Gordon Downey to find that there was compelling evidence.

The truth is that Sir Gordon Downey rejected the original claims made by The Guardian—which has been part of the overall conspiracy, in cahoots with some Labour Members—that Mr. Hamilton had been paid via Mr. Ian Greer. Nevertheless, after finding that those claims had not stuck, Al Fayed made other accusations—which, when they too did not stick, he changed for a third time.

In his "compelling evidence", Sir Gordon relied on the evidence of Mr. Al Fayed's employees. If I may detain the House for a moment—I have rather a lot of literature on the matter—I remind hon. Members that, at paragraph 800 of the Committee's first report, last July, Sir Gordon said that Ms Bond, who is Mr. Al Fayed's right-hand lady, and Mr. Bromfield, who was the doorkeeper at 60 Park lane, the location of Mr. Al Fayed's headquarters—

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

Will my hon. Friend allow me to intervene?

Mr. Howarth

When I have finished this point, I shall of course allow my hon. Friend to intervene.

Sir Gordon stated that those people impressed me as reliable witnesses and I found no discrepancies in their evidence which could not be accounted for by uncertainties of recollection after a period of 10 years. Unlike Mr. Bromfield, Mr. Hamilton was allowed no such deficiency in his recollection.

Mr. Bromfield testified that Mr. Hamilton had picked up envelopes at 60 Park lane—which of course never happened. It has now been revealed that, for about four months, Mr. Bromfield regularly handed over envelopes to Miss Francesca Pollard, who was, and acknowledges that she was, in Al Fayed's pay. Mr. Bromfield could not remember her, but he could remember Mr. Hamilton, who was never there. He was a totally unreliable witness. He was one of many such witnesses.

Sir Gordon completely failed in pursuing a course of natural justice. Charges of such a nature should have been judged on the standard of beyond reasonable doubt—which Sir Gordon did not apply—and not on the balance of probabilities. It is extremely interesting that he failed to call key witnesses who would have told him that those employees were unreliable. I remind the House that those employees appeared only at the 59th minute of the 11th hour. They had held their tongues for three years, and came forward only three days before the case was due to go to court.

Sir Gordon completely refused to take the evidence of Mr. Christoph Betterman, who had been no less than a director and vice-chairman of Harrods.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I said that I would give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley). I should do that, and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

I say this with some hesitation. If my hon. Friend has already dealt with the issues with which he wanted to deal, my remarks will be unnecessary. However, if he is thinking of going into the matter in some depth, I should tell him that, when I was involved in a High Court action, I was cautioned to be rather cautious about taking up issues that might be further determined by a court. I do not want to say any more than that, but I have a fear.

Mr. Howarth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing that point to my attention. He makes a fair point, to which I shall of course have regard. I do not want to take much longer, but I should give way to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell).

Mr. Mitchell

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not have a legal warning, but merely say that—on the occasion of the retirement of a very distinguished public servant—the tactic of raking over old, dead coals and going over evidence again is not only ungracious but downright wrong. However, if the hon. Gentlemen is going to do that, why does he not declare his own interest as a close friend of the man about whom he is talking, and as someone who was coupled with him in a libel action and gained damages with him from the BBC?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. We should not deal with issues concerning the BBC and events of some time ago, as they have nothing to do with the motion. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is speaking within the rules of debate. If he were not, I would soon stop him. However, I also remind him that hon. Members have a tradition of being careful not to malign those with no protection.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As the mover of the motion, on behalf of the House of Commons Commission, may I have some guidance? The report that we have tabled deals with the nomination of a candidate and is essentially about welcoming a new person to the job. Therefore is it technically in order—as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) said—to rake over the coals?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

As I said to the hon. Member for Aldershot—and as he should know by now— the occupant of the Chair would not allow the debate to go out of order. The report mentions the work done by Sir Gordon Downey. The hon. Member should have mentioned occasionally the new commissioner, which he has done. However, I reiterate that there is a tradition in the House of being careful in dealing with privilege. An hon. Member who is attacked by another hon. Member will have an opportunity to rebut, but hon. Members are careful about using our privilege in the Chamber.

Mr. Howarth

Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am most grateful to you for making a very considered response. I have attempted to conduct myself in a manner that I hope the House will regard as being as courteous as possible in the circumstances.

I tell the hon. Member for Great Grimsby that every hon. Member knows that I am a close friend of Neil Hamilton; I do not have to declare that. Moreover, I tell the hon. Gentleman that his comments were unworthy of him as a man of principle. I am fighting for a principle, and he, too, should be prepared to fight for a principle. The principle is that a man in this country is innocent unless proved otherwise.

Neil Hamilton has not been proved to have taken the money. The Committee concluded that it did not have evidence that he had taken the money. I am therefore not attempting to rake over old coals. However, I shall not join in the tribute paid by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) to Sir Gordon Downey. I do not share my right hon. Friend's view. I believe that Sir Gordon has failed to discharge his duty, and I am entitled to say so in the House.

I have publicly expressed that view, and I have told Sir Gordon Downey on the telephone that I wish to call for his dismissal. He has not been shy in replying to me. He is an unelected appointee of the House who should be accountable to the House. I feel that he has not been properly accountable to the House. When challenged about my views, he asserted in The Daily Telegraph that my opinions were a matter of "total indifference" to him. All I can say is that no public official has the right to speak in such terms about the opinions of an elected Member of this place.

Sir Gordon has been quite happy to defend himself. He has made some outrageous remarks. After seeing something about the 19th report in The Times and learning its basis—wishing Sir Gordon well—I have only just picked up a copy of it. However, I shall not join in the general euphoria—forgive me—because I believe that the public are entitled to know about those matters. I am grateful to hon. Members who are giving me a fair hearing.

The essence of my argument—of why I believe that Sir Gordon Downey has failed—is that he has failed to discharge his responsibility to uphold the integrity of the House by requiring those who make baseless allegations to be brought to book. That is where he has failed, and that is why I wish to say to his successor that I hope that she will not make the same mistake.

I believe that Sir Gordon Downey also does not deserve the eulogies of the House because of the way in which he dealt with a case in which I have declared a close interest. I have argued why. I am not simply asserting that Sir Gordon Downey is a bad chap; I am giving chapter and verse as to why I do not believe that the House should give the bloke a happy send-off. One of my reasons is that he chose to rely on the evidence of people who were totally and completely committed to a known crook and liar, in the words of the Department of Trade and Industry report. He failed to take into account the evidence of Mr. Christoph Betterman, a former vice-chairman of Harrods, who ended up banged up in a gaol in the middle east for nine months in squalid conditions. In evidence to Sir Gordon Downey, he said: In my bitter personal experience, Mr. Al-Fayed is a compulsive liar who will stop at nothing to achieve his objectives. Any statement of his and of his close employees seeking to corroborate him should be treated with the greatest circumspection. Let me ask the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, who is a member of the Committee, why he did not require Sir Gordon Downey to invite Mr. Betterman to give evidence. Sir Gordon failed in his duty. He invited only those who would support the case for the prosecution, as it were.

We have now seen exhibited to public view the activities of Mr. Al Fayed in raiding the safe deposit box belonging to Tiny Rowland. He has now pulled out of the case, which cost £2.5 million and has now ended. It is further evidence that he and his colleagues have been crooks.

My basic point is that Sir Gordon Downey failed to discharge his responsibility.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

The hon. Gentleman condemns the work of Sir Gordon Downey, but surely he should respect the decision of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges to find Mr. Neil Hamilton guilty on seven out of the eight charges brought against him. I believe that the fact that Mr. Hamilton admitted to those seven charges would have resulted in his suspension from the House. Does the hon. Gentleman not respect the decision of the elected Members on the Select Committee?

Mr. Howarth

I am afraid that I do not, because the whole issue has been imbued with enormous partisan advantage, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. The evidence is in paragraph 814 of the report. The Prime Minister himself has been hauled before the Select Committee on three occasions and been accused—and found guilty—of minor transgressions which ought properly to have been recorded; yet Sir Gordon Downey asserts that the fact that Neil Hamilton was found guilty on a number of counts puts him completely beyond the pale. I am sorry, but I cannot find the exact quotation.

Sir Gordon Downey does not deserve the approbation of the House because he was partial. He took a more lenient and favourable towards some Members than towards others.

I am not alone in that view. On 20 October, The Daily Telegraph—a newspaper of repute and undoubted independence of mind, a fearless fighter for worthy causes—[HON. MEMBERS: "They are not here."] No; but they will be watching on the box, and I did not vote to bring television into the House.

On 20 October, The Daily Telegraph said: Under pressure to show that the new system of parliamentary regulation could handle corruption, Sir Gordon appears to have jumped to conclusions. Had he conducted a thorough investigation, he would have realised that allegations made by employees under Mr. Fayed's direct control were highly suspect. The reason is obvious. Mr. Fayed carries out dirty tricks campaigns against staff who cross him. In the specific case of Alison Bozek, her claims are categorically denied by former members of Mr. Fayed's operations.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Member for Aldershot gives way, I have something to say. The hon. Gentleman has made his point about Sir Gordon Downey and has said that he does not wish to join his hon. Friends in congratulating him. He has a perfect right to do that. He has put the case as to why he should not congratulate Sir Gordon Downey, but the House should not have to listen to every piece of evidence. The hon. Gentleman has made his point and I hope that he will not give us chapter and verse of what Mr. Al Fayed or anyone else has done. The hon. Gentleman has made the point that he does not like Sir Gordon Downey.

Mr. Hoyle

Will the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) consider withdrawing his remarks? He has cast aspersions on certain right hon. and hon. Members by saying that the Select Committee treated some hon. Members more favourably than others. That raises questions about the right hon. and hon. Members on that Committee, and I think that he should withdraw his remarks.

Mr. Howarth

I am sorry, but I cannot withdraw what I said, as I believe it to be the case. The hon. Gentleman has not been in the House for very long. He and I worked together on aerospace matters and I respect him, but I do not believe—

Mr. Hoyle

Name the hon. Members.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman asks me to name the hon. Members involved. I have named the Prime Minister, whom I believe to have been treated more favourably and more leniently. I also believe that the Select Committee treated the Paymaster General more leniently than he warrants. Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends feel very strongly about that.

Dr. Godman


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Once again, let me say to the hon. Member for Aldershot that it is time that he concluded his remarks. The House has heard his case and knows exactly where he is coming from. [Interruption.] I hope that the hon. Gentleman is listening, because, if he intends indulging in personal criticism of any right hon. or hon. Member, he must table a motion and put it before the House.

Mr. Howarth

I accept your strictures, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I mentioned to the Paymaster General—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to mention something to any right hon. or hon. Gentleman. If he is going to make personal criticisms of right hon. or hon. Gentlemen, he must put a motion before the House.

Mr. Howarth

Let me remind you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that an hon. Member lost his seat because of false allegations that were made against him. They are serious charges. You invited me not to adduce an extensive range of evidence. I hope that I have introduced to the House sufficient evidence to support my claims. I invite Labour Members to be fair-minded and to imagine how they would feel if they were the victims of persecution.

Dr. Godman


Mr. Mitchell


Mr. Howarth

I remind the House that Mr. Hamilton was the Minister for Corporate Affairs who refused to do A1 Fayed's bidding. It was crystal clear that the man had a motive and that is another reason why I feel Sir Gordon Downey has failed.

The purpose of my raising the issue is not to rake over old coals, but to ensure that the new commissioner, if her appointment is endorsed by the House tonight, is aware that there is not a one-sided view of the issue in the House and that there are serious matters to which she has to turn her mind. In order to uphold the integrity of the House, I invite her to look carefully at the way in which she discharges her responsibility. I have not met the lady and I have no idea about her. Like other right hon. and hon. Members, except those on the House of Commons Commission, I have to rely on their judgment. The hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) has had the benefit of considering the candidates. I have not. I have not been able to put my points and encourage the candidates to consider the nature of their responsibilities.

Mr. Mitchell


Mr. Howarth

I shall give way one last time, because I know that you want to move on, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Mitchell

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) is raking over the coals of the case by attacking Sir Gordon Downey, but the problem about which he is complaining is the office of the independent commissioner for standards. If we have such an office—and we should—it is bound to work in the way in which Sir Gordon Downey worked.

The hon. Gentleman should cast his mind back to what would have happened with such accusations before we had the independent commissioner. The issue would have been dealt with entirely by a Committee of the House. There would have been accusations of chaps judging chaps and there would have been little faith outside in any verdict, for or against Neil Hamilton, because people would have said that we were being judge and jury in our own case. The issue would have been worse and more muddied. Why does the hon. Gentleman not compare what happened with what would have happened before?

Mr. Howarth

I believe that such matters should be dealt with by Members of Parliament. I do not believe that we should appoint outside people to judge them. The experience of Sir Gordon Downey proves the point to my satisfaction. I accept that it does not prove it to the satisfaction of other hon. Members. The guy is accountable, for goodness sake. Is he supposed to be untouchable? Can we not criticise him or say anything about him? Of course we can say something about him. If we appointed him, we can jolly well hold him to account. That is all that I am trying to do.

I do not wish to strain your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You have been very gracious towards me, and I appreciate that. I know that you know how I feel about the matter. I have not been raking over the coals. New evidence has appeared in the book by Mr. Tom Bower and in the excellent book called "Trial by Conspiracy" by Jonathan Boyd Hunt, a copy of which I shall let the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) have, for an appropriate fee—he insisted that he wanted to pay for it and did not want it for free. It is subtitled "The Lies, Cover-ups and Injustices Behind the Neil Hamilton Affair".

I shall ensure that Ms Filkin has a copy of the book, because I should like her to read it before she embarks on her job. It sets out what I believe to have been the gravest miscarriage of justice. I accept that it happened to a friend of mine, but I make no apologies for that—why should I? The House should recognise that it has been guilty of not having satisfactorily resolved a matter pertaining to one of its own. This is unfinished business. I hope that the new commissioner will look at the issue again and will take into account the matters that I have tried to put before the House.

7.42 pm
Mr. Tony McNulty (Harrow, East)

I profoundly disagree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood). It is appropriate to dwell on the report and some of Sir Gordon Downey's parting shots to mark his retirement. It would have been dreadful, not least because of the entertainment that we have just had, if we had simply nodded the motion through.

I am a relatively new Member of Parliament and I bow to most others in experience, but I am a keen watcher of politics. I note in passing that until the last election, in Mr. Julian Critchley, Aldershot was represented by someone with a good deal more dignity than the current incumbent.

It is right that the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) was able to have his say in the context of welcoming Ms Filkin and marking the retirement of Sir Gordon Downey, however much others of us may disagree with what he said. The pound sign on the hon. Gentleman's lapel has just been drawn to my attention. I do not know whether it represents a subliminal signal of solidarity with Neil Hamilton, but I shall let that pass.

Mr. Gerald Howarth


Mr. McNulty

The hon. Gentleman is about to tell me that the lapel badge is about saving the pound.

Mr. Howarth

The hon. Gentleman was right the second time—and I think that he knew it at the outset. Of course it is to do with saving the pound.

Mr. McNulty

It may still be subliminal.

If ever there was evidence of the need for Sir Gordon Downey and his good works and the appointment of Elizabeth Filkin, it is what we have just heard. That eloquent, if petulant and ungracious, soliloquy from the apologia for the Neil Hamilton club shows far more clearly than anything that I could say that Sir Gordon Downey and his successor are sorely needed. To revisit an event at the general election, what we have just heard takes the biscuit in all sorts of ways and is entirely wrong. I wish Ms Filkin good luck. Given what we have just heard, she will need all her experience in looking after errant charges and children. The distortions that we have just heard on the clear evidence against Neil Hamilton that Sir Gordon Downey refers to were a travesty.

The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has a right to his say. He has united most hon. Members behind a complete exoneration of and welcome for everything that Sir Gordon Downey has done. If Sir Gordon and Ms Filkin needed an enemy in the House, they could find no less a man than the hon. Gentleman.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I know precious little about Ms Elizabeth Filkin. I fully accept what the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire and other members of the Committee have said about her expertise and experience and I am sure that she is a more than appropriate successor to Sir Gordon Downey, but it might have been useful if we had had a detailed CV, perhaps in the Vote Office, for us to peruse, purely for information.

Sir Gordon Downey rightly did not mention it, but the issue of resources may need to be investigated. Some key points in the report are worth noting, not least the point on page vi about penalties. There is a real concern about the level, extent and manner of penalties imposed. I draw particular attention to the last paragraph of that page, which talks about the present range of penalties. Sir Gordon Downey says that they are adequate and appropriate, but a broader range could be employed by the Committee, beyond public censure, required apology, suspension and expulsion. Sir Gordon says in his retirement note that public opinion may feel that the Committee is a bit soft. We have moved from a zero base with no sanctions all the way to public apologies, public censure, suspension and expulsion, which crudely brings to mind being publicly executed for shoplifting. There must be a range of sanctions and penalties.

Sir Gordon's points about the lack of collective memory are also well made. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee or the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire will let me know afterwards whether there is to be serious training and reflection for future members of the Committee. They may need more than just half a morning from time to time.

I am not entirely sure that there should be any limitations, save perhaps for death. Seven years may be enough, except for issues of a particularly serious nature, as Sir Gordon Downey says, but there may be more to it. Seven years may be appropriate, but I am not sure.

It is worth dwelling on the report. The whole House should join the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire in wishing Ms Filkin well in her job and the best of luck. Given the drivel that we have heard from the hon. Member for Aldershot, she will clearly need it.

7.49 pm
Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

It had not been my intention to say anything in this debate, but it is hard to remain silent following the remarks by the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who has every right to stand by his friend—and I applaud him for that. One can have doubts about the way in which the House dealt with my predecessor in matters of the appeal procedure, as I have. None the less, I have been a Member—I became one rather by accident—for a little more than 18 months, and I found the hon. Gentleman's remarks the saddest and most melancholic and graceless that I have heard. To turn against him a word that he used, I would even say that his remarks were disgraceful. They were very sad to listen to.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman found my remarks graceless. If Mr. Neil Hamilton is successful in his libel action against Mohammed Al Fayed, the hon. Gentleman will have fought a baseless campaign.

Mr. Bell

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I will be very surprised if the people who made the difference in this matter—the electors of Tatton—are proved wrong.

I turn to the remarks by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), whom I regard as my friend, although I am not of his party or any other. I thoroughly endorse his remarks about Sir Gordon Downey—a remarkable public servant. People in public service who are not elected representatives normally do not expect to be exposed to the vilification to which he has been subjected in the past two years. He has dealt with it with enormous calmness and dignity, and the House and the nation owe him a debt of gratitude. To draw on my previous occupation, Sir Gordon Downey has shown a particular quality which one normally finds only in soldiers in difficult situations: courage under fire.

7.51 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Kate Hoey)

I want to use this opportunity, on behalf of the Leader of the House, who, unfortunately is not able to be present but has sent her apologies, to put on record the Government's support for and tribute to the work of Sir Gordon Downey. Hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken of his record. I pay tribute to him, particularly for the way in which he has performed the duties of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. He has been a most effective first occupant of the post. He has handled the setting up of the new arrangements for standards and privileges with great skill. He also had to handle some very difficult cases at the end of the previous Parliament. He set a high standard of service to the House, and has ensured that the office of parliamentary commissioner is highly respected. In doing so, he has helped to restore the reputation of the House. We wish him well.

We also welcome and support the House of Commons Commission's recommendation on the appointment of Elizabeth Filkin. Her recent role as the adjudicator for the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Department of Social Security Contributions Agency will ensure that she brings to the post a wealth of experience and a reputation for independence and integrity. We wish her well. We know that she will receive the full support of the House in her very important role, and we fully support the recommendation to appoint her.

7.53 pm
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

There has been a range of contributions to this debate; I shall make a fairly limited speech.

The vast majority of the public do not know who Sir Gordon Downey is. There is no particular reason why they should. Although the post is a public appointment, the office-holder is not constantly on the radio or the television. Sir Gordon was almost invariably asked to discover whether there was evidence behind a complaint, and if there were, to consider the facts and put them to the Standards and Privileges Committee, of which the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) is the distinguished Chairman—not just as a result of his background but because he manages to get the Committee's members to agree. I endorse what he said in private that, if the Committee agrees unanimously, it carries far more weight.

One case fell out of the ordinary—the one considered in the eighth report. Paragraph 10 spells out clearly that the Speaker asked for something to happen that did not follow the usual way forward. Although I do not want to go further into events that may be considered in other places, it is worth noting that those who read the eighth report carefully will have an understanding of what happened and of the responsibilities of the commissioner and the Committee. In the appendix to the 19th report—the commissioner's valedictory report, if I may put it that way—people can see the range of disposals of complaints. Some were upheld, and some were not.

I have known Elizabeth Filkin in the past. She has been well chosen by the Commission. We should thank members of the Commission for their work. The Standards and Privileges Committee has thanked Sir Gordon Downey—not at great length, because the paragraph that thanks him does so properly and well. I hope that, in time, when we consider a successor to Elizabeth Filkin, the Committee will have earned as much respect as the commissioner. I hope that the House will have done so, too.

Anyone who believes that there are hon. Members who behave as badly as those in the past does not understand. According to the Cross-Bencher articles in the decade after the war, Members of Parliament engaged in a range of activities which make even the worst of us look pretty good. I take comfort from the fact that members of the public consider the standards of their own Member of Parliament to be high. Members of Parliament as a whole are considered not to be as good as we might be—although it is worth noting that we are generally considered to be better than Ministers as a whole. That may be the wrong way around; it is just the way that the public see it.

Let us stick to our responsibilities. I join those who congratulate Sir Gordon, who, when the Committee did not accept everything that he proposed, did not object. Let us remember that any recommendations made by the Committee were ours and not the commissioner's. Let us hope that, in future, the partnership between the people, Parliament, the Committee and the commissioner is as good as it has been recently.

7.56 pm
Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I am grateful to hon. Members for their speeches. The only complaint that I would make about the remarks of the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who is an old friend, is that he chose an inappropriate occasion on which to make them. Of course he is entitled to the views that he expressed; he has expressed them before. On reflection, he may consider that a substantive motion would have been a much better way in which to bring such important matters before the House.

The hon. Member for Aldershot is entitled, too, to his view of Sir Gordon Downey. Speaking on behalf of the House of Commons Commission, I certainly disagree with him. We should bear in mind the fact that Sir Gordon Downey took up the post of commissioner in the middle of a Parliament, when the new process was in gestation. It fell to him to adjudicate, in the light of common sense and reason, on many questions of interpretation posed by hon. Members. He discharged his task with great dignity. In co-operation with the Clerk of the Standards and Privileges Committee, he was able to include a corpus of detailed guidance in the code of conduct and the guide to the rules on which the House now relies. More than anything else, that is his legacy. Of course the process will evolve; of course there are lessons to be learned; of course there will be pressures on the individuals whom we appoint commissioners. The role that Sir Gordon established, which set standards for the future, will serve the House well in years to come.

Mr. Gerald Howarth

Will the hon. Gentleman address the important issue that I raised? If somebody makes false allegations against an hon. or right hon. Member, should that person be brought before the House to apologise and brought to book? Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is just a one-way street?

Mr. Kirkwood

Some of the facts and circumstances as related by the hon. Gentleman seem to me to show his misunderstanding of the position, because he is, indirectly or directly, criticising not the parliamentary commissioner, but the Committee itself. He is entitled to do so, but I should have thought that the appropriate way of doing so would be to table a substantive motion, which could then be amended and debated in the House in the proper way. He is investing the post with a degree of authority that the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards retiring and the prospective Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards do not have.

Let me direct the hon. Gentleman's attention to the annexe to the report that we are debating. The final point in the section detailing the job description states clearly that the principal duties are, inter alia, Receiving and investigating complaints about the conduct of Members (whether related directly to alleged breaches of the Code or not) and reporting her findings to the Committee. Surely, that is the point. Any substantive complaints about past events should be directed at members of the Committee. That is right and proper.

Mr. Peter Bottomley

My hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) has raised an important issue. I hope that the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) agrees that it is right to put it on the record that, in any future complaint, the complainant will be expected to carry the burden of providing evidence so that the commissioner will know whether there is something worth investigating. If the commissioner were satisfied that there was prima facie evidence that justified an investigation, I suspect that people who gave false evidence would find themselves in trouble, but those who gave evidence that did not fully substantiate the case would not necessarily face any penalty.

Mr. Kirkwood

I am only a humble member of the House of Commons Commission, but those points cover territory that should be considered by the Committee itself. I am sure that the new commissioner will closely examine our debate, which will be a positive step. I am happy to take back the points raised and ensure that the new commissioner gives them some thought, albeit in conjunction with the Clerks and the members of the Committee, because they are the people who will consider and develop our future procedures.

I can put my hand on my heart and give a cast-iron assurance to hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. McNulty), who was, quite rightly, concerned that the Commission should in future take the time to set out more details about a prospective candidate before the report came to the House for a final decision. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a comprehensive and detailed board was set up in accordance with all the civil service equal opportunities provisions. There were 19 applications, reduced to a shortlist of five, consisting of three men and two women. The process of deliberation was exhaustive and resulted in two excellent final candidates. Others have not had the advantage of being able to cross-examine Elizabeth Filkin, but having had the benefit of doing so, I have no hesitation in saying that she is an appropriate person for the job.

The debate has been useful, albeit slightly tense at times. We on the Commission will certainly reflect on the substantive points raised. I hope that other hon. Members, including those who have spoken, will also reflect. To return to the main business, I urge the House to endorse the recommendation that the report contains.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That Ms Elizabeth Filkin be appointed Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on the retirement of Sir Gordon Downey, KCB, on the terms of the Report of the House of Commons Commission (HC 1143), dated 9th November 1998.