§ Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)
I have chosen to bring before the Chamber the report that was produced by Lord Neill to review the actions of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. Lord Neill is chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which reviews not only the House of Commons, but the House of Lords and other public institutions.
I am concerned about the fact that, although the report was produced six months ago, the Government have so far shown no inclination to bring its findings before the House of Commons. Those findings are extremely important, especially in view of the way in which the Standards and Privileges Committee has come to function in recent times. The recommendations would go a long way towards reinforcing public confidence in the House, which has become coloured, and to some extent eroded, by some of the proceedings that are currently associated with the Committee.
In October 1994, the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), established the Standards and Privileges Committee to replace the Select Committee on Members' Interests, which was established in 1975. That Committee required Members to enter in a register any assets or earnings that might be considered to influence their political judgment. In connection with the establishment of the new Committee, another innovation was the introduction of a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to act as a conduit for complaints that people wished to submit to the Committee for consideration.
The tradition of Parliament disciplining its own Members goes back a long way. Such procedures were initially introduced to protect the parliamentary body from the Executive, which was inclined to intervene, in the form of the Crown or other bodies, to attempt to influence the decisions of Parliament—dramatically so, in the case of Charles I.
Recently, the Committee and the commissioner have assumed an altogether different complexion, in that they have become a conduit for members of the public to lodge complaints. Some of those complaints are sensible, some not so sensible and some are what courts of law would describe as litigious, and they can involve political opponents or, indirectly, newspapers. The aim is to get a Government Committee to consider matters under privilege—if the press had published details of a case de novo, libel action might have resulted. The Committee's role is considerably different from that which the former Prime Minister had in mind when he instituted it.
The first commissioner under the new regime was Sir Gordon Downey, who had previously been with the National Audit Commission. When he retired, he made several salient recommendations. He said that there should be a statute of limitation, and that complaints about matters that occurred more than seven years ago should not be taken up. It was difficult to produce relevant evidence from that long ago, and the need for hon. Members who were complained about to produce evidence in their defence would place inordinate burdens on them. He warned that a tit-for-tat political 181WH war might break out if parties sought to use the Committee as a political weapon. In fact, that is what happened—the war has been hotting up recently in a manner that does Parliament's reputation no good in the public's eyes, although it is helpful to the media because it generates much interesting copy.
An examination of some of the Committee's more recent judgments shows that it is not unreasonable to say that it has been used to whitewash the activities of some hon. Members, especially those of various Ministers. The commissioner made stringent criticisms of Ministers, but the Committee did not take them up, although if comparable complaints had been made against ordinary hon. Members, that might well have solicited the demand for an apology to the House. The system can also be used to intimidate hon. Members. I pray in aid the recent case involving the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone), whose face did not seem to fit some of the Government's criteria for the office that he was seeking. I do not blame simply the Labour party in this context—both parties have had a go.
Since the Committee's inception, about 50 or 60 hon. Members have been reported to it. The fact that the numbers are increasing is surprising—when the new rules were in place and the new intake of hon. Members realised that a different regime was in operation, one might have expected the numbers to decline.
Interestingly, those hon. Members who are reported are almost exclusively from the Labour or Conservative parties—the Liberal Democrats do not seem to feature. That may reflect their political chances of being in government, although there may be skeletons in their cupboard. Even the Prime Minister has been reported to the Committee, and we are still awaiting the outcome. That places the commissioner in a significant dilemma—to criticise and to bring charges against the Prime Minister would be novel and the process would be fraught with overtones that hon. Members would understand. Two previous Prime Ministers have also been reported. The great and the good are not exempt from the process—everyone appears to be in the firing line. Some will say that that is how it should be.
If a complaint is made with enough substantiating evidence, it will go forward and a report will be produced along with documents and other information that may be of great interest to newspapers. Sometimes, a complaint will undoubtedly have been initiated indirectly by a newspaper—the press will have a field day because they would be protected from libel action.
In December 1999, when the Committee had been in existence for five years, Lord Neill presented a review of its functioning, in which he made a number of important recommendations that I believe the Government and the House should consider and would wish to implement, not least in defence of the reputation of the House, because this tit-for-tat war is hotting up rather than receding. Far from protecting the reputation of the House, the Committee is open to manipulation by a number of bodies that have a view or a dislike of a certain hon. Member, or may simply try to discourage that hon. Member from pursuing a course of action that the trade union or organisation happens not to like. 182WH That impinges on the hon. Member's right to free speech or may influence his or her decision to pursue certain courses of action or types of investigation.
There is no doubt that the structure of the committee lends itself to those criticisms. It is based on the Select Committee procedure. The Neill committee does not go so far as to say that that is possibly a wrong formula, but it makes a number of criticisms of the formula. We all know that membership of Select Committees is based on the relative numbers of the parties in the House, so the Government have a predominance of members on the Committee. The present Committee has eight members of the Labour party, two Conservatives, one Liberal Democrat and an independent. As it now deals not simply with matters such as "What did you put in the register?", but goes much deeper into what would be matters of legal complaint if they were made outside the House, the nature of the Committee, as Lord Neill says, must be looked at and the balance of members on it made more even.
Lord Neill also points out that the Chairman is always a member of the Government. However much we respect the individual who holds that office, he says that that could be politically influential in weighting the opinions. He believes that the Chairman should not be drawn from the ruling party.
Lord Neill also says that hon. Members who are indicted—the Committee functions as a court of law—or are in the firing line have no redress against the committee's decision. Indeed, they do not know what it will be until the report is printed and they have two hours in which to review the report. Unless they have made an earlier plea, they have no opportunity to request a delay in the implementation of the report, so although they may have thought that the commissioner's position and their point of view were closely aligned, they find themselves without any redress and perhaps with no time to deal with the matters in detail.
Lord Neill deals with that point. He emphasises that individuals who disagree with the Committee's decision should have a right of appeal before an independent judge, or a person with judicial experience, and before two senior Members of the House. They may also require help in complying with the commissioner's demands for information, if the investigations are extensive. Lord Neill says that they should be given that help and granted legal assistance if they opt for a review of the committee's findings before an independent judge.
In the recent past, a Member of Parliament was accused of neglect by a disgruntled constituent and it seemed that the matter would be brought to court. The House considered whether legal expenses should be paid with parliamentary assistance in such cases. The response was favourable and the Government are considering what the next step should be. There is a strong case for Members of Parliament, as for any professional body, to have some form of insurance for legal expenses, and whether that is administered through the House or by individuals is a matter for consideration.
Before I came to the House, I was a business woman and carried legal expenses insurance. One never knows whether a customer might find fault with one's service or 183WH goods and it is necessary to protect oneself. Employers also need legal expenses insurance to cover the possibility of an employee going to an industrial tribunal. Members of Parliament are in a similar position and more vulnerable than previously. The well-publicised, "open sesame" system invites complaints that would not have been thought significant in the past. Such complaints are often more related to the political nature of this institution than to straightforward offences which, in other circumstances, might be subject to litigation.
Lord Neill said that there is no doubt that Members of Parliament are vulnerable to such complaints and suggested that we should bear that in mind when examining his recommendations. Hard cases make bad law and the setting up of the Committee was a reaction to a number of initiatives mounted by the Government when in opposition. It led to a reaction that may prove inappropriate and, if we pursue this line, require assistance for hon. Members who become caught up in it. It is time consuming and damaging to those concerned if newspapers become involved. The newspapers have the opportunity to report matters which, had they raised them de novo, might have resulted in libel actions by hon. Members to protect their reputations. Page 30 of the Neill report states:Given the politically-charged environment within which MPs work, it is Likely that ill-founded complaints will be made from time to time in order to discredit the accused MP It would be naïve to think otherwise.When considering its general reputation with the public in pursuit of its legitimate political goals, the House should consider what we do about such complaints. Once upon a time, they might have been brushed aside because, in the old days, they did not create such a stir when hon. Members tended to trust each other to be honourable. The Committee has taken a political perspective, which I do not believe was intended, and both its structure and method of functioning are an abuse or contradiction of natural justice, which is the right to have a defence and to be tried by an independent body. All Committee members are related in some way to the hon. Member under investigation, either politically or because they know him. People who make judgments in our courts must prove that they have no acquaintance with the person whom they are judging. If that principle were applied to the Committee, its members would be excused from duty. For that reason, we need an independent judicial element, perhaps in the form of the commissioner. There must be a right of appeal to an independent body if all else fails so that the hon. Member and, to an extent, the House believe that the matter has been handled with complete independence.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton)
Order. The hon. Gentleman did not notify me that he wanted to speak. I am not sure whether he has asked the Minister or the initiator of the debate for permission. I shall therefore call the Minister to respond.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on securing the debate The sixth report 184WH of the Neill committee is undoubtedly an important matter. The committee chairman set up the report in March 1999. Hearings were held between the middle of June and July and it took six months before the report was published in January 2000. It covers a wide range of issues that are of interest to Members of Parliament, Ministers, civil servants, special advisers and lobbying and all-party groups, and that are relevant to sponsorship of Government activities, public appointments, proportionality in public appointments, task forces and business appointments.
The sixth report reviews the Nolan committee's first report, which made 55 recommendations. It contains 45 recommendations which, as the hon. Lady said, cover a range of important matters. For that reason, the Government have taken time to consider the issues in detail. She began her speech by saying that she did not know when we were going to reply to the report. In response to a written question from the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday that the Government intend to report before the end of this Session. That is some comfort for the hon. Lady.
Hon. Members should welcome Lord Neill's declaration that there is less cause for concern about the disreputable or dishonest behaviour that characterised the period before the Standards and Privileges Committee was established. It is important to remind ourselves of the environment that existed in the early to mid-1990s when Members of the House were accused of and proved to be taking cash for questions. There was a feeling of sleaze and all of us in public life, no matter how honourably the vast majority of us behaved, were affected by the bad reputations of others. It is to be welcomed that Lord Neill has recognised that the situation has improved. Anthony King, who was originally a member of the Nolan committee, said in his evidence to the sixth inquiry that, if it had not been for Neil Hamilton—this is probably the one good thing that Neil Hamilton did for parliamentary procedure—the dark places and the decline in standards of the late 1980s and early 1990s would not have been looked into.
I welcome the process that has been undertaken. Not only did Lord Neill's committee say that an improvement had been made, but its report focused on a shift away from the direct influence on hon. Members and people in public life by the payment of cash to the indirect influence of lobbying. Lord Neill was considering the matters that I listed when he produced the first report.
In some ways, the hon. Lady leaves me in a difficult position. Many of the points that she made are matters for the House to consider after the Government have reported. In preparing for this debate, however, I have taken the trouble to read many of the reports published by the Standards and Privileges Committee. I was present when the hon. Lady was herself the focus of one of those reports. I was present in the Chamber to hear her speech and the comments of other hon. Members who contributed to the debate. I read the report on her case, as well as other reports. It is only fair to say that I could see no evidence of political bias in the reports. The vast majority of the reports are unanimous. I do not think that anyone would accuse the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), who is a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, of political bias for or against 185WH any of the political parties represented in Parliament. As I said, the Committee has reached many unanimous decisions.
The hon. Lady's point about appeals is, in the final analysis, a matter for the House, but it is worth while commenting on it now. She was absolutely right: Lord Neill said in his recommendations to the Committee on Standards and Privileges that different processes should be put in place and that there should be an appeals process. It was made clear during the debate to which I referred, however, that that process would not have applied to the hon. Lady's case.
Lord Neill is very specific. I shall quote from paragraph 3.22 of the sixth report, which lists classifications of allegations, on which he makes proposals. Item A on the list isallegations of misconduct amounting to a criminal offence.The report contains a clear recommendation that such matters should be handed over to the courts. It goes on to list the following categories:B. allegations of serious misconduct not amounting to a criminal offence, the facts of which are in dispute (contested allegations of serious misconduct);C. allegations of other misconduct, the facts of which are in dispute (contested allegations of other misconduct);D. any allegation of misconduct not amounting to a criminal offence, the facts of which are not in dispute (non-contested cases);E. malicious or frivolous allegations of misconduct.In the hon. Lady's case, it was clear that the facts were not in dispute, as was pointed out in the debate about the matter. Lord Neill's recommendations relate to cases in which there is dispute about the facts, in which there should be an independent appeals process. I wanted to make that clear, because I did not want it to be misconstrued outside the House.
Many of the other points made by the hon. Lady formed a specific attack on the integrity of those who serve on that Committee. It is outrageous to suggest that those hon. Members, from all parties, would want to 186WH whitewash Ministers or that the Committee is being manipulated. There is no evidence of that. One or two unwarranted allegations were made against hon. Members, and I hope that the hon. Lady will withdraw those remarks. She used those unfounded allegations to make her case that the House should not regulate itself. Like many of the points that she made, that is a matter for the House of Commons and not for the Government. On those issues, she will find herself in a small minority.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
Is the Minister aware that there would be a wider audience for his remarks if the Committee on standards and Privileges were not meeting at this moment? Would he confirm that all hon. Members are under a duty to support the commissioner in her inquiries, so that facts can be put to the Committee and, if appropriate, to the House?
§ Mr. Stringer
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that information. I was not aware of that fact, although there is obviously more interest in Westminster Hall today than for most debates. It is a matter of great importance, and, as Members of Parliament, it is our responsibility to take an interest in such matters.
§ Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)
Before the Minister sits down, will he express an opinion on the other point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), when she referred to the constraints placed on hon. Members when defending themselves before the Committee, and the lack of resources allowing them to do so?
§ Mr. Stringer
The hon. Lady made a sound point. The Government will consider it and, in time, we shall give our response in the House.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
The debate has come to an end three minutes before time. We therefore move on to the next debate, which is initiated by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East (Dr. Kumar).