Members will be aware of the unauthorised disclosure of material relating to their allowances, which has appeared in the press on Friday and over the weekend. This has caused great public concern.
Leaving aside the legal aspect, to which I shall return in a moment, the House has to make serious change to the system of allowances. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that we have been working to new rules from 1 April. We also know that there will be further changes, with proper, independent audit assurance. But working to the rules and the rules alone is not what is expected of any hon. Member; it is important that the spirit of what is right must be brought in now. We are also setting up an operational assurance unit with independent oversight to secure the proper handling of claims. This will be operating very shortly.
To return to the legal aspect, the Clerk of the House immediately sought advice. He was advised that there was no real basis for seeking an injunction but that there was some basis for considering that a criminal offence or offences may have been committed. As right hon. and hon. Members will know from a communication that they received on Friday afternoon, he accordingly referred the matter to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police. I can understand hon. Members’ concerns about the revealing of details of bank accounts, style of signature and verbal passwords and their concern that an individual who may have sold the data is also capable of selling this information further. That is why the police have been informed. I am also writing to the publisher of the newspaper, drawing this fact to their attention and reminding them of the serious security implications if personal data that might expose Members and others to risks to their safety were to be published. The letter will be copied to all national newspapers.
I turn to the matter of what action on publication, originally scheduled for July, should now be taken, I can tell the House that the House of Commons Commission will be meeting this evening to give this matter its immediate attention.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I say something of a more positive nature about this matter? I was pleased to see that, in publishing some of the material, The Daily Telegraph has been careful to black out such information as Members’ home addresses. That is reassuring given that The Sunday Telegraph has been the newspaper that has been arguing for so long that Members’ private home addresses should be published to all and sundry. I have communicated with the editors’ office of The Daily Telegraph and I have their permission to say what their position is on this. I have just received the following from the consulting editor, Mr. Wynn Davies, who says:
“We have taken exceptional steps to ensure that home addresses, private telephone numbers, bank account details, signatures and so forth are not published…We have responsibly withheld such information so far and you may rest assured we shall continue to do so.”
Would it be possible, Mr. Speaker, for you to consider making public the advice that this House received from the security advisor to Parliament as to what bits of data really must be withheld under such circumstances? For example, while withholding addresses, they have released the tradesmen’s details.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it in order to point out that many of us—I hope from all parts of the House—feel that bringing in the Metropolitan police, who have a huge job to do in London at the moment in dealing with all sorts of problems, to try to find out who has leaked something, when, as has been pointed out, the newspapers have handled the personal details very responsibly by blanking them out, is an awful waste of resources? Will the public not see this, whatever the intention, as a way of hiding—
Let me answer the hon. Lady. I listen to her often when I turn on the television at midnight, and I hear her public utterances and pearls of wisdom on Sky News—it is easy to talk then. Let me put this to the hon. Lady and to every hon. Member in this House: is it the case than an employee of this House should be able to hand over any private data to any organisation of his or her choosing? The allegations—I emphasise that they are allegations—are that that information was handed over to a third party in order to find the highest bidder for private information. If I do not ask, or rather if the Clerk of the House does not ask, for the police to be brought in, we are saying that that employee should be left in situ with all the personal information of every hon. Member, including the hon. Lady’s own information and that of her employees. Let me say that anyone who has looked at their own un-redacted information can see that the signatures of employees are exposed, that private ex-directory numbers are exposed and that passwords—telephone passwords—are exposed. I just say to the hon. Lady that it is easy to say to the press, “This should not happen,” but it is a wee bit more difficult when you have to do more than just give quotes to the Express—or the press, rather—and do nothing else; some of us in this House have other responsibilities, other than just talking to the press.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am all in favour of owning up and apologising when we are in the wrong, but would it be in order to inquire whether the House authorities should be a little more robust in responding to the many falsehoods that have been written about our use of the allowances? On 4 April, a Mr. Ian Cowie wrote an article in the financial section of The Daily Telegraph in which he falsely suggested that we were all pocketing the office costs allowance, that we are subject to special tax treatment and that, on average, each of us owes the Inland Revenue £54,000 in tax a year. He elaborated on this thesis over more than two pages, he has repeated the claim on other occasions and other newspapers have made similar allegations. After Mr. Cowie’s article appeared, I contacted a senior official of the House and suggested that he issue a rebuttal, only to be told that it is not your policy to respond to falsehoods of this nature. Is that the case, Mr. Speaker? If so, would you reconsider, because we are in a climate now where any nonsense can be written about anybody, and it is dragging us all down?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Would you, as part of a clarification of your statement, indicate whether the House of Commons Commission will tonight be considering the early release of all information, which I believe to be in all Members’ interests, as opposed to dragging this matter out until July? And will—
Order. May I say to the hon. Gentleman that I did say that in the statement? Perhaps he was reading the statement. Another individual Member who is keen to say to the press whatever the press want to hear has said that the House of Commons Commission has done nothing. Just remember that it was less than a year ago—on 3 July—that the House of Commons Commission put a report before this House, in which some of the problems that we have got today were examined and rejected, so it is wrong for him to say that the House of Commons has done nothing, but I answered his point in my statement in any case.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If the Commission is looking at the possible earlier release of the information, can I be assured that we will all keep our heads and recognise that at present hon. Members are going through many thousands of sheets of paper? I have today sent to the Fees Office many sheets, asking for corrections which consist of nothing more esoteric than the removal of a credit card number or private individuals’ names and addresses, making it clear where something has not been claimed. I have done that today. If that is multiplied across the House, there is a huge task. May I ask that we keep our heads and not be driven by what is happening?
I say to the right hon. Lady that I am very aware that at present hon. Members are looking at the information that is on those documents, and they have a right to protect not only themselves, but their staff and their families. Matters such as bank accounts and cheques have sometimes been involved, and those items been replicated in the so-called disk that is doing the rounds.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Deplorable though it is that private information relating to hon. Members and our staff has been offered as a leak or possibly for sale to members of the press, we clearly cannot blame the media for the situation in which we find ourselves. I wonder whether, when the House of Commons Commission meets this evening, you would consider adding to what you are already doing a rather different approach. Because it is the public who elect us and pay for us, would you and the Commission consider establishing citizens juries, as they are called, perhaps one for each region, to consider the matter both of our salaries and of—
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I clear up a different point that emerges from your statement? It has been suggested in some quarters that the use of an outside body to check the receipts and the auditing, which seems to me a desirable thing, would in some way exempt those from the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. My assumption is that that is simply not the case. Have you been advised accordingly, and can you confirm that?
There is no intention that any action that we take will, inadvertently or otherwise, allow the freedom of information to be restricted. I hope that is of help to the right hon. Gentleman.
I move on. Does the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) now wish to raise a point of order?
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Yet again, our capital city has been brought to a standstill by a bunch of demonstrators who have, in effect, occupied Parliament square for about six weeks. I have raised the matter with you before. Although it is true that Members have had access, albeit not to the main entrance of the House—we have had restricted access—there are nevertheless hundreds of thousands of people out there going about their business, who have had their business lives and their personal lives disrupted by the demonstration, at enormous cost to them and their businesses, as well as inconvenience. I know that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has had added to his list of things to do that which you asked him over the weekend to do, but I have raised the matter with you before. It is surely unacceptable that these people should be allowed to take over Parliament square and disrupt the entire centre of our capital city. I wonder what on earth the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is doing about it, bearing in mind that every police officer to whom I have spoken has made it clear to me that it is his view that the Commissioner will take no action, because after the G20 they are completely frit of doing anything for fear of ending up in court themselves.
If hon. Members allow me to answer, perhaps they will not need to make their points.
I have a great deal of sympathy with the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. Perhaps later on this week I will make a statement after I have brought people into the House to try to resolve the matter. Many of us were involved in demonstrations before we came into the House, because demonstrating is part of a democracy, but we would have those demonstrations and then leave. No one has ever expected a demonstration to hijack Parliament square and the roads, and thereby stop others performing their democratic duties. I will be able to give the hon. Gentleman more information later in the week.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am pleased by what you have just said, but will you assure us that demonstrations and the right to demonstrate will not be impeded? Could we all not have some sympathy for the Tamil people out there who are desperate to do something to achieve safety for their families back home? Can we not recognise, at a human level, that people want their voice to be heard and for this House and our Government to do what they can to bring about a ceasefire in Sri Lanka?
I can understand that people have issues on which they wish to be heard, but to hijack an important part of this city—with hunger strikers, tents and food stalls, but no toilet facilities—is not the proper way to conduct a demonstration. I will say something further on the situation later this week.
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. When you have your discussions later this week, will you please discuss with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner the advisability of bringing in an implement that would be used in virtually every other capital city—the water cannon?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your advice, because I was personally involved in Parliament square this morning? I was coming in by car and I was almost at Chancellor’s Gate when the Tamil demonstrators burst out of Parliament square and occupied the road. I was delayed in attending a meeting in the House. Indeed, I was held up for an hour and 10 minutes, until the police were able to sort out the traffic. Is it not the case that Members of Parliament and those associated with the House should have unimpeded access, and the police and the authorities should seek to guarantee that?
Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I do not condone people going on to the streets, but I wish to place it on record that I know for a certain fact that the demonstration in the square was applied for lawfully and granted permission for at least the last four weeks, and it will be able to continue lawfully for some weeks to come. I hope that colleagues will understand that there are laws, passed by this House, governing these matters, and the applicants for the demonstration have complied with those laws.
I know that I might be in a bit of a bad mood today, but let me say that when authorisation is given for 50 people to demonstrate, it means 50 people. It does not mean tents or food stalls, or texts being sent to supporters to tell them to bring little children along. That is not part of the authorisation of the demonstration. As a former trade union officer, I know that when somebody co-operates with the authorities to obtain permission for a demonstration, they comply with the rules that they lay down. No one can say that that happened in this case.
Let me add a further thing, because it relates to what Sir Nicholas has said. People, including me, who have had to drive around the square have been put into a dangerous situation—the roads have been blocked off, because police officers have had to put their vans in the filter lane. So when anyone tells me that permission was given, I say that it was given for a limited number of people, not a mob.