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Insurance For Members

Volume 350: debated on Tuesday 23 May 2000

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6.54 pm

I beg to move,

That, in the opinion of this House,—
  • (1) provision should be made for the insurance of Members of this House in relation to the performance of their duties as Members under arrangements (including financial limits to the cover provided) made from time to time with the approval of the Leader of this House and the Speaker;
  • (2) subject to the terms and conditions of any policy effected under the approved arrangements, the insurance for which provision is made under paragraph (1) of this Resolution may cover the following—
  • (a) travel;
  • (b) personal accident;
  • (c) personal accident in respect of employees of Members;
  • (d) employers' liability and public liability;
  • (e) the cost of defending a civil claim for defamation and of payment in respect of any award made by a court in such a claim, where the act complained of was not covered by parliamentary privilege but arose from a Member's duty as a Member; and
  • (3) arrangements made for insurance of the type mentioned under paragraph (2)(a) and (b) above may provide for the spouses of Members to be covered as well as Members themselves.
  • I understand that with this, it will be convenient to discuss the following motion:

    That, in the opinion of this House, provision should be made to reimburse Mr. Peter Luff, honourable Member for Mid-Worcestershire, for legal costs incurred in respect of his duties as a Member of this House in defence of an action for libel in the High Court of Justice (Queen's Bench Division) which was dismissed and the Plaintiff's statement of claim struck out by Order dated 16th April 1999.

    Insurance schemes for Members of Parliament and the case of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) are a relatively small but significant issue for the House.

    The motions arise from the need to protect hon. Members in an increasingly litigious age and are complex because we have taken the opportunity to do some administrative tidying, as I shall explain later.

    Unfortunately, as society becomes more litigious, Members are increasingly faced with the threat of legal action. Parliamentary privilege provides absolute protection against legal action in respect of things said in the course of proceedings in Parliament. However, in an age of modern communication, Members do not carry out their function as Members only in the course of parliamentary proceedings. We all carry out a public role outside the House where, quite rightly, there is no legal protection.

    As public figures, Members are open to the threat of defamation actions. They are not unique in that, but the lack of support available to them is unusual. Public officials, for example, are given public assistance to defend such actions and, in extreme cases, may also be given assistance to bring them. If Ministers are accused of defamation as a consequence of their ministerial duties, they will have their ministerial and legal costs met. However, Back-Bench Members of Parliament are not so protected.

    The experience of the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire provides an illustration of the difficulties that Members of Parliament can face. A prisoner at Long Lartin had taken action against the local postmistress for failing to deliver his Financial Times. The hon. Gentleman was reported as saying that the action was ridiculous, and he was sued for defamation, together with the newspapers concerned. The action was eventually struck out, and the prisoner was declared a vexatious litigant. However, the hon. Gentleman was left with a personal liability for legal expenses of more than £2,000 which would have been far higher if The Sun newspaper had not joined in the action.

    It could be argued that the hon. Gentleman's remarks were not strictly related to his business as an Member of Parliament. I reject that assertion, as we value the link to our constituents. Fair, not defamatory, comment on issues of concern or interest to them is crucial in maintaining that link. It would be a strange world indeed if the only person unable to comment on pressing issues was the local Member of Parliament, silenced through fear of aggressive or unfounded actions for defamation. I hope that the House agrees that the hon. Gentleman's action in responding to press queries falls within the wider definition of the duties of a Member of Parliament, and will reimburse him.

    In principle, this case could be taken as a precedent. The House could be asked to judge any later cases on their merits, which would be profoundly unsatisfactory. Leaving aside the parliamentary time that might be taken on such business, we would have to judge the actions of our colleagues, and we are aware of the difficulties in doing that. Moreover, not all cases would be as clear-cut as the hon. Gentleman's and, if proceedings for defamation were brought against any one of us, we would have to incur costs without knowing how much financial support would be available or, indeed, whether financial support would be given at all.

    We considered whether help could be given through the Treasury solicitors, but rejected that. If they were used, the House authorities would have had to refer cases to them and they would be in the invidious position of having to screen Members' requests for assistance. In addition, a Treasury solicitor might well be unable to provide support if a case came to court.

    A legal insurance scheme, on the other hand, covers all those who might come forward. Premiums can be adjusted if demand is higher or lower than expected, and the level of cover can be adjusted in the light of experience, to ensure that it is realistic without being over-generous. The insurer, not the House authorities, will be responsible for deciding the admissibility of cases and an unsatisfactory insurer could be changed. We consider that the most practicable route to provide Members with some limited protection.

    The first motion invites the House to give authority for expenditure on an insurance scheme for Members to meet limited legal expenses that may arise from defending defamation actions. If cover is fixed at, say, £10,000 per Member, the cost to cover all hon. Members is estimated to be around £18,000 a year. That can be met from the amount currently voted to the House.

    I now come to the administrative tidying that I mentioned earlier. There is already a range of insurance policies in force on behalf of Members, as the motion shows. These were originally borne on the Administration vote, and authority for them was properly given by the Commission. They have now been transferred to the Members' vote, which is not the Commission's responsibility.

    The insurance for legal expenses will also fall to that vote, which is why the House as a whole, rather than the Commission, is being invited to approve it. It would be administratively odd to have two separate sources of authority for different sub-divisions of the same expenditure borne on the same vote, so the motion invites the House to put all sorts of expenditure on insurance on the same footing.

    Finally, let us be clear about the legal expenses insurance that we propose. It is extremely limited. It is only to assist hon. Members defending themselves against defamation suits. It will not help them to bring defamation proceedings. In effect, it is a shield, not a sword. It will not be over-generous. It simply provides a minimal protection against misguided or vexatious litigants. It is a small but significant measure, but I hope that it will enable us to continue to do our jobs properly and confidently. I commend the motions to the House.

    7.1 pm

    I support the motions. This is a House of Commons matter, on which Conservative Members will have a free vote, if there is one. I support the proposals and have added my name to the motions, along with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

    I begin by making three general points. First, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, we live in an increasingly litigious world in which more and more people sue each other. Whether the phenomenon has been imported from the United States, or whether it has come about because people are better educated and more assertive of their rights or because solicitors are more proactive is, in a sense, irrelevant. We are where we are.

    Secondly, professional people are increasingly in the firing line: teachers, doctors, accountants—as we heard in the earlier debate—solicitors, social workers and Members of Parliament. The Parliamentary Secretary described how my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) was involved, and I am sure that other hon. Members have had their own experiences.

    I had a case some 10 years ago, when a book was published by Canary Press entitled "Thatcherism goes to College", written by one Matthew Salusbury. Views allegedly held by one George K. Young were wrongly attributed to me, including holocaust denial. If one does not challenge such an assertion, it remains on the record; if one does challenge it, there is the risk of costs. Happily, in that case, the book was withdrawn, a handsome letter of apology was sent, and my costs were paid. That shows the risks that we all run of finding ourselves in the firing line through no fault of our own.

    Perhaps I misheard that example. Was there not a case in which my right hon. Friend was defamed, rather than allegedly defaming?

    My hon. Friend is right, but such a case would not have been covered.

    My third general point is that, to my knowledge, no Member of Parliament has been sued for the advice that we give in our advice bureaux. Of course we all do our best, not least by directing people to the right answers if we do not have them ourselves. None the less, we dispense advice on which people act, and it may not always be right. I find it amazing that so far, none of us has been sued by any of our constituents for what happens in our advice bureaux.

    Against that background, I find the proposals before the House justifiable, focused and cost effective. Defamation is damaging for anyone, but it is particularly damaging for a Member of Parliament who has to face re-election every four or five years, and our reputation is a major factor in the outcome.

    The costs of defending defamation can be high. They are not eligible under the office cost allowances, and an hon. Member may not have the resources available to defend himself. As the Parliamentary Secretary said, assistance is available only when the case arises from an hon. Member's duty, and it is available only for the defence of a case, not for the initiation of one. The House should keep the matter under review.

    I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and warmly welcome the Parliamentary Secretary's remarks. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House about the sorts of protection that apply in other countries, and the extent of such protection?

    No, I cannot do that. One of the advantages of being in opposition is that one does not have to reply to a debate. There is someone who is very well briefed and in a far better position than I am. When he winds up the debate, I am sure that he will give my hon. Friend enormous detail of what happens in other cases.

    It is entirely justifiable to reimburse my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire with the expenses that he incurred, and it is entirely right to extend to other hon. Members prospectively the protection that we have extended to him. We should keep the matter under review. I hope that the motion meets the approval of the House.

    7.6 pm

    I warmly welcome the measure, which is long overdue. When I first came into the House 32 years ago, there were a great many more whistleblowers who used the House to expose the wrongdoings of bad landlords, child abuse and other social issues. They knew that this place would protect them. People would say, "If you say that outside, I'll issue a writ."

    All too often, people outside who were not acting in the public interest got away with all sorts of misdemeanours—not crimes, perhaps, but unfair sharp practices on the public—because although constituents went to their Member of Parliament about the matter, he could not find a peg to hang it on so that he could speak about it in the House, except perhaps through an early-day motion. In my opinion, that is one of the best means available in the House, providing a platform and a notice board on which to redress grievances.

    As everyone knows, I was a whistleblower many times. I was the first guy ever to say that Members of Parliament were available for hire, back in 1974, when I wrote it in "Labour Weekly" and repeated it on the "Jimmy Young" show. I was hauled up for contempt of the House and it looked as though I would be thrown out. I said that I would stand again as honest Joe and that I would win the by-election, and I would have done, because I could have proved what I had said.

    That is a very unhappy experience to go through. As the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) knows, the trauma and the effect on one's family and constituents is devastating. Those are deterrents and we must be careful, but the House and its Members should undertake scrutiny. We should not rely on consumer affairs watchdogs on television, with the time limits and possible libel actions that they face, always having to get things approved by the lawyers.

    Members of Parliament should have the right to expose constituency rip-offs, consumers who are being abused and health service cases that should be brought to public attention, but everyone knows that a libel case would cost an hon. Member his house if he tried to defend it. Lawyers' costs can be £500,000 for a week in court. That is ridiculous. I am not saying that it is a deliberate gag on Members of Parliament, but any small business man who feels offended can slap a writ on a Member of Parliament, which will hang over him for two years. That is a severe deterrent to hon. Members doing their jobs.

    I have been threatened many times about articles that I have written in trade union magazines. I once wrote that a Press Association report about me was garbled, and the editor of the Press Association claimed that that was libellous. A company as big as the Press Association wanted to sue one Member of Parliament for using one word, because I had said that one of its reports was garbled. Where will it end?

    Over the years, hon. Members have backed off. There used to be many libel cases involving Members of Parliament, and hon. Members often sued newspapers. If the newspapers got it wrong and reported that one had abstained in a defence debate when, in fact, one had voted, they would pay up, because the report was defamatory to the hon. Member and his constituents. It was defamatory to suggest that a Member had never visited his constituency.

    All sorts of rules and regulations were laid down. A very good friend of mine, Arthur Davidson QC, the former Member of Parliament for Accrington, was also the Daily Express libel lawyer. Members on both sides of the House used to go to him and say, "Arthur, isn't this libellous?". He would reply, "No, it is just abuse: you have got to live with that". He was well aware of the fine line between the two, and we have always had to tread such a tightrope.

    The motion does not make it clear whether libel, in this context, would cover only what we have said outside the House, or what we have written as well. Obviously we should not defame our colleagues, even those on the opposite side; but if it is a matter of record and history, where do we stand?

    I have just been asked to write a book. I had to go into the Library and find out whether certain Members of Parliament were dead. Indeed, I had to ask the Pensions Office whether they were dead. That was not because I was writing anything that I thought was libellous, but because of considerations relating to my publisher. In such circumstances, one dare not take risks with history. I am not saying that we should all go away and start scribbling all sorts of abusive nonsense and lies, but there must be an outlet for honest appraisals of history, and descriptions of what happened behind the scenes.

    I once wrote a book about what happened in the Whips Office when we had a majority of one. Indeed, at one stage we had a minority of 10, and were carrying Members in on stretchers. I was told that I could not do it because, as a Whip, I was covered by the Official Secrets Act: I had sworn an oath that it was not possible to break, even years later. Recently, just after losing his seat, Gyles Brandreth wrote a book. Good luck to him, but I had to make my book into a play, as if it were fiction. I only changed the names; everything in the play had really happened.

    There must be some sort of control, but we are here to represent the public interest. Newspapers often plead—rightly, in my view—that if revealing something is in the public interest, and if it is revealed fairly, accurately and truthfully, it should be revealed. However, an investigative journalist of that kind, or someone who stands out as a maverick, may destroy his career, if he ever had one. Certainly, a politician will never be made a Minister if it is thought that he will reveal things: that is the last thing that is wanted. Such politicians remain Back Benchers, and I am very glad that that applies to some of my hon. Friends who have acted in this way many times. My hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), among others, have rightly made a career out of exposing wrongdoings—perhaps not criminal wrongdoings, but certainly activities that were unfair, unjust and not in the public interest.

    I congratulate the Government on the motion. I hope that it will restore to Parliament some of the characteristics that it had 25 or 30 years ago, when I arrived here. In those days, people spoke out because they felt strongly that things were not right and should be exposed. I do not know whether the motion requires a Bill or merely constitutes a statement, but I hope that the Government would vigorously defend any Member who they thought had said or written something that was fair, true, accurate and in the public interest against a gagging writ, or against threats or pressure in the courts.

    7.13 pm

    On behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, I support the motions. First, however, let me make a general point. We are here, rightly, to protect the interests of Members of Parliament, but I hope—I am looking at the Government Front Bench as I say this—that it will not be too long before we address the problem of protecting our staff in our constituency offices. That problem is urgent. Members on both sides of the House have expressed concern since my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) was the victim of a tragic attack, and his colleague and friend was killed. There is a recognition that the security of staff in constituency offices is as important as the issue that we are debating now. As we are all receiving advice from the police about the measures that should be taken—and they are costly measures—I hope that the Government recognise that advice from them is required as well.

    I am pleased that the motions have been kept relatively simple, because we are in danger of developing a whole new bureaucracy. I was glad to hear from the Minister that the provision would be as simple as possible, and that the criteria would be as straightforward as possible. The last thing we want is for lawyers to do well out of this; rather, we want to protect the rightful interests of Members of Parliament and their constituents.

    Along with Members of the other place, I sat for some 18 months on the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. I learnt a huge amount about the privileges of Parliament. The first and most obvious point is that we are talking about the privilege not of a Member of Parliament, but of the institution of Parliament, enabling us to serve our constituents better. As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) said, our job in this place is not to protect our personal interests, but to ensure that, in representing our constituents' interests, we are free, fearless and able to represent those interests properly. We must ensure that, as parliamentarians, we are free from the external pressures that have already been described, so that we can do a proper job—as we would say in Cornwall—for our constituents, and for the wider public.

    I noted from my experience in Committee that there are differing degrees of privilege. There is absolute privilege, and there is qualified privilege. If this evening we make suggestions about the merits and motives of an outside body or individual, we will be covered by absolute privilege in this place, as we are in Committee. If in a letter to a Minister we make an allegation that is in theory actionable, there is a question mark over that. If the correspondence between us, as Members of Parliament, and Ministers is published to a third party, it is not covered in the same way. We must therefore be very careful.

    If we walk out of the Chamber and appear with Jeremy Paxman, making exactly the same point about an external person that is actionable outside this place, we will not be covered by privilege. What is recorded in this place, however—on paper, on tape or in a sound broadcast—is privileged: it is covered by the absolute privilege of Parliament.

    I am sure all Members would agree that the last thing we want to do, by means of the limited cover that we are introducing, is to encourage Members to be irresponsible. That is not the purpose of the exercise; the purpose of the exercise is to ensure that we are able fully to undertake our responsibilities without fear or favour. It is also true—I am sure that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw was right about this—that one of our jobs here is occasionally to blow the whistle. I have done it myself in the past, and have suffered the slings and arrows from the organisations that I have questioned.

    I do not think that we want to encourage Members themselves to be more litigious; that, too, is a trap that we must avoid. I was recently subject to what was, compared with the cases mentioned this evening, a relatively minor incident. In a column in Punch, I was said to have "cashed in" on outside interests, and to be "on the payroll" of an outside company. That is because I was a shareholder in a steam railway company—well, I was; I no longer am. Anyone who has ever had an interest in a steam railway will know that one can never make any money out of it. One puts in £50 to give a bit of encouragement. If every shareholder in any company was said to be "on the Payroll", for goodness sake, it would change their status completely and dramatically—let alone the question of "cashing in".

    In this case, I have consulted my legal friends, even distinguished members of my parliamentary party. I think that the charge could be much greater than anything I could get out of them. But, as Punch is owned by a certain gentleman who is famous for his brown envelopes, I am still waiting to see whether a brown envelope will arrive to pay me off for the way in which my reputation has been damaged by this slur. However, I do not think anyone reads Punch nowadays, so perhaps it is not so serious.

    The issue tonight is important, because it goes to the heart of our responsibilities to our constituents and the nation. We must be protected to do our job properly. I am delighted to support the motion, but, as I said at the outset, I hope that before too long the Minister will come back and give advice also on the important issue of protecting our staff.

    7.19 pm

    I declare an interest as a barrister who specialises in defamation law. I have an interest in the motions that we are considering that is perhaps greater than any other hon. Member's. First, I may benefit if I am sued for defamation as a Member of Parliament. Secondly, I may benefit as one of the few barristers in England and Wales whose practice specialises in defamation law. I also advised in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) on the instructions of his solicitors, before it was taken up by the national newspaper to which the Parliamentary Secretary referred. As one would expect, I was paid promptly by my hon. Friend. Despite the successful outcome for him, he has not been reimbursed by the unsuccessful claimant for my modest fees or for those of his solicitor.

    When the Defamation Act 1996 was progressing through the House, I was invited, in the cosy way of Government Whips, not to contribute to debates on the Floor of the House. I was also kept off the Standing Committee because it was said that I knew too much about the subject. People who knew anything about a specialised area of public policy were apparently not required to assist in the formation of law.

    I disagreed with some of the provisions of the 1996 Act and refused to support the amendment to the Bill of Rights to please Mr. Neil Hamilton. He wholly misunderstood the nature of the relationship between a Member of Parliament and the Bill of Rights. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said, the Bill of Rights was passed to protect not individual Members of Parliament but our constituents, who rely on us to speak fearlessly for them in the House.

    Mr. Hamilton would have done better to leave the law of defamation well alone. As a general rule, that is advice that most people—Members of Parliament or otherwise—should consider carefully, whether they are potential claimants or defendants. Perhaps it is surprising to many hon. Members that the aggrieved party will often accept a proper apology and, if appropriate, a public apology instead of demanding damages and an injunction. However, some cases are not capable of settlement. When Members of Parliament are not claimants, but defendants, and thus involuntary parties to a defamation action that cannot be settled, they should have some financial protection.

    The Minister said that such protection would be minimal. However, minimal protection is no protection. When the scheme's details are worked out, I hope that something more than minimal protection will be provided. Although we do not want to tie the Minister down to details this evening, we should be grateful if he could present some general figures.

    As Members of Parliament, we should not be too proud to admit that we are wrong about something, whether in correspondence with a Minister, a local government official, or a chief constable, or in our speeches, press releases or letters to the national and local press. We are rightly protected by absolute privilege when we speak in the Chamber and elsewhere in the proceedings of the House. On other occasions, we may be protected by qualified privilege: if we are actuated by malice, we lose the protection. However, if we say something that we later discover to be untrue, we should not resort to that insurance fund too willingly, but reach a sensible solution outside litigation and without the assistance of lawyers and the public's money.

    In the short time available to me since the motions were tabled by the Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall, I have not been able to research the position in other countries in detail. Doubtless my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) will be desperately sad about that. However, I can briefly describe the position in Canada and France.

    Members of the Canadian House of Commons are entitled to participate in various insurance plans, which include the public service management insurance plan, health care plans, a dental care plan, group special risk insurance and flight insurance. In some cases, coverage is automatic; in others, it is optional. Extended coverage is available on application. The coverage of insurance plans in Canada is not as wide as the motions that we are considering.

    If a Member of the Canadian House of Commons incurs liability or legal costs in relation to the matters that we are considering, he or she may apply to the Board of Internal Economy—a wonderful name—for reimbursement. Applications are decided on a case-by-case basis. Some types of liability, such as a constituent injuring himself or herself—that may have some resonance for the hon. Member for North Cornwall—would probably be covered by the Canadian House of Commons if it occurred within the parliamentary precincts. If the injury occurs in a constituency office outside Ottawa, the Member would apply for reimbursement if he or she had not purchased insurance.

    In France, the National Assembly is covered by an insurance scheme for civil liability. It covers only the activities of the institution, not those of its members. The Assembly has signed a convention with a well-known insurance company to cover accidents that may occur to Deputies during an official trip. French Deputies are also covered by legislation on work accidents. By and large, there is a far wider definition of parliamentary privilege in other countries, and the activities of a Member of Parliament are more widely covered.

    There was speculation that the Scottish parliamentary corporate body had agreed to pay some or all the legal costs of Lord Watson of Invergowrie to defend himself against a challenge in the Court of Session about his conduct on his proposed anti-hunting Bill. However, the Scottish Parliament or the Scottish parliamentary corporate body has made no official statement.

    The hon. and learned Gentleman is a lawyer, and I am sure that he could give us excellent advice. I want to ask him a simple question. People have tried to sue me on three occasions in 20 years. On each occasion, I have refused to appoint a lawyer and nothing has happened; the attempts have fizzled out. I wonder whether hon. Members realise that we can do that; we can simply ignore such attempts. If the case is invalid, it seems to fall away.

    I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his successful inactivity. I am not here to give general legal advice; that would be dangerous. However, it is not always safe for any defendant to do nothing, whether he is a Member of Parliament or not. One has to be extremely careful that the aggrieved complainant does not get judgment in default. In that case, damages may be assessed. If one does nothing about it, the plaintiff can execute judgment against the non-attending defendant. I shall leave the matter there before I am accused of advertising. That would never do.

    It has occurred to me in the past 17 years here that if one writes letters carefully, one is fairly safe. For example, one can use the old phrases, "I'm given to understand;" "Could you please comment?" Perhaps we should teach Members of Parliament to write letters so that they do not get sued.

    Doubtless the hon. Gentleman will be putting up his placard along the Library Corridor so that Members of Parliament who need his advice will be able to find him.

    I do not want to take up too much time because those who spoke before me were commendably brief. However, provision exists for the protection of elected councillors. It is unclear where exactly the provision can be found. However, section 111(1) of the Local Government Act 1972 states:

    a local authority shall have power to do any thing (whether or not involving the expenditure, borrowing or lending of money or the acquisition or disposal of any property or rights) which is calculated to facilitate, or is conducive or incidental to, the discharge of any of their functions.
    I know from personal experience that, under that section, local authorities have been able to fund the defence of libel actions brought by aggrieved members of the public against councillors.

    Another route that local authorities take is that which we propose—the use of an insurance fund.

    I am grateful to the Minister for his intervention because it enables me to ask him some questions directly. Given paragraph (1) of motion 9, will the insurance be provided by one policy to cover all Members of Parliament or may Members negotiate their own private policies and pay for them from either their office costs allowance or other parliamentary funds? What is the annual estimated cost of the insurance? He said that £10,000 per Member of cover would cost about £18,000 a year for the entire House. I do not want to sound like a bleeding heart, but, with the greatest respect, £10,000 of legal costs does not go far in the defence of a legal action. I say in my own defence that the charge to my much afflicted, but highly respected hon. Friend the Member for Mid—Worcestershire was a good deal less than that. I shall not mention the figure, but I do not mind if he does. However, it was but a fraction of £10,000, although costs build up.

    I do not wish to encroach on my hon. and learned Friend's time, but he refers to French and other jurisdictions in Europe where those Members of Parliament are covered whether they are in or outside the House of which they are Members. Is he convinced that the insurance will cover all situations?

    I am not convinced because I do not know the details of the insurance policy. When I do, I shall no doubt be able to answer that question with greater confidence.

    Will my hon. and learned Friend clarify something? I understood him to say that Members should contribute to the insurance policy from their office allowance, but did he mean to imply that Members should take out the insurance separately? He will know that insurance is not available for defamation or libel actions.

    On the last point, such insurance is available. On the first point, I neither said what my hon. Friend suggests I said, nor did I want anyone to draw such an inference. I asked the Minister to explain whether one insurance policy would cover the House and all its Members or whether we could negotiate our own private insurance policies and have the cost of the premium funded by the House in one way or another. He may be able to deal with that.

    What will be the financial limits under paragraph (2)(a), (b), (c), (d) and (e)? We are not dealing only with defamation, so what financial limits are proposed? Who will administer the relationship between the Member of Parliament and the insurance cover?

    When the Nolan committee first reported in 1996, it said in relation to board members of public bodies:
    The government should seek to ensure broad consistency and adequate protection in respect of the personal liability of all appointed or elected members, directors, trustees, or others responsible for bodies providing public services.
    It suggested that the Government should make proper funding arrangements for the protection of appointed directors or members of public bodies so that they would not be left out of pocket if sued in carrying out their public duties.

    I will, but I hope that my hon. Friend will notice that time is marching on.

    I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend; giving way is a penance for his being an expert on the subject. Is it his understanding that the insurance proposal would cover a Back Bencher defending a defamation action brought against him or her by a Minister?

    I do not know that my hon. Friend, who is a highly intelligent Member, needs my explanation of the words of the motion; they are self-explanatory, but unclear in their detail. If he knows of such a case, no doubt he will have drawn it to the attention of someone outside the House so that he can be properly advised. I do not want to give him off-the-cuff advice at this juncture.

    Other bodies, such as housing associations and the national health service, provide for their members—whether lay directors or lay trust members—to be indemnified, but the position is not uniform and we are unable to fit the scheme proposed by the Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and the hon. Member for North Cornwall into any particular category or box. If we are to have our own scheme—which I would applaud, for all the reasons advanced by the Minister, my right hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman—it must be of sufficient capacity genuinely to protect Members of Parliament. As I said at the outset in response to the Minister's remarks, minimal protection is no protection at all.

    I urge the Minister, the Leader of the House and others to study the schemes made available by the national health service executive, the National Housing Federation and other public bodies, for example, to ensure that we provide a system that is just and not extravagant, but which none the less meets the obvious needs of Members. This is my final word: it is generally far better to say, "Sorry, I have got it wrong," than to involve lawyers.

    7.37 pm

    Although I support the motion, I thought carefully about speaking in the debate because I seek to distance myself from action against Members taken by the press. Hon. Members will be aware of my difficulties in relation to my court case: a picture of my children was consistently used in the newspapers. This is not a political issue; all Members would have sympathy with that. I accept that, as a Member or an individual, I have the right to take action against newspapers for what they may have said against me during and after my court case. However, to this day I do not accept that they had a right to use a picture of my children, who have no connection with my actions as an individual.

    The Press Complaints Commission let me down significantly. It said that, because a picture of my children had been used with my permission, it was acceptable for the photograph to be used in the newspapers. I do not accept that. It has been suggested that the motion should include Members' staff, but infringements of Members' privacy should be carefully considered, especially if minors are involved. My children were extremely distressed because their photograph was widely published in the national newspapers. I was unable to take action against any body for using the picture because of involved circumstances in which a local newspaper, which apparently held the copyright of the photograph, passed that photograph informally to a press agency. I would never have allowed a press agency to photograph my children, but the costs involved effectively prevented me from taking the case to court.

    I feel strongly—I hope that most Members on both sides of the House will agree—that there is no excuse for the media using photographs of children in relation to anything that we might do as Members of the House of Commons, regardless of whether we are right or wrong in what we say.

    7.40 pm

    I declare an interest in the Register of Members' Interests: various parts of the media have paid substantial legal costs in actions where I have been the plaintiff. On a number of occasions, they have paid substantial damages, too. May I say how much I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier)? If people have made a mistake, the best thing is to say so straight away in public, and to offer to say so to whomever the aggrieved person would like it to be said to.

    As it happens, recently a non-national newspaper published material that was seriously defamatory about me. I rang the editor and he sent me a letter that day saying, "Sorry, we have made a mistake." We met two days later on the first available working day. The matter was resolved with no expense, lawyers or lasting damage to me as the victim. It was an honest mistake, openly acknowledged and dealt with. If, as a Member of Parliament, I find myself as the defendant in a legal action, I hope that I will have the perception to understand if that is the case, and to say so and dispose of the matter.

    The motions are about different circumstances. I have two questions, which the Minister may or may not be able to answer now. First, I should like an assurance that similar cover is available to all Officers of the House. It may be those in the catering department, it may be the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, or it may be heaven knows who—if they find themselves saying something that is not protected by parliamentary privilege, will they have the same type of cover? Will they actually be told, "We will back you with reasonable legal expenses if it is not a case where you should admit that you got something wrong."?

    If a Member of Parliament has said something that is defamatory and is not defensible, will the insurance policy provide damages or will the Member be on his own for the damages? That is not clear from the motion. It may not be clear until the insurance policy is negotiated, and that is another issue that matters.

    I go beyond that and declare that I may have an interest in future. Suppose a constituent says to a Member of Parliament, "You, I claim, have discriminated against me on the ground of my disability", and tries to bring a case against that Member under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, or any other provision, will the insurance policy cover that? That is a consideration to which I should like the House authorities and the leaders of the parties to pay some attention. There may be a range of issues that matter.

    If the Minister or the House is interested in my view, I think that Members of Parliament should pay for the insurance cover on the libel element, which I calculate to be roughly 55p a week per Member. That compares with the roughly £55 a week that each Member contributes to the parliamentary pension scheme—so in case our old friends from the press start saying that we are putting our snouts into the trough again, we should spell out that we are talking about 55p a week, at least on the defamation cover. The next time that parliamentary allowances or pay are adjusted, we should see whether we can carry that cost ourselves. It is within the small change of the deductions from our pay at the moment.

    The final point that seems worth making is not on item (e), which relates to a civil claim for defamation—

    There is a danger in what the hon. Gentleman says. Most of us are very careful in what we say and we do not seek to libel or to defame anyone, but from time to time we do have one or two mavericks who will shout their mouths off left, right and centre, and who would thus incur damages time and again for which the rest of us would have to pay.

    I do not want to be diverted too far, but my instant feeling in reacting to that is that we carry that type of penalty anyway with people who use absolute parliamentary privilege to defame people in the Chamber. Defamation, as I understand it, must have the element of saying something that is untrue and damaging. It becomes actionable only if it is not covered by privilege: either qualified or absolute privilege. The fact that there may be costs if people shoot their mouths off outside the Chamber is no greater a penalty on other Members than the consequences of people who come into the Chamber and do the same thing. The fact is that it is general pressure and understanding that limit what people do to excess. In my view, it does not eliminate it, but it limits it. The hon. Gentleman may have a different view.

    The last point deals with paragraph (2)(a), (b), (c) and (d):
    travel…personal accident…personal accident in respect of employees of Members…employers' liability and public liability.
    The Minister properly described that as switching from one budget head to another. I maintain that any cover, especially on travel or personal accident, should not in any sense be limited to parliamentary duties during someone's service in the House. It makes no difference to our dependants whether we fall out of the sky on a parliamentary flight or whether we fall over a stone on the road, hit our heads and are disabled by that. Therefore, I hope that the cover is related not to cause, but to the period of parliamentary service.

    7.46 pm

    I, too, support the motion and express my sympathy for my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff). I am pleased that he has got assistance—or, hopefully, will get assistance.

    I understand that a Member as defendant may have assistance, but I hope that the Minister will clarify the position of the Member as plaintiff. For example, a Member who wishes to take some action against someone who has defamed him can find himself the plaintiff. That might present different concepts and I should like the Minister to comment on that. It may be that the terms of the insurance that are proposed—it is a revolutionary step forward, so we may as well discuss the measures that it might cover—should be extended to a wider range of circumstances.

    I bring to the House's attention the sixth report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, which was chaired by Lord Neill and which reviewed, among other things, decision making and the actions that have taken place with regard to our standards and privileges in the House. The issues are related. If a Member is asked to appear before the Committee and must make a defence against some allegation that a member of the public has made, that Member has to defend himself, particularly where it is a contentious issue. That Member may wish to take legal advice in order to defend himself.

    There have been a number of examples recently. I think that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) was reported four or five times to that Committee and used the honourable Michael Beloff QC to produce a defence for him. Presumably, that cost him quite dearly. On a number of occasions, he was not censured by the Committee—he was the subject of two complaints, I believe—but the point remains that those legal expenses must be met.

    The Neill report, which I hope we will debate in the House in the not-too-distant future—it was issued in January and it is extremely salient and relative to the points that have come up in the debate—says:
    Given the politically-charged environment within which MPs work, it is likely that ill-founded complaints will be made from time to time to discredit the accused MP.
    We all know that. The report continues:
    It would be naive to think otherwise.
    To some extent, the forum of the Standards and Privileges Committee invites that. It is possible not only for people with genuine complaints, but crackpots and even people who are perhaps being motivated by others and used as straw men—briefed, perhaps, by hon. Members or possibly trade unions—to put points to the commissioner in their own name, which opens up the issue to public debate.

    Once a complaint has been made, a newspaper can report it. Once the commissioner decides to take up the complaint, it can be reported more widely. All that builds a certain amount of defamation of the Member's character and makes good copy. Although that may not be considered terribly important, it allows newspapers to air subjects that they may not have wanted to print for fear of being sued for libel. The process basically allows newspapers to report in great detail issues under privilege—those debated in the Chamber or in Committee.

    We all know that even if, at the end of the day, the complaint is dismissed, mud sticks. The story can go around and around. Every one of us knows of such cases. I should of course declare two interests. One is that I have on two occasions successfully sued for libel—once against a newspaper and once against a constituent. The second is that I have of course recently been subject to an inquiry by the Standards and Privileges Committee, on which I do not intend to dwell.

    Lord Neill's report states:
    If the Parliamentary Commissioner's recommendation is accepted but the Member wishes to contest that, which at the moment is not possible, they should receive "financial assistance".
    A paragraph on the appeals procedure in contested cases states:
    "An accused MP who receives an adverse ruling…should be entitled to financial assistance to pursue an appeal
    and that an
    MP should be able to appeal against the…decision—
    and for that would require financial assistance. I repeat that point time and again because it crops up time and again in the report. It is important that Members realise that these matters—certainly the financial consequences—do not relate only to the kind of circumstances experienced by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire. His is not the only example of when extensive legal expenses might be incurred.

    It is very difficult for a Member to decide how to deal with such matters. It has been said in this House—I think by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) during the debate on the issue in which I was involved—that it is not just difficult to defend oneself in such circumstances, it is impossible. Members need legal advice because of the time involved, the fact that they may not be a lawyer and the danger of appearing to prevaricate in answering ad hoc questions and building up a case. While we have the opportunity, we should broaden the debate to include those circumstances.

    The point is particularly significant because, at present, one cannot appeal against the decisions of the Committee on Standards and Privileges—even though Lord Neill's report advocates that we should have that opportunity. As a result, Members must present a well-argued, cogent defence; in lawyer's language, "You can lawyer yourself." For that reason, I very much hope that the Minister, who I am sure is sympathetic to all this, will do his best to ensure that the matter is dealt with straightforwardly.

    This is not the time to rehearse various arguments, but does my hon. Friend agree that one ought to try to distinguish between establishing and providing facts, and drawing conclusions from them?

    I will give my hon. Friend the benefit of the doubt. I am suggesting that, given the pressures of the job and the amount of time that can be devoted to it, hon. Members need legal advice from the beginning of such a process. It is important that they should at least have the opportunity to discuss matters with some legal representative. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough pointed out, because lawyers are subject to people importuning them for their services for nothing, they are inclined to say that they would have to charge a fee. He makes no bones about the fact that he was in such a position in advising my hon. Friend the Member for Mid—Worcestershire. I entirely accept that.

    I should like to emphasise two things. There are many ways in which a member of the public can defame or bring charges against a Member. They can do so boldly, directly through a newspaper or an outside lawyer, but, as a result of the system that we have rightly implemented to review the conduct of Members, they have a third route. That system could be used not just by direct litigants, if I may put it that way, but through straw men. Individuals or newspapers can bring a case that they dare not make directly in the public domain, which is then reported under the protection of the privilege that this House and its Committees offer.

    7.56 pm

    I strongly support the opening statement of the Parliamentary Secretary. The motions only provide a Member of Parliament with a measure of protection against being sued for libel: they would not protect him in the event of his being defamed. I was interested in the example given by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who described when he was defamed as an illustration of why the area generally needs to be considered—although my right hon. Friend's specific example would of course be excluded under the motions.

    Sooner or later, we shall have to consider some protection for Members who are defamed. If the Parliamentary Secretary, as a Minister of the Crown, is defamed as a consequence of his duties, he will consult the Law Officers. After consultation, the Law Officers will pick up the bill for enabling him to pursue a case to protect him. However, if an MP is defamed, he has no such protection and must take action off his or own bat.

    What my hon. Friend says is true, but it is not the whole truth. The whole truth is that any Minister who is contemplating or even threatening legal action for defamation must seek the agreement of the Law Officers and the Prime Minister, long before there is any question of paying legal costs.

    Clearly, there is a logical sequence of speaking to the Law Officers before any bill is picked up. As I said—I think it was clear enough—the first thing that a Minister should do is consult the Law Officers. If a Minister is defamed in the course of his duties, the Law Officers will so advise him. So I do not think that there is any difference between my hon. Friend and me on that point.

    The logical course of action for Members of Parliament would be to take out some legal expenses insurance against the risk of being libelled. The cost of that could be quite high, and cannot at the moment be set against the office costs allowance. I suggest to Members present that we must consider facilitating that in the long run, although we would clearly want to ensure that such use of the office costs allowance was restricted to appropriate cases. The fact that such cover would be only through libel insurance would enable the Fees Office to examine the insurance contract and ensure that it related only to defamation of a Member in the course of his duties.

    It would also be very important that such cover did not enable Members to bring frivolous cases every time anybody said anything they did not like. Limiting access to insurance will mean that that is addressed because before agreeing to go ahead with a case the insurer will want to examine whether it is frivolous and what are its chances of success. That will probably cut out silly cases, as it does for most other people who take out libel insurance. I notice that the Minister nods agreement at that point.

    I do not think that the Minister will support my proposal at present, because it goes much further than the motion. But I ask all hon. Members to think about the matter seriously. It is quite possible that many of us will be libelled at some time in our parliamentary life. We have very little protection from that; we have much less protection than Ministers and much less than many people who work for other institutions, which would help with the costs.

    I am about to conclude, because I do not want to detain the House further, so I hope the hon. Gentleman will excuse me if I do not give way.

    Most Members are not in a financial position to risk a hugely expensive case. We have heard from a libel lawyer tonight that £10,000 does not go very far. The matter will have to be examined in the long run. In an increasingly litigious environment, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire described, something will have to be done to enable Members to bring reasonable actions.

    8.1 pm

    With the leave of the House, I should like to respond to the debate.

    First, I warmly welcome the broad support across the House tonight. Although we are dealing with a motion primarily brought by the Government, this is a House matter. I am delighted that the right hon. Member for North—West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) put their names to the motion, because this is a non-partisan issue and it is important that we behave appropriately.

    A number of examples have been brought to our attention which clearly show the litigious nature of our society now.

    I agree with the Minister that we are living in a very litigious society. For that reason, will he and other hon. Members in due course consider the possibility of having insurance cover for certain other tortious matters, such as negligence?

    I shall come to that in a moment. I do not want to comment on individual cases. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) was tempted to be drawn into discussions of individual cases, which would not be appropriate tonight. If I do not cover every point raised in the debate, I shall write to hon. Members individually.

    I should like to reinforce one broad point made by my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Newark (Mrs. Jones). I refer to the difficulty that we all have in protecting our children and our families. This is a real issue for us all.

    The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Burnett) and others, including the hon. Members for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), made points that would broaden the motion, in a sense to have it provide insurance not to protect Members but to bring proceedings. The hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon extended it by asking about cases of negligence. These are House matters, and we shall carefully examine the points made. There is a particular matter in relation to negligence. I am always very conscious at my own surgery about some of the advice I give. I think that we shall have to return to this in due course.

    I counsel very strongly against extending the motion to negligence. Hundreds, if not thousands, of cases would be brought against Members of Parliament if the public thought there was a bottomless pit of the public purse to save them.

    Some hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours), give good advice and pursue matters extremely rigorously in the Chamber, and use all the techniques available to them, including the use of privilege on occasion. If my hon. Friend listened to my words carefully he would know that I said that we shall have to explore the matter. I gave no commitment; I said that it was an issue that we would have to look at.

    The hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) asked what the position was in other countries. There are many schemes. In broad terms, European Parliaments tend to give better protection than Commonwealth Parliaments, but I think that things will change over a period.

    I thought for a moment that my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) was going to advertise his book, which is due out this autumn. I do not think that it is under the title "Honest Joe", although perhaps that is the subtext. My hon. Friend tempted me to say whether he would be protected. There is a good deal of case law around libel, and my hon. Friend's publishers will want to speak to him carefully. But I do not want to talk about individual cases.

    The hon. Member for North Cornwall made a very fair point, reminding us that we should revisit the office costs allowance, and in particular the arrangements for our staff. Discussions are going on through the usual channels about that. I hope that, over time, we shall be able to do better through the office costs allowance. The hon. Gentleman's comments have been noted.

    The hon. and learned Member for Harborough asked me four straight questions that fit in very much with the questions raised by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley). First, the hon. and learned Gentleman asked whether there would be one policy or whether Members would be entitled to opt out of the scheme. We shall consider his point, but our intention at this stage is for there to be one policy. We feel that we shall obtain better value for money out of one policy covering all hon. Members.

    The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me not to take a restricted approach, but to be more generous. He rightly reminded me that for a premium of £18,000, hon. Members will receive cover of perhaps only £10,000. I am very mindful of the advice that he gave the House.

    We want not to be excessive but to ensure that we have a scheme that meets needs. Clearly, the hon. and learned Gentleman has a better knowledge than I have of legal costs, but I think that £10,000 would not take us very far in giving colleagues protection. What we seek from the House tonight is approval in principle so that we can get out into the market and negotiate these matters.

    The hon. and learned Gentleman also raised with me the broader issue of the other insurance policies, an issue which his hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West picked up. The policies around travel and personal liability already exist. We are simply transferring them into a different boat. I do not know the details of the scheme; I do not know how far the policies are attached to duties as an MP and how far they are attached to wider activities. It is a very important point. The two are sometimes very difficult to distinguish. I shall write to colleagues about this, and it may be an issue about which the Fees Office will want to write to hon. Members.

    The hon. and learned Gentleman raised the Neill report, as did the hon. Member for Billericay. The hon. and learned Gentleman asked what protection Members would receive if as part of their parliamentary duties they acted on a quango or as directors. This is an important point. As the motion stands, the biggest part of their parliamentary duties would be covered, but there is some fuzziness about this, and we shall have to look at it. In a broader context, the issue of local councillors acting in quangos is being explored by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

    The hon. Member for Worthing, West asked about the position of Officers of the House. Official civil servants working for a Department are covered, but I cannot confidently assure him that officials of the House are covered. There should be equity and, if that is not the case, we will take steps to ensure that Officers of the House are also covered. The hon. Gentleman also made the point that perhaps we should contribute to the costs ourselves and he was quick in his sums to come up with a figure of 55p a week. I have some experience of such matters and feel that collecting 55p a week might cost more than it would raise. However, the hon. Gentleman was right to say that Members should bear some responsibility. The hon. Gentleman also made the point that the cover should not be so excessive that no risk attached to the Member involved.

    Is not a better way to ensure that the Member feels some sense of responsibility to have the cost of the policy as a charge against individual office costs allowances, and not to have one general scheme? Different people will leave themselves vulnerable in different degrees to being sued. Those who are prudent and cautious will get cheaper insurance and those who are incautious will leave themselves vulnerable.

    That is one way forward, and the hon. and learned Member for Harborough explored a similar issue. My view is that we would make efficiency savings from having one policy, and that is the intention. If we agree the motion, it will give us the opportunity to revisit the issue. In any case, we will have to revisit the issue of the office costs allowance. What Members personally are responsible for and what could be bought collectively is a live issue across a range of subjects. For example, we could make big savings if everybody would sign up to the same computer systems, but that will probably not be possible.

    It is my advice to colleagues and public authorities that if they have got it wrong they should say sorry. The expression of regret and an apology can save much pain and litigation and we should be bolder and braver in that regard.

    The hon. Member for Billericay reminded me that it is some time since I read the Neill report. She also reminded me to check on the progress of that report through the House. It is right that we should have an opportunity to respond to the report and to discuss it. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising the issue tonight so that we can spur it on. The hon. Lady also made an important point about how our privilege rules are used as stalking horses to enable privileged information to reach the wider press. When we have a chance to respond to the Neill report, we will have to work on that point.

    We have had a useful debate. I am conscious that everybody wishes to proceed in generally the same direction. There are differences of emphasis, but we agree in principle that the Speaker and the Leader of the House can follow our discussions through and do the deal. I assure the House, as it says in the motion, that we will keep the issue under review. I hope that we will not have to use the provision frequently.

    Question put and agreed to.

    Resolved,

    That, in the opinion of this House,—
  • (1) provision should be made for the insurance of Members of this House in relation to the performance of their duties as Members under arrangements (including financial limits to the cover provided) made from time to time with the approval of the Leader of this House and the Speaker;
  • (2) subject to the terms and conditions of any policy effected under the approved arrangements, the insurance for which provision is made under paragraph (1) of this Resolution may cover the following—
  • (a) travel;
  • (b) personal accident;
  • (c) personal accident in respect of employees of Members;
  • (d) employers' liability and public liability;
  • (e) the cost of defending a civil claim for defamation and of payment in respect of any award made by a court in such a claim, where the act complained of was not covered by parliamentary privilege but arose from a Member's duty as a Member; and
  • (3) arrangements made for insurance of the type mentioned under paragraph (2)(a) and (b) above may provide for the spouses of Members to be covered as well as Members themselves.