[Relevant Documents: Memorandum from the Audit Committees on the Parliamentary Standards Bill; Written evidence received by the Justice Committee on Constitutional Reform and Renewal, HC 791-i.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
As the House will be aware, this Bill has been presented by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House. She greatly regrets that she cannot be present either this afternoon in this Second Reading debate or in tomorrow’s proceedings. She is attending the memorial service and then the funeral of Sir Henry Hodge, the husband of our right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), who tragically died 11 days ago. I am sure that the House will accept my right hon. and learned Friend’s apologies in those circumstances.
As every Member can personally testify, the expenses scandal has profoundly affected the public’s trust in us as individuals and in the House as the heart of our democracy. In almost equal measure, it has seriously damaged our confidence in ourselves. Many actions to right the situation and begin to restore trust have had to be taken. Some of the alleged abuses of the system have been so serious that careers have been prematurely terminated. There are police investigations.
But above and beyond any serious individual failings, the reputation of the House as a whole, and of Members whose conduct has been beyond reproach, has been undermined. This terrible saga has, in turn, revealed a collective failure by this place effectively to regulate itself and to put in place systems that would have highlighted abuses before they started—rules and practices that, once the harsh spotlight was shone on them, withstood, rather than crumbled, in the face of public scrutiny.
Does the right hon. Gentleman nevertheless agree that it is extremely important not to confuse constitutional change with the urgent reforms that need to be brought in to deal with the abuse of expenses, allowances and other matters? They are not the same thing.
Of course I agree. As I shall explain to the House, all the way through the series of negotiations, I have been very alive to the need to focus on the immediate problem—that of parliamentary expenses—and to ensure that, as I shall make clear, I am open to suggestions in respect of other matters. Of course it would be inappropriate to introduce wider constitutional reforms in an emergency way, and I hope that we are not proposing to do so.
Clearly, we will debate the extent to which fundamental changes are entailed by the Bill as well as deal with how parliamentary allowances are paid. Given that some of us believe that the Bill will change the balance of the House and how the House functions, will my right hon. Friend tell us how much time the Cabinet spent discussing the proposals before they were presented to us as a Bill?
Actually, the Cabinet spent a long time discussing the proposals, as did Cabinet Committees. The greatest amount of time—appropriately, because we are trying to act by consensus—was spent in formal and informal cross-party discussions. There were four separate cross-party discussion sessions, as well as these three days’ debate on the Floor of the House.
I shall give way in due course, but I ask both Members to allow me to make a little progress before I come to them.
If we go through the record of this place over the past century and a half, we find an increasing preoccupation to introduce external regulation over one area of social and economic activity after another. From interventions that insisted on clean water or safety systems in the mines or in factories, to increasingly tight external regulation of finance, business and professions, this House and Parliament has been unrelenting in its view that, however well meaning the individuals and venerable the institution, self-regulation is rarely, if ever, enough. The painful lesson of the past six weeks is that our prescription for others must now be applied to ourselves.
Three weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced to the House the
“immediate creation of a new Parliamentary Standards Authority”.
It would take over responsibility for setting and administering the allowance system and apply
“firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity.”
The Leader of the Opposition said that the Opposition would back the establishment of the authority, but added—and he was right to do so—that
“there are still serious questions to be answered, not least about how it will relate to the House and to whom it will be ultimately accountable.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 796-799.]
I shall come back to both hon. Gentlemen in a second.
To answer those and many other questions, the Leader of the House and I have engaged in intensive cross-party discussions over the past three weeks, as I have said. All recognised parties in both Houses have been represented, as have the Cross-Bench peers, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Clerks department. I should like to record my thanks to all those who were involved. The discussions were not a substitute for, but a complement to, a proper examination of the Bill here and in the other place. The fact that the Bill before the House is different and, in my judgment, better than in its earlier drafts is testament to the willingness of everyone in the group to put aside partisan interests. However, I am the first to admit, as I will make clear, that this process of improving the Bill will continue over these next three days.
The Secretary of State may remember that on 18 June, only 11 days ago, I asked the Leader of the House—the reasons for whose absence we obviously fully recognise and accept—to
“confirm that, while the Parliamentary Standards Authority will deal with the financial matters about which she talked—we all accept that—it will not become an appointed quango with jurisdiction over Members of Parliament”.
“I think the answer to that is yes.”—[Official Report, 18 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 424.]
She then went on to amplify her reply. However, the Bill before us shows that that is not the case.
Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames), of course there is a need to tighten up our rules and procedures in relation to expenses and allowances, but I am worried that the clauses dealing with offences create new offences that in fact already exist. For example, the offence in clause 9(1) is already an offence under the Fraud Act 2006, which itself brought up to date the offence in the Theft Act 1968 of obtaining a pecuniary advantage by deception. Why do we need to keep on increasing the number of laws when there are already laws that deal specifically with this sort of criminal behaviour?
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but before he jumps up he must allow me to answer the question put by his hon. and learned Friend.
The hon. and learned Gentleman is not as well informed as he usually is. There is a difference between what is in section 2 of the Fraud Act and what is in this provision, not least in that in the Act one of the components of fraud is dishonesty, while in the Bill it is knowingly making a false statement. I will deal with these offences when we get to clause 9.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s remarks about the scrutiny conducted in this House acting as an opportunity for people to listen carefully to the issues, and indeed to change their minds on them. I say that because just a short time ago I had to run over to the studios of a media broadcaster because it appeared to have been put out by the No. 10 press office that the amendments that had been tabled—many of them are probing amendments to allow this House to consider some of the issues—represented the stated position of the Opposition. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will join me in understanding how the procedures of this House should work properly, and I hope that he appreciates the need to table amendments so that we can concentrate on particular issues in Committee.
I genuinely have no idea of what is being briefed by others. However, I raised an eyebrow when I saw the amendments tabled by the Opposition in respect of clause 9 on offences, because I happen to think that ours is a sensible way to proceed, and people have to be careful. I spent 18 years in opposition, and the Government of the day showed me no mercy in this respect. I had to accept that the natural consequences of amendments that I tabled was that the words meant what they said, so that the proposed knocking out of an offence would be taken to be the policy of the Opposition.
Some clauses in the Bill profoundly alter the relationship between Members of Parliament and the electorate, not least clauses 6 and 10, which I hope that the Government will look at again. Equally, there are clauses that could and should apply to parliamentarians as a whole. Given that it is called the Parliamentary Standards Bill, is it envisaged that some of these clauses will apply to the other place as well?
As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear on 10 June, it is envisaged that in due course the arrangements relating to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority should indeed apply to the other place; that is why we sought to create an authority that covers both Houses. I hope that that matter will be dealt with in subsequent legislation. At the moment, however, the specific parts of the Bill cover only this House.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. As he knows, I have tabled a couple of amendments, because I am concerned to ensure that parliamentarians have the right of natural justice in how investigations are conducted, and indeed the right of appeal. That is a long-standing right, which ought to be provided for if we are moving responsibility for the matter into the outside world. I have not had the opportunity to discuss the amendments with him, but does he agree that parliamentarians are entitled to the same benefit of natural justice as anybody in the outside world?
Of course I agree with that. Although we may not have got the provisions exactly right, I think that we are pretty nearly there in that respect. I will listen carefully to my hon. Friend’s points about the amendments, which I have already studied.
The fundamental purpose of the Bill is to replace the self-regulation of expenses, allowances and financial interests with external statutory regulation. The Bill will therefore establish the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and a separate Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations. Those provisions are in clause 1 and the schedules. Clause 6, to which I shall return, provides that the House is to continue to have a code of conduct. Clauses 7 and 8 set out provisions for investigations and enforcement, clause 9 prescribes three offences and clause 10 is intended to ensure that the system of external regulation can be operated effectively without falling foul of article 9 of the Bill of Rights on the privilege of this Parliament. I shall return to that point.
Of course, I recognise that the Clerk and distinguished right hon. and hon. Members have raised serious concerns, particularly about clauses 6 and 10, which will have an impact on the privilege of Parliament. I have already explained how I intend to approach the debates about that. I will make specific comments about those clauses later, but I wish first to make three general points to set the context.
First, this House has long acknowledged that in principle, external non-statutory regulation of aspects of the House’s business and the conduct of its Members may be insufficient, so the House of Commons Commission is established in statute. Freedom of information is a good example of what can happen. The Government’s original proposal was that Parliament should be excluded from the operation of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Parliament, and specifically the Public Administration Committee in a 1998 report, said that such an exclusion
“may well convey the wrong impression to the general public, given the purpose of this legislation…we recommend that the Government re-examine the exclusion of Parliament in the light of”
a report that had been produced by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. In the light of that pressure, which would have been impossible to resist, although I did not wish to, the Government accepted that recommendation. Famously, we are now subject to FOI legislation.
Secondly, once it is agreed that there should be independent, external regulation of our allowances and much else, certain consequences follow as night follows day. Such regulation will be in statute, and interpreting statute is a fundamental purpose of our courts. There is nothing frightening or unacceptable about what then follows, which is that courts may judicially review the way in which statutory bodies, among others, operate. They will do so against long-established principles. Contrary to popular belief, the courts are slow to substitute their substantive judgments for the judgments of the relevant authority. Instead, they are there as a check against unfair process or wanton irrationality.
Thirdly, and again contrary to myth, judicial review is in no sense a challenge to the sovereignty of Parliament. The Bill will put the regulation of allowances, financial interests and the code of conduct on a statutory footing. It will not affect the balance in our constitution between Parliament and the courts, as I shall explain in more detail later. We can expect the courts to continue to acknowledge the fundamental constitutional doctrine of the separation of powers in any proceedings that arise from the procedures in the Bill. Also, what Parliament does, Parliament can undo. That is a fundamental and very unusual feature of our system.
The right hon. Gentleman is now at least conceding that the Bill will affect parliamentary rights and privilege. Will he therefore correct, in her absence, the statement of the Leader of the House last Thursday? Referring to the Bill, she said that
“the question of parliamentary privilege is not an issue in that Bill, so that is not a question that hon. Members need to concern themselves with.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 950.]
Will he take the opportunity to correct that statement, which was clearly wrong? This is a constitutional Bill, and it is outrageous that it is being treated like an emergency Bill.
I do not accept that. The process was continuing when my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House spoke about the matter, and her comments were therefore accurate at the time and, as I shall explain, will be accurate in future. There is a separate issue about clause 10, and my view is that it must make some provision, even if not in the current wording, for adducing in court proceedings evidence that arises in the House or in parliamentary proceedings. There is nothing unusual in that—indeed, the House has accepted that for the draft bribery Bill.
Of course, I appreciate the Secretary of State’s points. Indeed, perhaps the goalposts must be moved in the case of parliamentary privilege, which is little understood outside the House. However, is it not right that the system of enforcement—even specifically for the allowances aspect, which will go to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—gives rise to the possibility of any conflict between IPSA and the Standards and Privileges Committee being judicially reviewable? That is how I read several clauses, particularly clause 8(6). The Bill also provides that IPSA can make specific recommendations to the Standards and Privileges Committee about the disciplinary powers that the latter should exercise. It would be helpful if, either now or in Committee, we could have some clarity about those important issues.
I am happy to follow up that specific point in Committee, but I say to the whole House that—yes—we need to act with great care so as not to affect parliamentary privilege unnecessarily or gratuitously. Privilege is not for the benefit of individual Members but to preserve—
The hon. and learned Gentleman says, “freedom.” It is there to protect freedom, and above all, the rights of our constituents as represented by us. I understand that. However, we must also recognise that we collectively failed properly to regulate expenses. We must put that right and do it quickly and collaboratively.
I am sorry, but I will not give way.
Putting matters right means a statute and external regulation, and the courts will be able to interpret the powers and duties of that regulating authority. I am also anxious to ensure, so far as is humanly possible, that the courts do not embroil themselves gratuitously in the affairs of the House.
I want to make some progress. Later, if there is time, I may allow hon. Members to intervene.
I have already said that clause 1 sets up the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. Schedule 1 supplements that and provides for its membership, administration and funding. It will have four members and a chair. One of the five members will have held high judicial office; one must be qualified as an auditor for the National Audit Office and one must have been—but be no longer—a Member of the Commons. Schedule 1 provides that selection will be on merit and through fair and open competition, with a process similar to that which has worked very satisfactorily to ensure that high quality people have been appointed to the Electoral Commission—that is, with a Speaker’s panel and Speaker’s committee.
Paragraph 5 of schedule 1 further enhances IPSA’s independence. It provides that members can be dismissed only in response to an address from both Houses of Parliament. We accord senior members of the judiciary the same protection. Members of IPSA will be able to serve for only five years, with a possibility of being reappointed for up to three years.
I cannot make that commitment—[Interruption.] The House knows very well the reason for that. That does not apply to other appointments, which the House has to approve, including that of the Information Commissioner and the chair of the Electoral Commission.
The provisions on the Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigations are set out in schedule 2. Schedule 2 makes provision for the appointment of the commissioner and for his or her terms, resignation or removal from office, remuneration, status and annual reporting, which is similar to the provision made for members of IPSA in schedule 1. Schedules 1 and 2 extend the Freedom of Information Act to cover IPSA and the commissioner respectively, and I have referred several times to the Speaker’s committee for the IPSA, which the Bill will establish.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman.
Clause 2 provides that IPSA is to take over responsibility for paying the salaries of Members, in accordance with the relevant resolutions of the House. It is no part of the scheme—this might be for a future amendment to the Bill—that IPSA should have a role in setting salary levels, which are currently secured by recommendations from the Senior Salaries Review Body and a resolution of this House.
Why is it appropriate to go through this great constitutional rigmarole in advance of the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee, which is bound to cover all the same ground? The Prime Minister has said, I think unwisely, that we are going to accept in full all that committee’s recommendations, which are bound to cut across some of the proposals in the Bill, which means that we will have to go through the whole thing again.
I will explain why not to the hon. Gentleman. He asked me a question and I would now like to answer it, if I may. Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee will come forward with proposals for the scheme of allowances, which will come before this House. As far as I know, all the party leaders have indicated that unless those proposals are in the realm of complete irrationality, which I do not anticipate, they will be accepted in full, and so they should be. However, that is about the content of the scheme. The Bill is about the operation of the scheme, which includes, for example, who runs the Fees Office, who adjudicates in respect of the scheme and so on. Our plan—we can go into this in more detail in Committee tomorrow and on Wednesday—is that in the early autumn Sir Christopher Kelly will make his recommendations, which will be subject to approval by this House. Those recommendations will be the platform for the scheme that the new authority will operate. With luck, they could all come into force by 1 January next year if we have the authority in place, so the two will work in parallel and then merge together.
I do not think so, and—[Interruption.] I really do not. Let me just say to the right hon. Gentleman that, as far as I am aware, just three weeks ago all the party leaders and the parties accepted the principle of the new authority. In the intervening three weeks, we have sought to go into detail in a collaborative way with the Opposition and the other parties, which have been very co-operative indeed, to ensure an agreed framework that can stand the test of time, and I think that it does. However, as I have indicated, I am happy to see whether we can improve upon it.
I was giving evidence to the Kelly committee but an hour or two ago, and I have to say that its members were very interested in the scheme and wanted to explore it in detail. They were particularly interested in the extent to which there was perhaps some confusion about the administration of the system and the regulation of it. Is there not a case, therefore, for taking a little more time, to ensure that we all get it right at the end of the day?
I was not present, but I am afraid I do not accept the burden of what my hon. Friend is saying. Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee, the Committee on Standards in Public Life, are doing an important job of work. However, that is a one-off study into the future allowances system. This new body will, once and for all, on a permanent basis, ensure that the administration and supervision of what we call the Fees Office are separated, so that never again will staff in the Fees Office feel under the kind of pressure that they evidently have done, as some of us have now discovered, to bend or manipulate the rules. That has been very unfair to them, and I pay tribute to the overwhelming majority of staff in the Fees Office who have been trying to do the best job that they could in incredibly difficult circumstances. That is quite a separate issue from the recommendations about the kind of scheme that is needed, however. For the future, we need a process that is separate from this House—and separate from the Government, I suggest—for periodically setting the scheme of arrangements for allowances as well as administering them. That is what the new authority will do.
No, I intend to make some progress first, then I will come back to this matter.
Clause 3 provides that IPSA will be responsible for drawing up and administering a new allowances scheme and that the scheme should be reviewed on a regular basis. I have already indicated that that does not in any way pre-empt the work of the Kelly committee. Clause 4 sets out the taking over of responsibility for authorising and making payments under the allowances scheme.
Clauses 5 and 6 share the title “MPs’ financial interests and code of conduct”.
No, I want to make some progress.
Clause 5 places a duty on IPSA to prepare rules relating to Members’ financial interests. How it does so is also set out in the clause. No such rules can come into force unless approved by a resolution of this House. Clause 6 goes wider than this, and says that the House is to continue to have a code of conduct incorporating the seven Nolan principles on conduct in public life, and any other matters determined by the House.
The starting point for any code of financial rules developed by IPSA will, necessarily, be the existing code of conduct of the House, which was most recently revised and published last Monday 22 June. It runs to 52 pages. As many Members may not have had reason to examine the code in detail before the expenses scandal broke, they might have assumed what was on the tin marked “Code of Conduct” was in the tin, in respect of all 52 pages. But if one examines the document, one finds that the code of conduct itself is couched in very general terms at the beginning of the document. It covers just three and a bit pages in all, of which one page is a recital of the Nolan principles. In contrast, the rules relating to the financial conduct of Members, and the guidance on those rules, run to 33 pages plus appendices, and almost all those rules and guidance concern Members’ financial interests and conduct thereto.
We have been clear that, if the new independent authority is to have teeth and achieve the public confidence so urgently needed, it must, among other things, be able to propose the rules on Members’ conduct in the areas related to its functions. That means that it will take over responsibility for the whole of the guide relating to the conduct of Members, although, as the Bill makes clear, the content of any clause 5 rules will be subject to approval by the House. Some amendments have been tabled to clause 5, and they will be discussed tomorrow, but none is in any way fatal to it, and I believe that the clause generally carries the approval of the House.
This is one of the most difficult parts of the Bill. Does the Secretary of State recognise that, if the code of conduct were to become justiciable, that would constitute a questioning of proceedings in the House? The House has already shown that it is capable of producing a code of conduct, and Members can discuss with any outside body the improvements that should be made to it. It is therefore unnecessary to include this provision in the Bill in this way.
The—[Interruption.] Hold your breath! All those involved in the cross-party talks will confirm that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House of Commons and I worked hard to achieve consensus, sometimes revisiting draft clauses in the meetings to make them more acceptable. It was a genuinely collaborative process, and I am glad that the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) acknowledges that.
The original draft of clause 4 combined the scope of the current clauses 5 and 6. That clause was regarded as too wide. So to answer the points raised, the redrafted clauses 5 and 6—which are now in the Bill—were brought forward and, though time was pressing, raised little objection in the cross-party talks. That said, I always made it clear that everyone involved in the cross-party talks was entitled to further reflection on the Bill and its contents. The result of that further reflection is that considerable concern has been expressed by the learned Clerk of the House about the possible impact of clause 6, and two distinguished senior Members, the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), have jointly tabled an amendment to delete clause 6.
I supported clause 6 because I believed—and still do—that it provides belt-and-braces reassurance to the public that we will continue to have a code of conduct covering the issues, which are not many, that are not covered by the financial rules. It is fair to say that I am more sanguine than others about the effect of clause 6 and its interpretation by the courts. My officials, on advice from first parliamentary counsel, are providing a memorandum on the matter for the benefit of the Justice Committee. That said, the Clerk is the adviser to the House on matters of privilege, and much else, not me. This is emergency legislation, on which all parties are committed in principle to a speedy passage.
Clause 6 is not essential to the Bill, so in the interests of consensus I will accept the amendment tabled by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, and I will not move clause 6 when we reach that part of the Bill. There will be some consequential amendments to clause 5 and elsewhere in the Bill—[Interruption.] Well, there are bound to be. The issue is not whether the relevant sections of the code of conduct are covered by the scheme of the Bill, but how. I hope that what I have said has the approbation of the House, in the spirit in which we have approached the Bill from the start.
I am grateful for that excellent concession. On the registration of interests, given that the Members who have the most time-consuming second jobs are Ministers, why are they exempted from the registration requirement? Will he tell the House how many hours he spent last week on his second job? [Interruption.]
I am Lord High Chancellor as well, which function I was undertaking this morning—[Interruption.]. I am answering, in detail—last Monday I had my tricorn hat on as well. It will bring tears to the eyes of Members of the House to learn that I am entitled to a whopping salary as Lord High Chancellor of Great Britain, and a whopping pension, but I have forgone both.
I am very grateful. The right hon. Gentleman’s concession, which we all accept and are delighted to hear about, illustrates as nothing else could how silly it is to legislate on constitutional matters in haste. This is a constitutional Dangerous Dogs Bill. He should take it away and take a little time, and then come back.
I know that this will be unpersuasive to the hon. Gentleman, but that is not the position of his leader, as I heard what he said on 10 June, or that of the other parties. There is a difference between legislating with some speed, which we are doing, and legislating in haste. As for the famous Dangerous Dogs Act 1991, notwithstanding the mythology about it, I note that it is still on the statute book unamended.
I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s concession. Contrary to what he suggested earlier, the question at the heart of the Bill is not the sovereignty of the House of Commons, but the exclusive cognisance of certain matters that for 300 years have been the exclusive competence of the House. The clause that really causes offence is clause 10, which the learned Clerk refers to as having a chilling effect on freedom of speech in the House. Until the right hon. Gentleman withdraws that clause, I will not be hopping around like a sand boy.
Let me make some more progress.
Clause 7 sets out the investigatory powers—[Interruption.] No, I have said that I want to make some more progress, and the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) must acknowledge that there is a great deal of interest in this debate and that others wish to speak. Clause 7, as I was saying, sets out the investigatory powers for the Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigation, while clause 8 includes a number of enforcement powers.
No, I must make some progress, and there are two days of debate in Committee.
Clause 9 creates three new criminal offences: providing information that the Member knows is false or misleading in a claim for an allowance; failing, without reasonable excuse, to comply with the rules on registration of financial interests; and breaching the rules that prohibit paid advocacy. I am happy to lay before the House a detailed chart that explains the background to these offences.
The simple fact of the matter is this. In regulating elected bodies such as local authorities, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, this House has been happy to lay down, without argument, some stringent penalties for offences of misconduct by the members of those bodies. I thus have to say that what is sauce for the goose has to be sauce for the gander—[Interruption.] The same is also true, as the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) says, in respect of declarations.
I am not giving way at the moment.
We can go into these offences in more detail on Wednesday when we debate clause 9 in Committee. I will be happy to listen to what hon. Members have to say but, in my judgment, having offences in the Bill and in the scheme is fundamental to its proper operation and, above all, fundamental to ensuring public confidence in this scheme. That is precisely what we have insisted on in respect of local authorities, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. Neither local authorities nor the Welsh Assembly and Scottish Parliament have had a scandal around their ears, to put it frankly, of the kind we have faced for our failure properly to regulate ourselves.
I do not take issue with the creation of offences per se, but does the Secretary of State accept that these offences and the processes that stem from them must be compliant with article 6 of the European convention on human rights? Having regard to the terms of the Bill before us, can the right hon. Gentleman honestly say that they are?
We can debate these clauses in more detail in Committee.
I have already said that in our judgment there is a strong requirement for these offences. The hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) is not correct in comparing the offence in clause 9(1) with the offence—fraud by false representation—in section 2 of the Fraud Act 2006. There is a further requirement in section 2, which covers dishonestly making a false representation, but there are plenty of examples in respect of other offences where exactly this wording has been used by this House for false declarations. We happen to believe that it is sensible for there to be a specific offence relating to a false declaration.
No, I am going to make some more progress. [Interruption.] I mentioned the hon. and learned Member for Harborough because he shouted from a sedentary position, and I have given way to him on a number of occasions.
Let me tell the Opposition that we are of course ready to discuss the basis for these offences. However, having said that they support the principle of having an external authority, the Opposition surely have to accept that certain consequences go with it, one of which is the need to include some criminal offences to back up the scheme that the Bill introduces.
Let me emphasise that we do support the principles of the Bill, and want to make it work. It is for precisely that reason that the creation of criminal offences, which may be an essential part of the Bill, requires special scrutiny.
I know that we shall return to the issue on Wednesday, but the Secretary of State mentioned that other bodies had been regulated. I could not agree more. One could use the phrase “the biter bit”. We have been imposing criminality on all sorts of organisations over the last 10 years—I believe that 3,000 criminal offences have been created in that time—but we have not imposed the provisions of clause 9(1) on the Scottish Parliament. We have relied on the general law. I flag that up now, because the Secretary of State may wish to return to it in greater detail.
I know—we all know—that the party leaders have agreed to this because they must satisfy headlines and the sense of public outrage outside, but we must ask whether we want to break the fundamental link with our constituents and put ourselves under the control of an external quango that will then be able to intervene.
I am only concerned about the clause referring to advocacy. I am here to advocate. Sometimes I am paid for writing a book or an article, or helped to go on a trip. I really do not want that to be taken up by every busybody and sent to a council of guardians who will tell me what I can do as a Member of Parliament, but that may be the direction in which the Bill is going.
I hope to be able to give my right hon. Friend some reassurance, but let me also say to him that, as he knows very well, the expenses scandal is not just a matter of a couple of days of headlines. It has engulfed the House and its reputation—unfairly in many respects, but because there have been some egregious abuses by a few Members and a systemic failure properly to establish a system of regulation, we face a serious problem in terms of rebuilding public confidence.
There never will be an offence of advocating a cause in the House, although there has plainly been a breach of any code, and in many respects an offence with a small “o” for centuries: that of being hired and paid to advocate a cause. However, I know from long experience of my right hon. Friend that he would never do that in any event.
No. I am going to end my speech in a moment.
Clause 10 states:
“No enactment or rule of law which prevents proceedings in Parliament being impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament is to prevent—
(a) the IPSA from carrying out any of its functions;
(b) the Commissioner from carrying out any of the Commissioner’s functions;
(c) any evidence from being admissible in proceedings against a member… for an offence under section 9.”
That directly excludes the operation of article 9 of the Bill of Rights from the functions of IPSA and the commissioner, and ensures that evidence relating to an offence under clause 9—not anything else—is admissible in court.
Our draftsmen tried to draft the clause in a narrow way. I understand and appreciate the concerns expressed by the learned Clerk, but our view, building on the recommendations of the 2003 Joint Committee on the draft Corruption Bill and further discussions that I have had on the latest Bribery Bill—which contains a similar exclusion in respect of article 9—is that such an exclusion is acceptable. However, I understand the sensitivity of the issue, and I promise that I will listen carefully to the concerns that are expressed.
I have no time.
There are Members who will try to argue—some have already done so—that we should delay and delay and delay, but I do not accept that. My view, and the view of the party leaders who speak for us as our leaders, is that such is the depth of public concern and such is the fundamental nature of the failings that we must act, and act speedily—not with haste and not without consideration, but through the kind of process in which we have engaged over the last few weeks.
We shall engage in detailed examination over the next three days. As the House will acknowledge, I have already shown considerable flexibility. The Bill will then be examined in the other place. I regard it as imperative—as I hope the whole House does—for us to have on the statute book by the end of July a workable scheme to establish an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and all that goes with it.
The past few months have been desperate ones for Parliament: the reputation of this House has taken some pretty heavy knocks and Members of all parties have been left reeling. The crisis has arisen from the fact that Parliament has stood still while the world moved on. For more than 30 years we have worked under a system of remuneration that would never have stood up to scrutiny in the commercial world, and while political cowardice at the top maintained the headline rate of pay at an artificially low level, political deceit—I think it is fair to call it that—has invented an allowance scheme that was less than acceptable, lacked any transparency and was corrosive to public trust. One of the most important political trends of the past two decades has been the movement towards greater openness, so when the facts came out, as they were bound to do, it was always going to end in tears. The truth that now must haunt us all is that when the House had the opportunity to fix the system, it signally failed to seize the moment. We must not fail this time around.
The Secretary of State implied several times that the Bill is the result of an agreement between the parties. Will my hon. Friend confirm that although there must—I hope—be agreement to reform our expenses regime fundamentally, we as a party have not agreed that these constitutional reforms should be hurried through in this way, and that the Bill in its present form is not a result of cross-party collusion?
I think that fairly summarises the position, but I also think it is fair to say that the Secretary of State for Justice and the Leader of the House have been very open throughout the consultation and discussions we have had in trying to put together a Bill that is in many respects workable—and is far more workable than the original draft we saw.
I would like to set out the context in which this Bill has emerged, and then say something about the principles that we should bear in mind as we go forward over the next couple of days. We support the principle behind the Bill of outsourcing the Fees Office, but it is not an overstatement to say that the Bill also touches on the fundamentals of our constitutional architecture. While Conservative Members appreciate that there is pressure to pass this legislation quickly, if we get it wrong it could have a devastating effect on our democratic process and our procedures, which could seriously disadvantage the interests of voters.
On that point, I hope that we will press the Government on clause 10 in particular. As a Select Committee Chairman who often has to take on quite strong and powerful outside interests in the course of my work, I regard the clause as very detrimental indeed to the Select Committee system and to the wider House of Commons.
I am certain that in Committee tomorrow and on Wednesday that clause will excite a lot of attention and some serious analysis and debate. Indeed, it is because of clauses such as clause 10—although its final form depends on what happens in Committee—that we reserve the right to return to the legislation at a later date. If there is tidying up to do, we must ensure that it happens away from the politically charged atmosphere in which the Bill is being handled today.
Since The Daily Telegraph began its series of stories, there have been a fair number of discussions in the House and decisions taken by it, and processes have been set in motion outside with the aim of rebuilding trust and ensuring that the claims that have so baffled and enraged the electorate will never arise again. The first action was taken by the Committee on Standards in Public Life and Sir Christopher Kelly, who initiated the report into our expenses and to whom we have entrusted the task of designing an alternative system. As Sir Christopher said, such an inquiry was long overdue, and we welcome the progress that he is making.
Also, in Parliament individual Members and parties have taken steps to assuage public anger by making voluntary repayments and—
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. I understand that he has given evidence to Sir Christopher Kelly. Has he had an opportunity to discuss Sir Christopher’s thoughts on the Bill with him, and has he received any indication as to whether Sir Christopher would like to wait, or, indeed, feels compromised by this Bill?
Of course, it is right that Sir Christopher should be untrammelled and that he and his committee should be able to make recommendations, which I hope we can accept in total. It is then the job of this authority, as I see it, to ensure that the Kelly system is fairly and rigorously enforced. It does not follow from that that we must have the rest of the constitutional apparatus of this Bill.
Further to the question that the hon. Gentleman was recently asked, I gave evidence today to the Kelly committee. One question that I was asked was whether I thought it prudent and wise to rush through legislation in advance of its findings. I have to be honest; I have taken the view, and still do, that it would be far better to wait for the committee’s deliberations and to have a proper draft Bill, with pre-legislative scrutiny, and to do it properly. I say that with respect—we have had a useful process, I do not deny that—but I still think that that avenue should have been preferred.
I take that as an intervention directed more towards the Secretary of State for Justice than me.
As the Leader of the House reported in her statement last week, every receipt from the past four years will also be subject to the scrutiny of Sir Thomas Legg. He will make recommendations later this year on the individual actions of Members. I think that the whole House will accept that Sir Thomas Legg is a man of total integrity and is well suited to that purpose.
Indeed; I hope that the irony was picked up. Many of the Fees Office staff have felt themselves to be on the receiving end of Members’ blame for allowances that those Members claimed. If the Bill goes through, what will happen to those staff, whose numbers have been increased recently? Will we be making them redundant or will we expect them to be taken into the new authority?
That is not determined—it will be up to the authority—but I think it inconceivable that they will all be made redundant, as their expertise and understanding of the system are essential to its working effectively. I do not think that it has been fair to criticise the Fees Office in the way that many have. It is the direction that it has been given that matters more than the conduct of any individuals themselves.
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has made that point, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would wish to do so, too. Criticism of the Fees Office staff has been totally unfair and without any justification. The notion that they encourage Members to claim more does not bear up to any reality whatsoever. At no stage, in all the years that I have been here, has the Fees Office come back to me and said, “You should be claiming more than you have.” That is a slur on the Fees Office and that should be recognised.
Let me place on record that I think that the Fees Office and many of the staff have been put under intolerable pressure over the past few weeks, both by the press attention and by the sheer burden of work that they have had to shoulder in order to prepare all the redacted receipts and so on. Instead of criticising members of the Fees Office, this House should express its gratitude to them for being hard-working servants of this House.
May I endorse what the hon. Gentleman has just said? I paid tribute to the staff of the Fees Office. May I also endorse what he said about providing reassurance to the staff of the Fees Office? In co-operation with my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and the House of Commons Commission, we are seeking to provide more formal reassurance for the overwhelming majority of staff in the Fees Office.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that comment.
The central provision in this Bill—clause 1—will create what is, in essence, the independent Fees Office that we have been discussing. Conservative Members welcome that, because we support the principle that MPs should no longer determine their own pay and allowances. The public anger to which Members have been exposed originates, in part, from taxpayers’ increasing alienation from a political system that is seen to waste money—that feeling has intensified during the recession. While many people are losing their job and seeing their income reduced, MPs are seen to be being paid in luxuries. We feel that people will never have confidence in Parliament if we continue to vote on our own remuneration.
It is true that in recent months the House has adopted a much more rigorous regime. I chair the Members Estimate Audit Committee, and it is good that significant progress has been made on creating three levels of audit and assurance and on ensuring that all the standards that we set are akin to those of any public body or the most strictly regulated plc. However, as such decisions are still viewed by the public as made by MPs for MPs, we think it better that there should be a dedicated external body to determine our pay and rations.
I should make another point in passing. The House has just elected a new Speaker. All sorts of labels were given to the contest by the press; particular mention was made of the desire to promote a Speaker who would “reform”. If this Bill goes through—let us leave aside the Speaker’s involvement in the selection process for IPSA itself—the framework of the new body would have a significant bearing on the office of Speaker and his ability to have any say in reforming this side of our parliamentary life. All the arguments about expenses would be removed from his responsibility. Likewise, there are consequential implications for certain Committees of the House, for instance in relation to the function of audit. The Bill might result in my having to relinquish the chairmanship of the Members Estimate Audit Committee and retain only the audit function for the House estimates, which deal with the parliamentary buildings and the wider estate.
Having established IPSA, the Bill, through clauses 2 to 5, would provide that body with the powers to set our allowances—with reference to the inquiry by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which I have mentioned—to administer our allowances and our salaries and to codify and maintain the Register of Members’ Interests.
Clauses 7 to 9 would create a Commissioner for Parliamentary Investigation, who would work with but separately from the authority, to look into alleged misuse of allowances or breaches of the registration of financial interests. The House will be aware that that would create duplication with the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards—currently John Lyon—so we will need to give detailed examination in Committee as to exactly how to untangle those roles.
In just these respects we would like the Bill to go further. The historic response to the continuing controversy about our remuneration has always been safety valve politics; it has always been about letting just a little more air out of the system in order to buy a little more time. However, by fending off a bad headline one day, we have not avoided 10 bad headlines the next. We have delegated both pay recommendations and a review of our pensions to the Senior Salaries Review Body, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life is investigating our expenses. Those are ultimately three elements of the same overall package, and what has been depressing about the past few months has been the lack of public debate about what impact the final package, whatever it might be after those bodies have made their separate reports, will have on the make-up and identity of Parliament. We need someone to piece together all those fragments and draw together all those different threads. Perhaps if we equip IPSA properly and make it capable of taking rigorous intellectual decisions, it might one day be the authority that succeeds in taking a comprehensive, overarching view to determine our entire pay and rations.
Perhaps we need to go a couple of steps further and talk to the people whom we represent, identify what they want us to do, and then create a structure of pay, reimbursement and pensions that reflects that. We are approaching this issue the wrong way round, and the hon. Gentleman is not going far enough.
Many hon. Members may think that the hon. Lady has got things the wrong way round. We need a body that can be independent and responsible, which detaches us from any association with determining what we are paid or rewarded. If this is the body that will do it, and it looks as though it will be, the question of who sits on it becomes critical.
The Bill establishes, in schedule 1, an appointments process that is virtually the same as that for choosing the chair of the Electoral Commission. Nobody doubts the integrity of that selection process, or the impartiality of the appointee. Commissioners will be selected by a Speaker’s Committee and their appointment will be sealed with the imprimatur and authority of the House. This is a crucial process, and it would be completely unacceptable if members of the new body were, for instance, hand-picked by the Executive. The origin of the problem that we are discussing has been the interference of the Government of the day at all stages of the determination of our pay. Any further interference from, say, the Prime Minister would serve only to compound the problems that we are today trying to address.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. Inasmuch as I have supported elements of the Bill, it is not the influence of conduct that I am discussing. The influence would be on deciding how much we are paid. In other words, this is about money, not about behaviour or the freedoms that we enjoy as independently elected Members of Parliament.
The Leader of the Opposition has agreed with the Prime Minister about the need for more accountability in British politics. How will that be achieved by removing such decisions from a body accountable to the electors—ourselves—to an unaccountable, external, unelected quango that will tell elected people what to do? Surely we should have the self-confidence to set our own pay, on recommendation from others, and then to defend it to the electors, rather than give away these powers to another body.
The shortest answer to my right hon. Friend is simply that this is the only respect in which we can be seen by the electorate as feathering our own nests and taking decisions that directly affect our own interests. I would like to think that, in all the other work that we do in this House, our intellectual energies are directed towards the betterment of the country. The system has become so discredited that we are now seen to be the people who use our constitutional power to put money in our own pockets, and that is no longer acceptable. It is the one area where it is wise to contract out our power.
The IPSA as currently constituted will deal only with allowances. The authority will effectively make its own decisions and then, according to clause 3, it
“must lay the scheme…before the House of Commons.”
It cannot then be voted down. That is included not only as a protection for the public, but for the House. If the body were to have responsibility for pay at some point in the future—and there are some good arguments for that—the same would apply.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for confirming what I said. On a small, technical point, given that only a Member of this House can lay anything before it, I am sure that he will accept an amendment that says that the Speaker, and not IPSA, will lay the matters before the House.
Given what my hon. Friend said about the need to take the issue of pay directly out of the hands of the House, would Front Benchers support an amendment that altered clause 3 to exclude pay from consideration under resolutions of the House and to place the issue at one remove by statute?
That is essentially our party’s policy. Of course, we would need to look at the exact words of any amendment to determine whether we supported it. In principle, we are today setting up the architecture that would allow what my hon. Friend suggests to happen. I think that in practice the Bill allows for subsequent amendment or revision. I think that we are all thirsting for some kind of total, comprehensive and, dare I use the word, holistic approach to all the various strands that are, at the moment, fragmented.
The men and women who become commissioners will need to be distinguished and of unimpeachable character. They will also need to be confident, so I am pleased that the Bill makes it clear that there should be someone on the board of IPSA who has had direct parliamentary experience. That is not because we wish to give ourselves an easier deal; it is to ensure that there is someone on the board who knows and understands what it is to work in this place, who can ground IPSA in the gritty reality of the House of Commons, and who will not be seduced by any of the popular myths about what an MP does or does not do. Equally, the legal complexities of establishing the body call for someone who has reached the highest plains of the legal profession. We suggest that an experienced accountant should be on the board, too.
No serving Member of the House of Commons can be a member of IPSA, but a retired Member of the Commons can be. However, a Member of the House of Lords can be a member of IPSA. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is an anomaly, given that the Justice Secretary told me earlier that he hoped that the measures would eventually apply across both Houses?
Yes, there are hereditaries. Some past heads of the Committee on Standards in Public Life have been Members of the House of Lords; I am thinking particularly of Lord Nolan and Lord Neill. If one is to seek a senior judicial figure, it may well be that the House of Lords is where they come from. Of course, there are Cross Benchers in the House of Lords, but not here, bar one or two.
I declare an interest, as my wife is involved. I had better make it clear that the three parliamentarians who are members of the Committee on Standards in Public Life are explicitly not taking part in the committee’s inquiry on pay and allowances, because they have an interest.
Indeed. They were asked to stand down from the investigation. In a way, that is against many of the principles under which Lord Nolan set up the committee in the first place. One of those principles was that, in order properly to decide anything to do with this place, knowledge of it was necessary. Sir Christopher Kelly decided that the parliamentarians should stand down from the inquiry; whether that was right or not is for others to judge.
We do not have a serious problem with the investigative functions of the new body. We have to hope that Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee comes up with sensible, simple proposals later this year that will make any new system virtually impossible to manipulate. However, the public’s view of politicians is so low at the moment that we must be prepared for what I can only imagine might be rare instances of outright fraud. In doing so, we should ensure that there is a real, and not just a cosmetic, separation of powers between the administrative and investigative competence of IPSA.
Without wishing to cast any aspersions on the staff of the Department of Resources, who do what is at present a very tough job, part of the reason for our current problems has been that the Fees Office was for a long time both the administrator and the adjudicator of allowances. This clearly can no longer continue. If we are to avoid falling foul of any further elephant traps, we will need to look carefully at what the Justice Secretary has called the “firewall” between IPSA’s administrative and regulatory functions. I am sure we will examine that in Committee. I refer Members particularly to schedule 1, part 2, paragraph 17.
These parts of the Bill are, we would argue, the least controversial, unless one is opposed to the entire principle of contracting out our pay and allowances, although at present the new body will look only at our allowances. But there are other elements of the Bill that appear to be designed purely to satisfy the prime ministerial press release. One of the reasons we find ourselves in this mess is that we have suffered from the most trivial form of gesture politics. The Government must understand that we will not resolve the problem with yet more gestures. We can get away with some bad legislation, but if we put a foot wrong in this case, we might end up not just with an expensive inconvenience, but with a constitutional nightmare that will haunt us for decades.
Although we remain cautiously relaxed about transferring powers on allowances, we are not so comfortable about the provisions in the Bill that allow IPSA to regulate the system and create new offences for false claims or failing properly to declare financial interests. That view is nothing to do with giving MPs special favours. It is about making sure that in fixing the Commons, we do not unfix the parts that are not broken. The Government must listen, and I hope they will be prepared to accept some amendments.
The House had particular concerns about clause 6, which would have created an obligation on the House to have a statutory code of conduct, or at least by statute it would have required the House to have a code of conduct, which is slightly different. That would have created all sorts of conflicts between us and the courts. We still have concerns about clause 10, which creates a formal provision to allow proceedings to be admissible in court proceedings against an MP, regardless of parliamentary privilege. We will have to examine this in depth in Committee.
What is at stake here has been expertly explained by the Clerk of the House in a powerful analysis of those aspects of the Bill that touch on questions of parliamentary privilege and our freedom as Members. That document is already public, and I know that the Clerk will be before the Justice Committee tomorrow night. He had two central concerns—first, that swathes of the Bill are or would have been justiciable and would set Parliament on a direct collision course with the courts; and secondly, that this could undermine the basic principle of free speech in the House.
The sovereign independence of Parliament from the judiciary has been one of the fundamental pillars of our constitution for centuries. As the Clerk interprets it, had the Bill gone through unamended, we would have seen an endless merry-go-round of litigation and judicial reviews. We cannot end the culture of blank cheques to MPs, only to open up a culture of blank cheques for lawyers. Members—we—are already subject to the law of the land, just like anyone else. We are also already subject to a parliamentary code of conduct, and to the judgment of the electorate.
Inasmuch as IPSA has power over our allowances, we are largely content, but inasmuch as it muddies the water and empowers the courts to intrude on our independence of action, it must be resisted. Even more dangerously, as the Clerk goes on to suggest, the casual disregard for parliamentary privilege in the Bill, particularly in clause 10, could cause permanent damage to parliamentary proceedings. As he says, it could have a
“chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Members, and of witnesses before committees, and would hamper the ability of House officials to give advice to Members”.
As has already been said, responding to me at business questions last week, the Leader of the House said:
“He will see from the face of the Bill that the question of parliamentary privilege is not an issue in that Bill, so that is not a question that hon. Members need to concern themselves with.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 950.]
It is difficult to see on what basis she made such a statement. It is in obvious contradiction to the expert advice from the Clerk. We are glad that clause 6 has been withdrawn, but we are still concerned about other aspects.
Does not the Clerk also point out that in 1999 a Joint Committee of both Houses, on which I was privileged to sit, produced a report that has been pigeon-holed ever since? Had it been followed and had we had a privileges Act, as the Committee recommended, many of the issues that have disturbed us since would not have arisen.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Our expenses regime and the Bill, together with the recent arrest of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green), make the case for a privileges Act ever more compelling. We should look at that in detail.
Picking up on the point made by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), does the shadow Leader of the House agree that that Committee made particular recommendations in relation to the provisions of article 6 and natural justice to ensure that Members had the right to fair procedure when such cases were dealt with?
I notice that my hon. Friend has not mentioned clause 5, which is of concern to a number of us. Will he share with us his view on a point made by our right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who challenged the Lord Chancellor on his unpaid post, and sought to establish from him why Ministers were excluded? After all, the Prime Minister, like us, is a right hon. Member of the House, but he also moonlights as Prime Minister, for a fairly substantial fee. Ministers do not have to go through the rigmarole of having to account for their every hour and minute spent on that outside interest, whereas those who have other outside interests that enable them to bring some serious experience to the House will be subject to that process.
My hon. Friend has made that point in the House a number of times. The loose use of the phrase “full-time MP” is increasingly vacuous. It does not mean much. The Prime Minister and other Ministers are Members of Parliament, working for their constituencies, and have very busy jobs as Ministers. Members who are paid as Chairmen of Select Committees also have that as an extra job. So the notion that we are either full-time MPs or not requires us to help inform people about how this place works. If ever there was a time when educating people and helping them understand this place were needed, now is such a time.
We will have to consider all these issues very soberly over the next few days. One issue that has been discussed and is of great importance is the question why we need to create special new offences for MPs, as in clause 9, for example, for providing “false or misleading” information when making an expense claim. As my hon. and learned Friends the Members for Harborough (Mr. Garnier) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) said earlier, and as was pointed out by a QC in the letters page of The Times last week, such behaviour is already punishable under section 15 or 15A of the Theft Act 1968—dishonestly obtaining property by deception—or perhaps under the provisions for false accounting in section 17.
There has been a perverse consequence of the Government’s attempt to define a special offence for us. I suspect that it was not the Government’s intention to limit the maximum sentence for which an MP could be imprisoned to 12 months, rather than the 10-year sentence that can await members of the public found guilty under the Theft Act, but that is how it appeared to the correspondent in The Times. Creating different rules just for Members of Parliament cannot hope to fill the public with confidence in the new system. The Government’s unworthy briefing to the press today suggests that they are more interested in propaganda than in a proper Parliament.
A Second Reading speech is to do with the principle of the Bill. The key principle at stake here is not only the external determination of our allowances, but the relationship between Parliament and the courts. As mentioned before, we had concerns about the obligation to have a statutorily enforced code of conduct; we were perturbed that the justiciability of the code would move our focus away from the legitimate concerns of our constituents towards the vexatious concerns of litigants.
These are tough times for Parliament, but they are also times in which the House needs to keep its collective head. We need a simple Bill that deals swiftly and effectively with the problem of our expenses. Let us not try to solve that problem by creating other problems, whose magnitude might dwarf even the hideous situation of the past two months.
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow the shadow Leader of the House. He reads the same newspapers as I do, and he referred to the letter in The Times last week that noted that under the Theft Act 1968 one receives a 10-year sentence, rather than the one-year term that might be set down in our Bill. The Justice Secretary has pointed out, however, that there will be a new offence and that there is a difference between “knowingly” and “dishonestly”. We lawyers understand perfectly well that there is a difference.
The shadow Leader of the House also mentioned the Bill’s principles, which I fully support and always have supported. I refer simply to something that I learned many years ago from Ernie Marples, a former Conservative Minister for Transport, who said that a time of crisis is a time of opportunity. A crisis has certainly engulfed the House in relation to the public’s perception. There is a phenomenon among the public, in that everyone seems to relate to Members’ expenses. I have an aunt in Newcastle who is 92 years old, and when her son visits her from Spain she does not ask how he is, how the children are or how the journey was; instead, she says, “I cannot get a communal garden seat, but those MPs…” And so it goes on up and down the land. We created a crisis and the Bill is dealing with it.
The shadow Leader of the House said that there was a low opinion of politicians; I have to tell him that in 1974 we were behind estate agents in such popularity stakes. We have not moved very far since then, so it is not true that Members have ever been popular in our land. However, we are certainly more unpopular now.
I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) still in his seat. He, the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie), who made an intervention, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) were all concerned about salaries and whether they were also part of the Bill. I read a number of briefing notes on the Bill, and I was under the impression that, should the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority ask the Senior Salaries Review Body for a recommendation on salaries after a review, the issue would fall within the same category as expenses and, as the Justice Secretary has said, be laid before the House without a vote. If that is to be the case, it will be the first time since 1971 that MPs’ salaries as recommended by the SSRB have been approved. The late Sir Edward Heath did so, but since 1975, when the Leader of the House was Michael Foot, no Prime Minister or Government—through the Thatcher, Major and Blair years—have ever accepted a recommendation from the SSRB. That has given us the current disequilibrium between allowances and salaries, so I hope that, in the future, salaries, like allowances, will be covered by IPSA.
My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) said in her intervention that we should listen to the public. I think that, through this Bill, the Kelly recommendations on MPs’ allowances and the four-year review of all our expenses and allowances, which will begin very soon and is being carried out by independent auditors, we are listening to the public.
I think that it was the shadow Leader of the House who had the good fortune, or the misfortune, to mention The Daily Telegraph, and I repeat what I said at the time: it is a matter of great regret that a CD-ROM was stolen from the House, that it was bought for a tremendous amount of money—possibly £250,000—and that it led to the revelations that came to the public’s attention. Voltaire once said, however, that out of some ill, some good can come, and the good that has come out of the revelations is the Kelly review, the Bill and our review of four years’ expenses and allowances. So, when people ask, “Why the rush with the Bill? Why the haste?”, I answer that the haste is to respond to the public’s opinion, which we created. We have created a terrible public opinion of this House, and the House as an institution, as well as its Members, must respond. That is what we are doing today.
Sir Christopher Kelly has been mentioned on a few occasions, and those who have given evidence include the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd), who gave evidence today, and myself. I gave evidence last week, just before the Bill’s First Reading, and I tried to explain to the committee, and I think that it understood, that IPSA is not being set up as another quango. It will separate the work of the Fees Office from Members. I repeat on the Floor of the House what I said to the committee: an incestuous relationship had developed between Members and the Fees Office.
Many people—the Justice Secretary, the shadow Leader of the House and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead—have said that the Fees Office does a sterling job. No one is criticising members of the Fees Office; we are all responsible, because, over the years, we right hon. and hon. Members have made our claims and they have responded. They tried to help us. When the difficulties arose with the media, Members said, “Well, it was agreed by the Fees Office,” and the Fees Office said, “You are hon. Members,” and the relationship became rather unstable, leading us into our current situation.
The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) referred to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and to whether the Justice Secretary had referred the Bill to the that committee’s chairman. I have to say, again, that the Bill is entirely separate from the work of the Kelly committee. We are still a sovereign Parliament for a sovereign people, and it is up to us in this House to set the framework. Within that framework, the Kelly committee can respond and give us its recommendations, but it is up to this House to approve or not to approve those resolutions. All three main party leaders have said that they will support them when the time comes. We hope and expect them to be appropriate; we expect them to be transparent and to take into account the public interest; and, therefore, we hope that we are in the process of supporting them.
The reason why I think so many of us have given evidence to the committee, notwithstanding the point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) made about his wife and two others not being able to sit on it at this time, is that we are there to educate the committee, to tell it about the feelings of the House and of Members and to explain to it the things that we think are significant to this House. It is a two-way process with the Kelly committee, and I had no difficulties with my evidence and the evidence that others in the House gave last week.
The shadow Leader of the House said that if we get the Bill wrong we can always reverse it. The Justice Secretary said that we got the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 wrong—possibly—but we have not amended it. This House is sovereign, and if the Bill is not right there will be time to change it; but we have three days for consideration, which is quite a period in which to discuss the Bill not only on Second Reading but in Committee. It is therefore up to this House, as it is doing tonight, to hold the Executive to account—it is a Government Bill—and to press, probe and see whether there is a response. Up to now, the Justice Secretary has responded. He has listened carefully to Members, and he is still listening. We are in listening mode.
This is a matter for the House of Commons. This is about how we put to the people of our country a new framework for dealing with our expenses and allowances through an alternative fees office, and to get rid of a cosy, incestuous relationship. We must be careful, however, not to show a kind of parliamentary drag—some Members still say, “We should be in charge of our salaries, expenses and allowances; we should not give them to a quango.” Those days are over, as any of us who speaks to the public will know. We have ceded our authority on such issues, and we should accept that; I hope that all in the House fully accept it.
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) referred to the Kelly committee, and I refer to it again now. The Secretary of State went through the various stages of reform that the House has seen over many years. During my years in opposition, the noble Lady Thatcher never reformed the House of Commons. She reformed many things, including the judiciary and the legal profession, but she never touched the House. Now we are reforming the House—in the interests not of MPs, but of the people of our country.
The Secretary of State is perfectly right not to extend measures to the House of Lords at this time. Many years ago, Richard Crossman wanted to reform the House of Lords. He saw the then Leader of the Opposition, Edward Heath, and made his reform dependent on reform of the Commons—but we never got reform of the Commons or the Lords. If we wait for the House of Lords to come on board, we will never get the reform here. It is important that we reform here first; the House of Lords can follow. I am sure that it would wish to, for the sake of its reputation.
I fully support the Bill. I have argued for it; I have argued for the Fees Office to be independent from Members of Parliament. I cast no aspersions over members of the Fees Office and how they work and have helped us over the years, but it is in their and our interests that the separation should take place. I echo the words of the Prime Minister himself. He said that the Bill will end the system of self-regulation and that we would have independent statutory regulation. He went on:
“That will mean the immediate creation of a new Parliamentary Standards Authority, which will have delegated power to regulate the system of allowances. No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century, whereby Members make up the rules and operate them among themselves.
The proposed new authority would take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members’ claims, oversee the new allowance system, following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, maintain the Register of Members’ Interests, and disallow claims, require repayment and apply firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity.”—[Official Report, 10 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 796.]
The Bill is a major step forward in restoring the reputation of the House and in carrying the institution forward. It is the institution that has suffered, although Members of Parliament might be severely damaged in their constituencies. I give the Bill my full support, because I want the reputation of the House to be restored.
The Secretary of State started by explaining the absence of the Leader of the House; I should explain that in the normal course of events my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) would speak for my party in this debate. However, he is elsewhere on parliamentary business, so the pleasure falls to me. I hope that Members will accept me, although as an inadequate substitute.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill, although with significant qualifications to which I shall turn in a moment. As we debate it, it is important for us to be mindful of its political and public context. As the Secretary of State and others have said, there has been a substantial effort among all the parties to move forward by broad consensus, and that has a lot to recommend it as a modus operandi. The Bill provides for the contracting out of the administrative functions of the Fees Office and the removal of ourselves from the invidious position of being judges of our own cause in respect of pay and allowances. To that extent, it is uncontroversial.
Unfortunately, however, there is a great deal more to the Bill than that, and others have already aired their concerns in that regard. I have particular concerns about the timetabling of the Bill. Towards the end of last week, we were favoured with a helpful memorandum from the Clerk of the House, who is to give evidence to the Justice Committee tomorrow. An effort is being made to enable his evidence to be available to Members the following morning. I have heard word that the Joint Committee on Human Rights may have something to say on the Bill in the next day or two. As always, its intervention would be welcome.
Given all that, why is it so urgent to force the Bill through by Wednesday? I do not say that two days are not sufficient, but why do the Committee and other stages have to take place on two consecutive days? There is no reason why we could not deal with them on Monday or other days next week.
The House rises on 22 July; if necessary—I hope that my wife does not read this—we could stay here until 23 or 24 July, or later. Substantial issues of great constitutional importance are at stake; to say that the stages have to take place in this way for the convenience of timetabling is, I fear, somewhat inadequate.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, does he not think it would be even better if there were a draft Bill and proper pre-legislative scrutiny, with the calling of witnesses such as experts in administrative and constitutional law, the Clerk of the House and others? In that way, we could make absolutely sure that we did not make a monumental foul-up of the whole thing.
From one point of view, that would be an eminently sensible procedure to follow. However, I have to say that my experience of pre-legislative scrutiny is that even when we have it, the Government have a propensity to disregard the whole lot and bring forward a Bill that deals with the press release of the day rather than with the substantial body of work that has already been done. The Leader of the House is particularly culpable in that respect.
I shall now gladden the heart of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). In the short time that I had to acquaint myself with the issues, I looked at the report published in 1999 by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, on which he sat. It is a formidable piece of work and its conclusions are exceptionally well argued. However, the report has sat here since 1999 and now, in three days, we have to pass a Bill that deals with substantive issues of privilege. The issues should have been dealt with years ago, as part of a much more measured process.
I am exceptionally grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for what he said about the Committee’s report. This is not emergency legislation such as that relating to terrorism. Without necessarily going down the route of pre-legislative scrutiny, we could quite easily complete the stages of the Bill in October when we come back. Then every Member would have the chance to read the report.
I cannot fault my right hon. Friend’s reasoning in that regard.
The concession that the Secretary of State has made on clause 6 is eminently sensible and welcome, and he is to be commended for having done so, but it highlights the danger in proceeding as we do.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to ask for more time to go through the provisions in greater detail, but is that not rather at odds with his own party leader, who has been saying that we should accept the recommendations of the Kelly report without even knowing what is in it?
That is an entirely different point; the hon. Gentleman seeks to conflate two separate issues. I remind him that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) is on record as saying—he was not greatly supported in many parts of the Chamber—that the House should sit until all the necessary work had been done. This is a prime example of something that, if necessary, we could have sat through until we got it right.
In my intervention on the Secretary of State, I asked him whether he was satisfied that the provisions of the Bill would comply with article 6 of the European convention on human rights, and he replied by reference to the declaration in the Bill concerning compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998. I have no doubt that that was not a difficult declaration for him to make, because of course the Human Rights Act does not apply to Parliament. The fact remains, however, that offences under the Bill and any processes that flow from them would have to comply with article 6 of the convention. That point was dealt with in the report by the Joint Committee in 1999. Paragraph 283, on page 75, refers to the case of Demicola v. Malta, in which the editors of a satirical magazine had been found guilty of contempt of Parliament. It was held by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that they had not been given a fair process. The Court observed that
“the person charged with contempt was a non-member”
“but it would be unwise to assume that the requirements of fairness would be significantly less for members.”
Although section 6 of the Human Rights Act excludes its operation as regards Parliament, we cannot exclude Strasbourg jurisdiction under article 6 of the convention. It is therefore inevitable that, sooner or later, a Member who is not treated fairly will take their case to Strasbourg. In this respect, we have not brought human rights home for Members of Parliament, although we may have done for the general public.
The Committee goes on to make that point at some length in paragraph 284. I would say to the hon. Gentleman and to the Secretary of State that if there is one thing that is more dangerous than this House not acting, it is this House acting in a way that is seen to be deficient and is subsequently open to challenge.
The interface that we reach between judicial and parliamentary proceedings is absolutely fascinating, and the Clerk of the House deals with it in his memorandum to Members. Let me draw the House’s attention to his observations on clause 10:
“Clause 10(c) allows any evidence of proceedings in Parliament to be admissible in proceedings for an offence under clause 9. This is a very wide qualification of the principle under Article IX of the Bill of Rights that such evidence is not admitted. It would mean that the words of Members generally, the evidence given by witnesses (including non-Members) before committees and advice given by House officials on questions, amendments and other House business could be admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings. This could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Members and of witnesses before committees and would hamper the ability of House officials to give advice to Members.”
One must therefore imagine that if the procedures that flow from the implementation of offences under clause 9 are to be in accordance with the normal principles of fairness in relation to admissibility of evidence, it will not be the case, for example, that somebody who is being investigated by the parliamentary authorities will be given a caution. Will they be told that they are not required to say anything before they answer questions from the parliamentary authorities?
I think it would be helpful to get some clarification from the Liberal Democrats on the issue of offences. This House, with the support of the Liberal Democrats, supported the Scotland Act 1998, from which several of the offences that are now part of the Bill were lifted. Is the hon. Gentleman concerned about their inclusion in relation to the House of Commons, and not the Scottish Parliament, or does he think that they operate in completely different ways?
The hon. Gentleman allows me an opportunity to explain. I am not arguing against the offences per se—offences of this sort may be very necessary—but their creation has a particular implication for the operation of parliamentary privilege. That comes back to another point made by the Clerk in his memorandum: the 1999 report gave us an opportunity to take a holistic approach to dealing with questions of privilege. The draft Bribery Bill is before the House—I sit on the Joint Committee that is scrutinising it—and now we have this Bill. We are taking what the Clerk terms a “piecemeal” approach to privilege, and that is where the danger lies.
The hon. Gentleman may agree with me about two things. First, the offence under clause 9(1), which is the general offence of providing information to make a claim that is known to be misleading in a material respect, does not, as far as I am aware—he may be able to confirm this—apply in Scotland, where people are subject to the general law, whereas the Bill applies a particular law to this House. Secondly, as regards the prohibition on paid advocacy being turned into an offence, it is a little strange that this is happening just as the Bribery Bill is going through the House, whereby a great deal of attention is being paid to parliamentary privilege and it seems that paid advocacy and bribery are almost synonymous. In those circumstances, why should this particular offence be required without the safeguards that are being debated in respect of the other Bill?
With regard to the latter point, yes, what the hon. and learned Gentleman says has an undeniable logic that reinforces the argument about the piecemeal approach to reforming the law of privilege. With regard to his first point, as he says, clause 9(1) does not apply in Scotland. Neither does the Theft Act 1968—or the Fraud Act 2006; I cannot remember which. In any event, we have a very different body of law. Scots law is a quasi-Roman principle-based system, and we do not concern ourselves with the need for things like theft Acts and fraud Acts. I declare a fascination with that principle, and I commend it to other parts of the United Kingdom.
I have one final concern that I wish to bring to the House’s attention, which again relates to the rather piecemeal approach that is being taken. Yet another body is being created that will concern itself with one small area of parliamentary activity. We already have the Standards and Privileges Committee, the House of Commons Commission, the Members Estimate Committee, the Members’ Allowances Committee, of which I am a member, the Administration Committee and the Public Administration Committee.
As a member of the Members’ Allowances Committee, it was apparent to me in the days following the early disclosures of our expenses by The Daily Telegraph that there were already a large number of fishers in a rather small pond. I fear that the creation of IPSA will mean another body fishing in that pond. Perhaps the Secretary of State and the Leader of the House should have considered the existence of all those different bodies, which overlap slightly although they have different jurisdictions, to see whether the time had come to rationalise them and make them more logical and coherent.
Today’s debate is just the start of our proceedings, and we will have opportunities to speak about some matters in greater depth in the course of the next 48 hours. As far as Second Reading is concerned, should there be a Division my party will do nothing to impede the Bill’s further progress.
I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), because if an opportunity arises, I will vote against the measure, and I wish to use this short contribution to explain why.
The Bill fundamentally changes what we mean by representation, and we should move carefully before we change what has been built up over a long period and what the British people generally trust. Of course, there is the question of expenses. There is another side of that tale to be told, but perhaps this is not the place for that. There may be huge demand outside the House for us to deal with that issue as quickly as possible, but despite the hundreds of e-mails and letters that I have had from around the country, nobody has said that we should rush into legislating on it, let alone change our constitution in the fundamental way that I believe the Bill will.
The words of the Justice Secretary that the Government were open and listening would have had more effect in the House if we were not whipped on the Bill. We have to decide on it in a couple of days, and the Government will whip us through the Lobby if they can, to get the desired effect.
The Bill will make a fundamental change to representation as the British public have seen it in the past. I refer specifically to clause 5(8). I will not be much affected by it, which may make it easier for me to speak about it than it will be for other Members. Twin principles govern our understanding of democracy and freedom in this country: representative government and responsible government. We have a crisis in both parts of that understanding of our constitution, because to gain responsible government we need a party system so that a group of people can be held accountable for the programme that they believe the electorate have given them a mandate to carry through. Yet we live in an age when political parties are dying, and we have not yet come to terms with that when considering what responsible government means.
The concept of representative government means various things, but partly that in some genuine way this House should represent the people whom we are elected to serve, in the sense that we should somehow mirror them. In my 30 years in the House of Commons, the pool from which MPs are drawn has become narrower and narrower. Unlike 50 years ago, we now have no senior trade union figure in the House. We have no senior business figure, no outstanding entrepreneur and no great musician. No one who has played a part in the IT revolution that has shaped our world is represented in the House and part of our affairs. Clause 5(8) will make it even more unlikely that such people will ever seriously consider coming into the House of Commons.
The subsection is not only about listing our outside interests, it is about listing how much time we spend on them. In a moment I shall explain how impossible it will be to enforce that, other than by encouraging Members to be untruthful in the returns that they provide. I shall give a number of examples of the problem. The provision suggests, although of course this is not stated, that all our time is somehow purchased by our being Members of Parliament. It suggests that there is something wrong and unclean about our having outside interests for which we are paid, and that we need to justify that.
What sort of world are we creating if it is not thought unnatural for me to go to sleep, play golf or watch a football match—I do not have to make an entry about that, as it is considered totally proper for a Member to have a rounded view—but if I earn any money outside the House, not only do I have to declare it, which is quite proper, but I should somehow have an egg timer and calculate how long I spend on each activity?
Would the right hon. Gentleman concede that a lot of us spend an enormous amount of time on appointments and engagements with outside charities, for which we are not remunerated? Perhaps we should declare the amount of time that we spend doing that as well.
Of course we could put all that into the requirement.
Clause 5(8) is unfair and unworkable; moreover, it will begin to change the nature of the House of Commons. It comes from the Nolan report, which I know everybody is supposed to bow down to and worship, but I thought it was an appalling report. It misinterpreted what this House is about. It is not about the 19th-century view that we represent purely ourselves. Over the centuries, it has been about representing interests. In one fell swoop, Nolan said that that was wrong, and that somehow the great interests in this country should not be represented here, and that if we started to represent them, we might find ourselves expelled or imprisoned.
My first concern about the clause is therefore that it will change the nature of the House. My second is that it is unworkable. I shall give an example from this morning. A merchant banker, a good guy who has not been disgraced and whose bank has not caused any of the problems that we are in, came in to talk to me about some ideas that he has had. One of his ideas was local communities buying, in a mutual way, their services from public utilities. I immediately realised that that would be relevant to a body on which I sit—a mutual based in Liverpool, about which I declare an interest and from which I gain remuneration as a non-executive director. I realised that offering such services to our members might infuse new life into the mutuals. We could not only cover health products, but ask whether members wanted to buy gas, water, electricity and other fuel, telephone services and so on through that mutual arrangement.
How do I declare what happened this morning? I thought that I, as a Member of Parliament, was meeting somebody who wanted to develop ideas, but, during the conversation, those ideas became relevant to an outside interest for which I am paid. How do I sub-portion the time between listening to that banker and answering his questions, and then seeing the relevance of his points to the mutual associations in this country and my particular interest in that?
The Bill is even worse than the right hon. Gentleman suggests. Under the measure, the conversation that he outlined could be used as evidence against him in a court, which could be the result of a litigant—a private individual from outside the House—who does not like him perceiving an opportunity to pick on him. That is invidious and restricts freedom of speech in the House.
That is why I am confessing my bad behaviour to the House. Before reading the Bill, I thought that what I was doing was a noble activity; I believed that one of the reasons for which I was sent here was to think laterally and gain cross-fertilisation of ideas, which would make my role more effective.
The third reason for my opposition to the Bill is that those who we know have outside interests, who represent the Executive and who are paid handsomely for it, do not have to declare their time. I appreciate that extending patronage has been taken to the absurd conclusion whereby one can be an unpaid Minister, but one also, presumably, spends a great deal of time fulfilling functions. That group, which has helped strangle the House of Commons so that it cannot carry out its historic functions, goes scot-free. They do not have to declare anything about the time that they spend on sometimes making it difficult for us to carry out our functions as representatives.
There is another reason for opposing clause 5(8), which I believe will distort this place. We had to vote for a collection of ideas—we could not simply vote on whether to declare our interests, part-time earnings and time. We had to vote for four issues at once. The major one was clearing up abuses, for which one wanted to vote. Many Labour Members wanted to vote for the measure because they deeply resent the large sums of money that some Members may earn from outside interests. The rewards system in our society is deeply offensive to my constituents who work jolly hard, get £11,000 a year, are messed about by tax credits, are brilliantly raising two or three children on that sum and then see the sums that Members, let alone bankers, earn. There was a feeling that we could, to some extent, abate the gross inequalities in the rewards systems by passing the measure. I believe that we should tackle those inequalities through taxation and other methods, not by trying to distort the functions of the House of Commons.
There is one last reason for my opposition to clause 5 as it stands. I will not support it in the Lobby; I hope that I shall have a chance to vote against it. It makes a mockery of what I thought public service was about, and what I have tried to fulfil in my 30 years as a Member of Parliament. Of course, not every minute of my waking day is spent thinking about how I can be effective—and dare I say more effective?—in that role, but it is the driving force in my existence. I am now confronted with this wretched little Bill, which provides for my setting egg timers every time I might undertake an activity that is not of primary concern to my essence as a human being. The Bill asks me to spit on a record that I have tried to build over 30 years. It is a disgraceful little measure. While making a mockery of what we believed to be public service, it will—much more damagingly—affect the nature of representation in the House. For that reason alone, it should be rejected.
The guts of the measure could deal with the expenses abuse. If that was the Government’s main intention, we could have got agreement and passed it today. However, there are other elements in the Bill, which have profound constitutional implications. I do not believe that we should have a set timetable to consider them or that we should be whipped through the Lobby to support the Bill.
The right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) made a powerful speech that commanded respect from hon. Members of all parties. He focused specifically on clause 5(8). In one respect, it is innocuous, in that it simply provides that one has to declare a financial interest if one makes a speech—that has always been the case. However, it is worrying because, in April, the House changed the rules. The problem is not so much the content of the Bill as what we did in April, when we resolved to demand of Members that they register how much time they spend on outside interests.
At the same time, the Government put a complexion on outside interests, which I regret—I do not think that it existed previously. They suggested that we should not have outside interests. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s comments that outside interests can enrich the House and inform debates, and that it is sad that we have begun to follow a path that discourages them. I was heartened by his remarks and I shall join him in the Lobby on the timetabling aspects of the Bill if there is a Division.
I hope that I am not pre-empting my right hon. Friend, but does not another aspect of the Bill dovetail with the regulations? The new regulations, which we introduced in April, have blurred the distinction between a gift and a payment in kind. Consequently, the draconian sanctions, which the Bill imposes, that apply to paid advocacy make unclear the point at which an hon. Member should consider that a gift prohibits advocacy thereafter.
I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend. My hon. Friend the Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) made a similar point in an intervention. My Committee is worried about the matter and I wrote to the Leader of the House at the beginning of the month, asking if she would revisit the new rules on earnings precisely because of that problem. I await a reply. In my view, the new rules are almost unworkable.
The Bill is being rushed through. The cross-party consultations were welcome, and it was a courtesy of the Justice Secretary’s to include me in them as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. However, four meetings on Chatham House rules on a fast-moving text is no way to legislate for important changes, some of which go to the heart of how we are governed.
We are told that the Bill responds to public concerns, but there has been minimum public consultation on it. In his statement to the House on 19 May, the then Speaker said:
“The meeting also received a paper from the Prime Minister, which was endorsed by the other party leaders, calling for a fundamental reform of allowances—moving from self-regulation to regulation by an independent body. The Government will consult widely on this proposal.”—[Official Report, 19 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 1422.]
They have not. In her statement the following day, the Leader of the House spoke of
“The proposal on which we seek to consult”—[Official Report, 20 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 1506.]
Following which there have been minimal consultations.
At the end, she said:
“We must now seize the opportunity to promote a debate that will see proposals to change and strengthen our democracy”.—[Official Report, 20 May 2009; Vol. 492, c. 1506.]
Quite frankly, there has been no such debate, and the Bill was published but a few days ago. I looked at the Ministry of Justice website, which said:
“The paper that was tabled at the meeting the Speaker held of all party leaders and subsequently debated by Harriet Harman in the House the next day is now available on the Ministry of Justice website. Members of the public are now invited to comment”.
I wonder whether the Minister who will wind up this debate can tell us what members of the public have said about the process.
As others have asked, do we know what the views of the Committee on Standards in Public Life are on what is proposed? Presumably not, because it is in the middle of an inquiry into that very subject. The Justice Secretary’s rather narrow interpretation of its terms of reference is misguided. Like other hon. Members, I have given evidence to that committee, whose members are interested in much broader issues than the simple mechanics of allowances. They are interested in the whole architecture and in the philosophy and ethics behind the allowances. He was wrong to rule out their commenting on some of the broader issues. It is not inconceivable that the committee could come up with a different solution from the one in the Bill. As the Government have already indicated that they are minded to accept Kelly, we could find ourselves repealing or amending the Bill in the autumn. That seems to be bad government.
All stages in three days is too fast. The view of the Standards and Privileges Committee was that we should have had a draft Bill that went through due process, in order to get it right. Rushing the Bill through this House is an open invitation to the other place to look at it more carefully. I commend to the House the wise words of Peter Riddell in The Times today:
“But, not for the first time, speed is the enemy of adequate scrutiny, risking the type of consequences raised by Mr Jack”,
the Clerk of the House. He continues:
“Gordon Brown is determined that this Bill to ‘clean up politics root and branch’ should become law before Parliament starts its long summer recess in three weeks. It would be far better for Parliament to return for a couple of weeks in September to allow time for proper debate.”
On that theme, I invite the House to contrast the care with which we assembled part of our regulatory structure with the haste with which it is being dismantled. The appointment of the first Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards followed inquiries by the Nolan committee—the Committee on Standards in Public Life—and our Select Committee. We came to a considered view after a rational debate and put in place an investigatory system in 1995 that has been modified from time to time since and has worked quite well. In giving evidence to the Kelly committee earlier this month, Anthony King said as much, pointing out that that part of the system had worked well. The independent investigatory system is not part of the current problem. However, the rush to abolish it and replace it with a new system risks creating new problems.
The Bill dismembers the existing complaints machinery, transferring its functions relating to allowances and registration to IPSA and the investigator. However, the Bill leaves the rest of the system in a heap here in the House, with no plans for putting it together again. Will the House retain the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate complaints that do not relate to allowances and registration, of which there are some? If not, who will do the work of investigating those complaints and reporting to the Standards and Privileges Committee? Which independent person will keep our code of conduct under review and make recommendations to the House? Or will we keep our Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate complaints that do not relate to finances, but have a new investigator-commissioner to deal with those that do? What do we do about complaints that are a bit of one and a bit of the other? The proposal has not been thought through and has the potential to create an unholy mess.
The Bill has some good points. Giving the Fees Office function to an outside body is welcome. The retention by the House of its powers to apply sanctions against errant Members is important. We could not have a quango suspending or expelling Members who had not committed a criminal offence. However, there are genuine concerns about aspects of the Bill relating to parliamentary privilege. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), I do not know how on earth the Leader of the House could assert at business questions last week that
“the question of parliamentary privilege is not an issue in that Bill, so that is not a question that hon. Members need to concern themselves with.”—[Official Report, 25 June 2009; Vol. 494, c. 950.]
No sooner had she said that than up popped in my inbox five pages of a paper from the Clerk of the House entitled “Privilege Aspects of the Parliamentary Standards Bill”. The title of that paper sat uneasily with the assertion made by the Leader of the House. The Clerk of the House very tactfully says at the beginning:
“I should stress that I make no comment whatever on the merits of the Bill’s policy proposals”.
However, page three says:
“This could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Members and of witnesses before committees and would hamper the ability of House officials to give advice to Members.”
That sounds to me dangerously like a comment on the merits of the Bill’s policy proposals, but of course the Clerk would make no such comment.
I welcome what was said about clause 6. I am glad that it is not being pursued, although there are some other aspects of the Bill, particularly in clause 10, where there are still some residual issues. If the Justice Secretary was minded to accept the Clerk of the House’s views on clause 6, that prompts the question why he chose to reject them on clause 10.
The Standards and Privileges Committee has been described as a “gentlemen’s club”, which is an inaccurate and unfair characterisation. It is indeed a Committee composed entirely of parliamentarians who, at the moment, all happen to be male. However, as I told the Committee on Standards in Public Life in giving evidence this morning, the Committee would welcome the appointment to it of some lay members to correct any misperception that it is a club and to introduce an element of external involvement in its work on standards. I look forward to seeing what the Committee on Standards in Public Life says about that.
However, there is something close to a gentlemen’s club, and its members are Ministers of the Crown. There is no proposal in the Bill from the Government to place the ministerial code of conduct and the investigatory apparatus that goes with it on a statutory footing, unlike what we are doing as far as Members of Parliament are concerned. The Bill therefore creates a new disparity between the status of the two codes. Perhaps the reason is that the combined owner, doorkeeper and bouncer of the ministerial club is the Prime Minister. Anyone can complain to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards about any one of us. If he investigates and there is substance to the complaint, his report will be published. Let us contrast that treatment with the ministerial code. Complaints are pursued only if the Prime Minister so decides, and there is no guarantee that any report will be published.
There are a number of questions that the Bill does not answer or that it does not wholly answer. For example, when do the Government intend to commence the main provisions of the Bill? Will we have an opportunity to debate the relevant commencement orders? Do the Government mean to extend the role of the new commissioner to include investigating complaints that relate to matters other than financial matters, which I have mentioned, and if so, when? Do the Government intend to transfer the other registers to IPSA, and if so, when?
Do the Government intend to transfer investigations by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards that are already under way to the new commissioner? If so, when will that happen? Will the new commissioner be able to use the work already carried out by the present commissioner or will he have to start investigating those complaints afresh? Finally, what are we going to do with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, who was appointed for a fixed term only last year? Normally, questions of this kind could be raised in Committee, reflected on and pursued on Report. However, there is no opportunity to do that with this Bill. I therefore hope that the Government can provide some answers up front today.
I do not like this Bill. I do not like the haste with which it is being pursued. I hope that the other place will subject it to proper scrutiny. I am minded not to vote against the Bill on Second Reading, but to vote against it on Third Reading if the objectionable bits are still there, although I am also attracted by the idea of voting against the timetable motion.
It is an honour to follow the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. I have served on the Committee for eight years, and I am by a long way the longest-serving member on the Government side of the House. I much endorse what he said about the Bill and the questions that he raised. Also, the intervention by the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin) on my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) about his self-incriminatory statement to the House, which currently enjoys privilege, but would not do so if the Bill went through, was very telling.
I want to raise issues relating to my role as the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, particularly those matters relating to due process. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire and others have said, the legislative timetable for the Bill is highly problematic because it makes it virtually impossible for Committees such as the Joint Committee on Human Rights to perform our important role of subjecting Government Bills to careful scrutiny and reporting to Parliament in time to inform the debate. While I understand the political imperative to act swiftly in response to widespread and acute public concern about the present system of allowances and the regulation of standards, public confidence in the institution of Parliament is the lifeblood of our democracy. There is therefore a certain irony that a measure designed to restore public confidence in Parliament is being rushed on to the statute book in a way that makes it impossible for it to receive the proper scrutiny and deliberation that such an important measure deserves by the very institution in which we wish to restore public confidence.
I shall turn to the issue of due process. A significant human rights question raised by the Bill is whether it provides sufficient safeguards to enable it to be compatible with the right of Members to a fair hearing under long-standing common law principles of natural justice that are now also incorporated and developed in article 6 of the European convention on human rights and in our own law, through the Human Rights Act 1998. It is often erroneously observed that human rights are only about unpopular causes. At present, there is probably no more unpopular a cause than ourselves in this context. Nevertheless, when subject to disciplinary proceedings, hon. Members are entitled to the same protection of due process as anyone else in the outside world.
The explanatory notes to the Bill acknowledge that the provisions might engage the right to a fair hearing under article 6. However, the Government argue that there is no incompatibility with article 6, for two reasons. First, the explanatory notes state that
“there are arguments that the direction or recommendation functions of the IPSA do not involve the determination of civil rights or obligations.”
Secondly, the notes state that, even if IPSA’s functions of giving directions or making recommendations determined a Member’s civil rights, so that article 6 applied, there is no incompatibility with the article because there is
“a range of safeguards in place to ensure the fairness of the procedures of the IPSA.”
I have carefully considered the Government’s analysis of the Bill’s compatibility with the right to a fair hearing under article 6, and I have to say that I do not agree with their analysis. However, because of the timetable, I have not had a chance to engage in correspondence with the Government, as I would normally do as Chair of the Joint Select Committee on behalf of my Committee, to discuss the issues and thrash out the arguments in detail. The Government’s view that article 6(1) of the convention does not apply to the disciplining of Members is untenable in the light of the very serious consequences that might result for the individual concerned. The available sanctions include expulsion from the House, suspension, the withholding of salary and the ordering of the repayment of money. Any of those sanctions could also have a serious impact on the Member’s reputation. That was expressly recognised by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in 1999, when it stated that
“in a particularly serious case a member faces the prospect of suspension and significant financial loss and, which may be more worrying for him, the destruction of his political career.”
Indeed, we have seen that happen in recent cases before the Standards and Privileges Committee. The Joint Committee went on:
“Even when a member is not suspended, the electorate may react adversely to his conduct as revealed during investigation of the complaint made against him.”
The Committee on Standards in Public Life, in its eighth report in 2002, also recognised the serious consequences for an accused Member.
As Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, it is my view that article 6(1) of the convention applies to the disciplining of Members by the House of Commons. Sometimes the nature of the allegation will be such that its determination amounts to the determination of a criminal charge—for example, when the complaint is that the Member has acted fraudulently. In such cases, the criminal limb of article 6 will apply, complete with its higher procedural protections.
In other cases in which the allegations are less serious, a Member’s civil rights will be determined by the proceedings, particularly in view of the seriousness of the consequences for the Member concerned. Not only will this often have financial consequences for the Member, which in today’s Strasbourg case law is often seen as sufficient to qualify as a civil right, but it will always have serious consequences for the Member’s reputation and might affect their ability to pursue their livelihood. The Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege pointed out in its reports that several witnesses had drawn its attention to the application of article 6, including Lord Bingham, the then recently retired senior Law Lord who was then Lord Chief Justice.
The Government argue that, even if the right to a fair hearing as stipulated in article 6 applies—as I say, it does—the procedural safeguards in the Bill are sufficient. However, the only procedural safeguard in the Bill is the right of a Member who is the subject of an investigation or complaint to make representations to the commissioner and to IPSA about that investigation or complaint. That falls well short of the set of safeguards that the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege described as the “minimum requirements of fairness”. It also falls well short of what is required by article 6, and of the common law principles of natural justice set out in case law going back over decades.
The Joint Committee concluded, in the light of the seriousness of the consequences for a Member, that it is important that the procedures followed in the investigation and adjudication of complaints should match contemporary standards of fairness. The Committee stated:
“While fairness is fundamental to any disciplinary procedure, the more serious the consequences, the more extensive must be the safeguards…In dealing with specially serious cases, we consider it is essential that committees of both Houses should follow procedures providing safeguards at least as rigorous as those applied in the courts and professional disciplinary bodies.”
The Committee is trying to create a system that somehow mirrors the way in which outside professional bodies are regulated. We should have the same safeguards and procedures as those that are expected for outside bodies such as the British Medical Association, the Law Society or the Bar Council.
Those principles are set out in common law, in article 6 and in the Joint Committee’s report, which includes reference to a
“prompt and clear statement of the precise allegations against the Member…adequate opportunity to take legal advice and have legal assistance throughout…the opportunity to be heard in person…the opportunity to call relevant witnesses at the relevant time…the opportunity to examine other witnesses…the opportunity to attend meetings at which evidence is given, and to receive transcripts of evidence.”
None of that is in the Bill as it stands, but it is all required under long-standing principles of our law, as laid down by the courts and, more recently, by article 6. It is required by public bodies generally.
I am following carefully the hon. Gentleman’s arguments, which seem to be well founded. Does he also agree that another oddity of the enforcement provisions is that there will be a requirement on IPSA to prepare a protocol on how it operates with a number of other bodies, including law enforcement bodies such as the Director of Public Prosecutions? In the absence of that protocol being available for consideration by the House as we are debating this legislation, how can we determine whether it would be compatible with the provisions of article 6? The sanctions could come not only from IPSA but from other bodies as a result of IPSA’s inquiry.
The hon. and learned Gentleman makes an important point, with which I agree. A subordinate point relates to double jeopardy, which is dealt with under the present arrangements by the commissioner suspending his inquiry pending the outcome of police investigations. Indeed, that has happened in relation to the recent allegations. However, there does not appear to be any provision for such suspension in the new system. Without proper scrutiny of the protocol to ensure that investigations would be suspended pending the termination of criminal proceedings, there would be a risk of double jeopardy.
The Joint Committee’s report went on to say:
“In determining a member’s guilt or innocence, the criterion applied at all stages should be at least that the allegation is proved on the balance of probabilities. In the case of more serious charges, a higher standard of proof may be appropriate.”
The standard of proof is not mentioned in the Bill either. That could be contrasted with what happens now in inquiries by the commissioner and by the Standards and Privileges Committee, in which a higher standard of proof is applied as the allegation becomes more serious. That is entirely appropriate. Indeed, the Committee on Standards in Public Life subsequently endorsed the view of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege on that issue.
The procedural safeguards in the Bill therefore fall well short of the minimum requirements for fairness identified by the Joint Committee, by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, by article 6 and by the principles of natural justice. They are insufficient to prevent breaches of the right to a fair hearing from occurring in practice. The Government argue that the Bill is compatible with the right to a fair hearing because IPSA is independent. I assume that they are arguing that IPSA itself satisfies the right in article 6(1) of access to an “independent and impartial tribunal” in the determination of civil rights and obligations.
However, IPSA is not capable of constituting the sort of “independent and impartial tribunal” to which an individual Member is entitled under article 6(1). Its functions include devising the rules, designing the procedural safeguards—which are now at large—referring for investigation, and various enforcement powers. Such a body is not capable of providing the “independent and impartial tribunal” required by article 6. In his evidence to the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, Lord Bingham, that great jurist, expressed unease about the lack of access to any independent body—some right of appeal—regarding disciplinary decisions of the House. He said:
“I have an inherent unease at a situation in which anyone can be held to have committed what I think you might call a quasi-criminal offence and perhaps subjected to some penalty where there is no means of challenge at all…in the courts.”
He went on:
“I am always rather uneasy if any decision by anybody, however wise and authoritative, is final and immune from any challenge…it would be desirable to have a route of challenge available…I would not expect the right to be exercised at all often”.
In his written evidence to the Committee, he said:
“But I can…see force in the argument that the Houses should not be the sole and final arbiter in such matters. There would be scope for undesirable conflict if those aggrieved could resort to the ordinary courts.”
He then goes on to make an important recommendation:
“But if an issue arose…the Judicial Committee—
of the Privy Council—
“would be a very suitable body to rule. Article 6 of the European Convention might have some bearing here.”
Without getting too bogged down in the issue of privilege, a decision of the Standards and Privileges Committee could be subject to appeal to the Privy Council, with the House taking the decision in the last eventuality, as is the case now with recommendations from the Standards and Privileges Committee. An appeal level could be added to the process without compromising privilege too much.
I therefore agree with Lord Bingham’s analysis that both the minimum requirements of procedural fairness and article 6 require access to a truly independent and impartial tribunal, with a limited degree of judicial supervision. Lord Bingham suggested that either House would make its own decision in the first instance, and that any party who did not accept that decision would have a right to petition the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council by way of challenge. The right of appeal would be similar to that which already exists against disciplinary decisions of professional bodies such as the General Medical Council, where the right of appeal is to the Privy Council. Why should we be any worse off than a doctor who faces severe disciplinary consequences that could jeopardise his professional future? The Privy Council is expert at ensuring that that right of appeal is only used sparingly, and that is the way forward.
Under the law, UK courts have no jurisdiction to entertain complaints of breaches of convention rights by either House or a person exercising functions in connection with proceedings in Parliament. As I said in an intervention, the effect of section 6(3) of the Human Rights Act 1998 is that Parliament is not a public authority for the purposes of domestic claims under that Act. Although proceedings for breach of article 6 are excluded by the Human Rights Act from the jurisdiction of the UK courts, in so far as they relate to Parliament, they remain within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. If the Bill is enacted in its present form, it is only a matter of time before Strasbourg makes a finding of a violation of a Member’s right to a fair hearing under article 6(1).
I welcome the move from the old system of self-regulation to independent statutory regulation as one that, in principle, is not only likely to enhance public confidence in Parliament, but has the potential to improve the fairness of the treatment of individual Members. However, the Bill as currently drafted is incompatible with the right to a fair hearing under article 6 and at common law as far as the principles of natural justice are concerned.
To render the Bill compatible, it needs to be amended in at least two ways. First, it should at least have inserted into it the minimum requirements of fairness identified by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its 1999 report and endorsed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2002. Secondly, the Bill’s acceptance of independent regulation should be extended by providing a right of appeal to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council against decisions of both IPSA and the House—in my view, the Committee on Standards and Privileges—that amount to the determination of a criminal charge or of a Member’s civil rights. I have tabled two probing new clauses to that effect for the Committee stage, and I look forward to the Government’s response. I hope that both will be debated, as it would be a travesty if, under the tight timetable, the guillotine were to prevent discussion of such important principles.
To conclude, although I welcome the principles behind the Bill, there is a lot to be done to ensure that Members are treated fairly under it.
The House has just heard three exceptionally interesting and thoughtful speeches. I appreciate that the Justice Secretary could not be in the Chamber throughout, but I hope he will read the speeches of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), both of which would repay careful study—
I was not criticising the Justice Secretary in any way, but merely drawing to his attention some very important speeches. He heard some of the speech of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), but he should read all of it.
Every speech made this afternoon, including the admirable one by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), has had one theme: this legislation is being rushed unnecessarily. No one in the House is against the setting up of an independent body to administer our pay, allowances and expenses. There is a difference between allowances and expenses, which has not always come out in recent weeks. I find it slightly strange that Members who very properly—I stress this—have claimed the whole allowance for a very large mortgage, have come in for very little criticism, whereas some of those who might not be so well off, and who have claimed for certain items of furniture and perhaps a modest rent, have been crucified. We ought to bear those points in mind, and I hope that Sir Christopher Kelly will do so; a lot rests on him.
We are having this debate because the Prime Minister has panicked over the bad publicity in the past few weeks. He has been responsible for some of that bad publicity. I have been in the House for 39 years, and I have never known a time when morale has been so low, when Members in all parts of the House have been so depressed, and when their families have been so depressed. We owe it to those who sent us here to put our house in order as quickly as we can, as far as pay and allowances are concerned. When two or three Members gather together, the talk is not of recession, Afghanistan, health or education, but of pay, allowances and expenses. We need to get away from that, and to become a Parliament again, in the fullest sense of that word.
I could not help but think of Horace Walpole’s diaries of 1759—the annus mirabilis—in which he said that every time one went down to breakfast, one had to ask for news of the latest victory; it was a wonderful time of rejoicing. Some years ago, the Queen said that she had had her annus horribilis. We have had ours this year: every time one gets up in the morning, people ask what is in the paper and which colleague has been fingered. We need to move away from that, but not by panicking into bad and unnecessary legislation.
I repeat that it is right that we give the responsibility for the financial matters to an outside body. I have always felt that the salary, allowances and expenses for parliamentarians should be fixed at the end of a Parliament for the whole of the next Parliament, perhaps with some index for inflation. No Parliament should then be in the position even of being tempted to adjudicate on its own remuneration. I hope that Sir Christopher Kelly and his committee will come up with a recommendation along those lines.
However, we must concentrate this afternoon on the other clauses of this extremely hastily drafted Bill. It really is monstrous that it should be pushed through with such indecent haste. At the very least, as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, we should have had another two days next week. We could quite easily have divided the Bill into two and dealt with its financial provisions this week, allowing for some proper scrutiny, in which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) and the hon. Member for Hendon, as Chairmen of their respective Committees, could have taken part, and in which the privileges report—extensively quoted from earlier—could have been studied by Members. We could then have come back in the autumn—in September if the Government preferred, or in October—and dealt with the other aspects of the Bill if, by that time, we felt that a Bill of that sort were necessary.
At the heart of this debate is the very purpose of Parliament and the function of Members of Parliament. We are sent here by our constituents, and in the immortal words of Burke, we owe them not just our industry but our judgment. When we have fulfilled the term of the Parliament, it is up to them to decide whether they wish us to return. The privilege that we enjoy is not a personal privilege that belongs to me as the Member for South Staffordshire or to my right hon. Friend as the Member for North-West Hampshire; it is the privilege of the electors of North-West Hampshire and of South Staffordshire that enables us to speak without fear or favour in this House.
All that is at risk because of this Bill. I have never known a time when the Clerk of the House thought it proper to send round the sort of letter that we received at the end of last week.
The Clerk’s memorandum was his very proper response to a request from the Justice Committee that he give evidence, which would be followed up by oral evidence taken tomorrow, meaning that members of the Justice Committee will not be able to take part in those proceedings tomorrow because they will be listening to the oral evidence from the Clerk of the House.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and we owe his Committee a real debt of gratitude, but what he has just said again underlines the absurdity of our proceedings. He and his fellow members cannot be present because they are listening to material evidence that is concerned with the very issues that we are discussing. The Justice Secretary and Lord High Chancellor is a reasonable man, so can he not just take that point on board?
I accept the compliment from the hon. Gentleman and thank him very much. At the time that the Justice Committee will be receiving evidence from the Clerk, we will be debating the lower-numbered clauses—clauses 1 to 5—and as far as I recall, they have raised no issues for the Clerk.
I am starting to run out of time, so I simply respond by saying that that does not invalidate the proposition that I have made. It is all germane to this Bill and we should have a chance to reflect on what the Clerk says. However the Clerk produced this paper, I have never before seen anything like it circulated so widely beyond the Committee that commissioned or asked for it, and it makes some extraordinarily important points.
Thank goodness the Secretary of State has at least listened to the Clerk’s strictures on clause 6; we are grateful for that. Clause 8 is also significant, and the Clerk states that
“if the Committee declined to act on a recommendation, that could presumably become the basis of legal proceedings in which the Commissioner (or anyone else) sought to require the Committee to comply.”
That section is important, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire has already quoted what the Clerk said about clause 10:
“This could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Members and of witnesses before committees and would hamper the ability of House officials to give advice to Members.”
I have already referred to the Clerk’s comments on our Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, which have not been tagged for this afternoon’s debate but, frankly, should have been because they are highly relevant.
I end where I was not going to end, but I am tempted to do so by the perceptive, thoughtful and, frankly, very compelling speech of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead, who talked about the implications of clause 5(8), which deals with outside interests. Those of us who have some outside interests have been put in a position recently whereby we are almost ashamed to talk of them. Well, I am not. I think it important that one should sometimes share these things with colleagues in the House, and I am tempted to do so by the frank way—no pun intended—in which the right hon. Member for Birkenhead shared his experiences.
For many years, I have been involved in helping to run an annual reward for responsible capitalism. It must be thought to be a good thing, as the first award was presented by the current Prime Minister when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Two years ago, it was presented by the present Chancellor and last year by the Foreign Secretary. It is a highly respectable and, I think, a good thing; the chairman of our judges is the former Lord Chief Justice, who succeeded the late great Lord Dahrendorf, who sadly died just a couple of weeks ago. I believe that this is immensely worth while and I think it good that Members of Parliament should be involved in it. I am proud to be involved with it. Where does my parliamentary interest begin and end? It is very similar to what the right hon. Member for Birkenhead said about his egg timer in his conversation this morning.
It would be very sad indeed if the regulations that we pass and are supervised by this new body were so interpreted and applied that Parliament became an assembly of nerds, anoraks and the very rich. That would be an extremely bad development for Parliament. It is important that we have people who have interests outside—relevant interests, interests that help to inform their contributions to debate.
We are all answerable to our constituents for the time we spend on our parliamentary work and in our constituency. I do not think anyone would ever suggest that I was less than a “full-time Member of Parliament” or a “full-time constituency Member”, and yet I find a little time to do other things, and I believe that it helps me—and, I hope, indirectly—helps my constituents and the House. It is most important that we recognise this and that any body set up to look after our interests recognises it, too. I hope that the Kelly committee will recognise it.
Above all, I hope that the Government—or, if not this Government, a future Government—will put aside the oppressive parts of the Bill before us today. To have parliamentarians in a free country answerable in any way to an appointed quango is to diminish Parliament and to diminish those who sit in Parliament and to deter people from coming into Parliament in the future. What we want is an institution that truly attracts the best, and not just the best from the young but from those of all ages. A parliamentary intake that includes men and women in their 50s and 60s, as did the 1970 intake when I first entered Parliament, is all the better for that. It should not be composed only of those who come here motivated by the ambition to carry a Dispatch Box and be driven in a ministerial car—it is good that some should do so—as there is no higher calling than representing a part of the United Kingdom in this place. I fear that the Bill militates against that.
I thus beg the Secretary of State and Lord High Chancellor—both of them!—to recognise what has reasonably been said about the amount of time that Ministers have to spend, quite properly, on their duties, but to concentrate too on the financial part of the Bill and have it ready for Kelly so that his committee can indeed supervise and implement. Most of all, however, I beg the right hon. Gentleman to shy away from the establishment of an organisation that can in any way seek to dictate either directly or indirectly to the elected representatives of the people of the United Kingdom in Parliament assembled.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack), who is the only man in the House who pronounces “Parliament” properly. I am still learning.
I want to make some general points about the establishment of an Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. They will be much wider than the points that have already been made today, although those were extremely important. Like others, I am concerned about the fact that the Bill is being rushed through in this way. Given that it is being dealt with in a mere three days and that we were told only last week that it was to be debated, I do not think we are being given enough time to debate a measure with such potentially far-reaching consequences not just for the House but for those outside.
Understandably, we all feel that we must act decisively to deal with what has been revealed about our discredited expenses system. An absolute scandal has been caused by the way in which we make our claims and the way in which they are agreed, and we all understand the public outrage that that has prompted when we go back to our constituencies and talk to people about it. What angers them so much is that we make rules by which they must abide and then seem to make separate rules for ourselves, and what worries me about the Bill is that we seem again to be making rules for ourselves that are different from the rules that we require our constituents to observe. They used to be more lax, but now they are much more severe. We should not make rules that are different from those applied outside the House.
What got us into this mess in the first place was our failure to recognise that, as many other Members have pointed out, what we do here is about representation. Much of the expenses scandal has concerned the way in which we represent people. Like a number of other Members, I have taken the opportunity to talk to people about what we do on their behalf, and I have been staggered by how little they know about it. It has been good to go out and discuss that, but it is clear that we have not been good enough at doing it. Unless people know what we do here in their name, how on earth can they understand the basic facts that we need second homes, that we need to furnish them, and that we need travel expenses?
When I intervened on the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), I was trying to make the point—I do not think I made it very clearly—that if people really do not understand what we do here on their behalf and find it hard to comprehend how they influence the decisions that we make, we are putting the cart before the horse if we discuss tweaking the expenses system, how we are paid, who pays us and how much we are paid. If Parliament is about anything, it is about our representing people in constituencies in the United Kingdom. We should be talking to them about what we do, but we should also be hearing from them what they want us to do. Until we know what sort of Parliament the people out there want this to be, it will be much more difficult for us to create an appropriate system of remuneration and reimbursement. We have had any number of opportunities to go out and talk to people, but we have failed at every turn.
The hon. Lady attaches great value to giving the public an opportunity to talk to us and learn about what we do. Will she explain to whom the new authority will be accountable? It is being vested with a vast panoply of powers, and will handle huge sums of public money. If a member of the public is not confident that the money is being handled competently, or even thinks that the chairman of the authority is being rather lavish in his expenses claims, to whom will that person be able to make a complaint? It seems to me that we are replacing a very imperfect system of representative democracy with a system that will be accountable to nothing and no one.
That is at the heart of what I was going to say. There is currently a very good and direct link between the people whom we represent, their Members of Parliament, and the system under which we exist. The people still have a direct say, and the ability to vote us in or out every four or five years. Setting up what is effectively a quango will remove that next step of accountability.
I think that all Members would agree that the administration of our expenses and our pay should be put into independent hands. I have no problem with that. However, it is vital to establish the way in which such a body would be independent, to whom it would be accountable, how it would be paid, and how it would claim its own expenses. I am happy to discuss those questions, but we should not go much further at this stage, especially in a climate in which everything that we do to try to improve the position will be scrutinised in far more detail than before. Nevertheless, I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said.
In focusing on the establishment of a new body, we seem to be overlooking the bodies that already exist. For instance, we have any number of committees. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) gave a long list of committees, along with their different functions. He also mentioned the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. There is clearly a conflict between the present roles of those committees and the roles that they will have following the establishment of the Parliamentary Standards Authority, and that worries me very much.
There is, I think, a level of complexity and detail that is not entirely necessary. Last week, when we had another opportunity to make things a bit better, the Fees Office published massively blacked-out receipts and claim forms. That did not just make us look ridiculous; it was another smack in the face for people outside. One of the things that we could do today is decide that addresses could be exposed. We could regain overnight people’s trust in what we do and the way in which we make claims by revealing the houses where we claim and where things are delivered.
The hon. Lady may not recall that the present position is a result of a statutory instrument laid on the very last day before the summer recess by the Justice Secretary—interpreting, theoretically, a motion passed by the House, but bearing very little relation to the substance of that motion.
I was making a point of principle. I think that everyone agrees that, today and this week, we are trying to address public outrage at a discredited and abused expenses regime, but I also think that there are better ways of doing that than adding another layer of complexity to what is already a very complex system.
One of the most popular words that we have used in recent weeks is transparency, but complexity and a lack of clarity lead to a lack of transparency. We should have another look at what all the different committees do and what the commissioner does. We have undoubtedly got a problem. Despite all the committees we have, we have not prevented the abuse of the expenses system. Therefore, although we obviously must do something, we must also be much clearer about what we want at the end of it, rather than just tinkering about with what we have and creating new levels of complexity. It would help if we were clear about what we wanted, and then proceeded from there. We want a much clearer and simpler, and thereby a much more transparent, system. As a part of that transparency, we should agree to get rid of the blacking-out of addresses. I hope that that answers the question of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd).
The people who have elected us do not merely want us to stand up for their beliefs. Although I may hold different views from those of some of my constituents, many of them want me to represent my views here in Parliament. What they fundamentally want from every Member of Parliament, however, is for us to be honest. That goes back to the point about our creating an extra level of complexity. We must not fudge the fact that what people really want is for us just to be honest. We must do what they want in that regard by, for example, publishing as much as we can. Regardless of what the law may be, we can choose to publish all the addresses that we want. That must be done collectively, however.
Another point that Members have made today bothers me. We only recently decided that the review of MPs’ expenses should be handed to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We have heard today from any number of Members who gave evidence to that committee this afternoon, yet here we are trying to legislate on a Bill that will have consequences for the outcome of that committee. That worries me. I also made a submission to the committee. It prevents the committee from being as considered and thoughtful as it would like to be if we are either pre-empting its outcome or saying to it, “Whatever you do, we have already legislated for this. Therefore, whatever comes out of your review could be in some way restricted.” I think that that is wrong, and I wish that we had allowed the Kelly committee to report before we had moved on to consider this Bill.
May I reassure my hon. Friend on this? We have worked out the structure of this authority in such a way as to fit in with the recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee, which will come to this House first. The Bill deals with structure, administration and adjudication in respect of the allowances system, and Sir Christopher’s committee is principally concerned with the content of those allowances. There is no reason, particularly given the timing, why those two should conflict. We have got to do this now for reasons that I think my hon. Friend understands.
I do not entirely agree with that. The motivation for introducing the Bill is to address the problems that have been very well documented and to say to the people outside this Chamber, “We understand and agree with your outrage, and we are doing something about it.” On the timing, I do not think that there is any mad rush. We do not need to have something on the statute book within a week. We want to take responsibility and accept the consequences of what we have done, but agree that we need to sort this out for the next generation. Regardless of whether they have made a claim, every incumbent MP is tainted by this expenses scandal. We need to make sure that, as far as possible, the next Parliament can start afresh.
Democracy is a messy business and Parliament is messy, and there is no system that is not open to abuse in some way—and there are some very creative people in Parliament. However, we need to accept collective responsibility for what we have done, and say to the next generation, “The systems that put the checks and balances on Parliament are as good as we can make them.” Therefore, I do not think there is any mad hurry, and that instead we need to do things in sequence.
The Sir Christopher Kelly committee should be given the time to interview as many people and to take as many submissions as it wants, and to go out and talk to members of the public and ask them what they want, and take some submissions from them. I do not know how many members of the public made a submission to the Kelly committee, but I would like to know. I suspect that a lot of parliamentarians made submissions to it, however. All of this is about saying, “This is the sequence in which we are doing this job. This is the right way to do it.” We should not push forward in an unseemly hurry just to make it look like we are doing something. We have done that time and again before, and every single time we have really messed it up.
My intervention in this debate as Chairman of the Justice Committee follows contributions from the Chairmen of the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and all three Committees have serious concerns about aspects of this Bill. If that, combined with speeches such as that which we have just heard, does not make the Government realise that they have got to rethink substantial parts of it and step back from this great rush, I do not know what will.
It was the Justice Committee that sought the memorandum from the Clerk of the House that has been at the centre of the debate, and we will take evidence from him and others tomorrow at 5 o’clock. As the Lord Chancellor has pointed out, the programme motion defers some of the relevant clauses until Wednesday and we intend to see that Tuesday’s oral evidence is printed overnight so that it will be in the hands of Members on Wednesday, but that is still not a satisfactory way of dealing with a matter of this kind.
I welcome the transfer of responsibilities for allowances and pay effectively to what is at this stage a combination of this new body, the Senior Salaries Review Body and the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We need to put that work outside Parliament—to contract it to somebody else—as it should not be done by us. The new body needs to be a more effective paying and withholding body for pay and allowances. I say “withholding” because I do not regard the refusal to pay an allowance as a disciplinary measure. I think that is the proper application of a scheme of allowances and expenses. The role I see for the body set up under the Bill is to operate the scheme, to pay allowances when it considers they have been appropriately claimed within the rules and not to do so otherwise, and to be in a position to be entirely firm about how it handles such matters, which has not always seemed possible for the Fees Office in the past, and has led to this very unsatisfactory situation.
Protection, however, needs to remain around the rights of Parliament. That protection is underpinned in one respect in the Bill by the recognition that Parliament should take any disciplinary processes that arise from things going wrong in the system once the existence of a possible disciplinary offence has been identified. I am glad that that principle is recognised, as it is a very important one, but that does not solve the problems. The inclusion of new criminal offences has raised the problem of double jeopardy, which needs to be considered seriously, and several aspects of the drafting impinge on rights in the European convention on human rights, as the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights has explained. Several clauses appear to infringe the principle that Parliament and the courts do not call into question each other’s decisions, as stated in article 9 of the Bill of Rights.
I want to turn to the constitutional areas that the Clerk identified in his evidence to us. Happily, I can dispense with what I was going to say about clause 6 because of the Government’s welcome decision not to proceed with it. Clause 7 raises questions, however. As the Clerk says, for example:
“If the House were to punish for a failure in respect of a requirement which was found by a court to have been unreasonable”—
a Member might have taken the matter to court, the court might have found the initial reference to be unreasonable and Parliament might have then taken action on it—we would be a short step from
“review by the court of the exercise of disciplinary powers by the House.”
Even clause 7 presents a problem.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis. Is there not another problem? There has been some discussion about the existing powers of the House to discipline its Members. Of course, they are outside the European convention on human rights, but they are also quite rough and ready. I suppose the extreme sanction is expulsion, and there is an acceptance that it is then a matter for the electorate to decide what it will do. However, we are creating through the Bill an entire architecture of punitive measures, all statutorily vaguely defined, that might impinge on a person’s reputation in a way that parliamentary sanctions never would have in the past.
Yes. To some extent, the reputational damage is inevitable, because of the nature of the issues and the way in which they have been highlighted in the press. To some extent, that might seem to be justified, but it means that we have to pay rather more attention than we have hitherto to the human rights dimensions and the need for due process, for example. I shall come on to another aspect of that before I conclude, but I also want to mention clause 8 and the enforcement powers, with which I do not think we should be proceeding at this stage. I believe that, as the Clerk makes clear, they give rise to considerable concern. He says:
“Clause 8(5) appears to make the exercise by the House of its disciplinary powers a matter of statute, since it seems to confer a statutory permission on the House to exercise those powers”.
That might—and probably will—then make them open to challenge before the courts. As the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) mentioned earlier, the whole protocol business, with a list of bodies that, as far as I can see, is unlikely to be the permanent list because of the changes that keep taking place in the structure of government and the criminal justice system, is a puzzling element and one that could further draw us into proceedings in the courts, with potential for litigation.
I suppose I must concentrate on clause 10 because, after clause 6, that is the area that gives rise to the greatest constitutional concern. Clause 10(c) leaves us in no doubt that it is a head-on attack on the Bill of Rights. It directly quotes the Bill of Rights in order to define the area with which it is dealing:
“No enactment or rule of law which prevents proceedings in Parliament being impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament is to prevent…any evidence from being admissible in proceedings against a member of the House of Commons for an offence under section 9.”
In other words, notwithstanding the Bill of Rights, things will now be different. That is such a fundamental assault on a long-standing and accepted principle that I do not think that we should be rushing it through in three days of proceedings, especially when it is not necessary to do so in order to set up a body that can administer pay and allowances. If there is a rush, that is probably what the rush is for—to be seen to be setting up that body and, indeed, enabling it to start work and to be in a position to implement the detailed Kelly proposals. I can see that there is a case for trying to get that body set up during the forthcoming parliamentary recess, but none of that requires some of the other features that have been so rightly criticised in the Clerk’s analysis.
In his reference to clause 10, the Clerk points out the difficulty that is
“caused by admitting evidence of proceedings in Parliament”.
Either one does so in a narrow way, in which case one creates an injustice under the ECHR, creating a situation in which evidence drawn from proceedings in the House can be used against the Member but not material that might be exculpatory to the Member, or one does so in a wide way, in which case one imperils free speech, people’s ability to give free evidence before Committees and all the other things that such procedures are designed to protect. We ought not to be proceeding with clause 10. Of course, we ought to be proceeding, as the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges said some time ago, with a privileges Act to ensure that we have a proper range of protection that can cater for some of the things that have now arisen.
It is abundantly clear from today’s debate that there is so much unease about those features of the Bill that we should not proceed with them in that way.
The unease among the general public is more than unease—it is anger, and a very real anger. It is not successfully addressed if what we do in the end is to create a process that undermines the rights of the public in other ways in the future without addressing that grievance. Rushing into legislation that would have the effects that I described earlier does not deal with the public anger. The setting up of an independent body to determine what pay and allowances we should receive and to police the paying and claiming of them goes some way to addressing that anger, and I welcome that. The House must ensure that it deals appropriately and effectively with those who break its rules, but it should not in the process take away the rights of our constituents. If it is going even to contemplate doing so, it should give the matter serious consideration.
At the end of the day, there is what I like to think of as a sort of Bradlaugh principle at stake here. The ultimate judge must be the electorate. Bradlaugh found that his colleagues in Parliament repeatedly refused to accept his insistence that a rule of the House was an unfair constraint on him—in his case, the rule requiring him to swear an oath that he as an atheist did not believe it right to swear. If a Member, like him, found that his colleagues in the House were unwilling to accept him as a Member on those terms, ultimately it would be the electorate who must be allowed to judge and to insist on sending him back to Parliament, saying, “We wish this man to represent us, notwithstanding the fact that he appears to have broken a rule that others find important.” That is a pretty fundamental principle. Of course, it is not an easy principle even for the Member affected, who might have to fight or even finance an election without the support of his political party, under procedures that we have seen operating in recent weeks in this House. However, it is the ultimate protection and the ultimate principle.
Before we get to that point, there must be proper due process as far as any person—in this case, a Member of the House of Commons who is accused of behaving improperly—is concerned. The processes that we create should not also, in themselves, take away protections that are designed to ensure that people can give evidence to Committees of this House without fear of a penalty for doing so and without fear that the evidence they give can be adduced in court in circumstances that they did not envisage.
The Government have been presented with a very strong case today. First, they should get ahead with the creation of a body that can administer pay and allowances and, secondly, they should not rush into things that would undermine some of the most basic freedoms, which go back to the Bill of Rights.
This has been an interesting debate with some good contributions, including the speech from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith). It seems to me that everybody—apart from those on the Front Bench—is unanimous in their opinion. That does not happen very often, but it seems to be the case today. I would hope that the Secretary of State will appreciate that that is not because of any politicking, but because we are all concerned about the purports of the Bill. We are concerned about the way in which it is phrased and about various sections of it. We have heard from the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Chair of the Select Committee on Justice and so on. We have heard from the Clerk of the House. Voluminous objections have been raised about the Bill. That must count for something, otherwise what are we doing in Parliament? What is the point of our existence in this place if those fundamental points, which we have driven home time and time again in this important debate, are not adhered to?
Why is there such haste to deal with the issue? I shall tell the House why. It is a political imperative. On the day that the former Speaker announced that he was standing down, party leaders were invited to meet him in his chambers. The Prime Minister left that meeting with one thought in his mind, and one thought alone, which was to introduce some kind of statutory code of conduct overseen by an external body. When I say “conduct” I am talking about not only financial matters but everything in this regard. That was his thought for the day, he held a press conference accordingly and that was that. I suspect that that is why clause 6, which seemed to be a declaratory clause, was included; I think it was in the Bill to appease the Prime Minister. Thankfully, it has now gone, but some parts of the Bill are still objectionable.
My next point relates to the Register of Members’ Interests, the proposals on which result from a political imperative on the part of Labour Members who believe that there is some political advantage in introducing those proposals because, by and large, Opposition Members have more interests than they do. They believe that if they work things carefully and put out the idea that people with outside interests are not doing the job of an MP properly, they can gain electoral advantage too. Let us not beat about the bush, because we know why these things are being introduced.
We always say that we legislate in haste and repent at leisure, and the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 has been mentioned—
The right hon. Gentleman, who is smiling, says that it is still on the statute book. I could also cite the Theft Act 1968, which omitted to repeal a provision in Wales whereby a person could be hanged for stealing a sheep. That is still law, but it is not good law. The fact that a law is in place does not make it any good.
It is not my best point. I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I know many police officers who would not dream of referring to the 1991 Act because it is impossible to do anything with it. We know that Ministers are saying, “We must do something, because the public are furious”. The public are rightly furious, but they will be even more furious if we make a mess of this legislation, by trampling over the Bill of Rights and so on. The other example that one thinks of is the firearms legislation made following the awful incident that took place in Dunblane. Whereas the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 is unenforceable, that firearms legislation made no difference, aside from the fact that it made life difficult for legitimate gun clubs.
I gave evidence today to the Kelly committee, which was interested in the haste with which this Bill was being introduced. Not only is the rate of progress an affront to the committee, but it might impinge on the work that it is trying to do. I do not propose to deal with my next point at length but, as has been mentioned, the Bill is, when all is said and done, a constitutional one. Such a Bill should never be the subject of emergency legislation—
As the hon. Gentleman says, neither should it be subject to a guillotine. We should have plenty of opportunity to examine matters on a proper pre-legislative basis and all the people I mentioned in an earlier intervention—the experts in constitutional law, the Clerk and so on—should be able to give evidence, because these are very important matters. I think we all agree that the current position is not sustainable and that it is probably right to farm out responsibility for allowances and salaries far out of the way of this House. I have never voted on a salary increase, because I did not think it right that I should do so. I believe I was offered the opportunity to vote on this issue once, in the 1992 Parliament, but I declined to take it because I did not think it was right to do so. I am happy for all that to be farmed out, but to confuse that with responsibility for conduct at large is dangerous and we should heed what the Clerk has had to say about that and, in particular, about clause 10.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority will be the body to oversee conduct on allowances and so on. As a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I have known many instances when there has been not only a finding against a Member, but an apportioning of blame against the Department of Resources. In such circumstances, the new body would be judge and jury in its own court, so would it feel free to criticise its own department? I rather doubt that it would, so a conflict will obviously arise out of that arrangement.
The statutory basis for the code of conduct—the declaratory clause that I mentioned—has now gone, but many concerns remain, such as the point about privileges, article 9 of the Bill of Rights and clause 10. The clause is very worrying and it has been extensively commented upon in today’s press and again this evening. The protection of privilege is a vital tool for everyone in Parliament, because it ensures that free speech is available to us all. We politicians refer ad nauseam to the fact that free speech is the beacon of democracy, but that is because it is and must remain so.
On a more mundane level, we all encounter cases where a company tramples on an individual’s rights and acts badly towards that individual, but they have no money to take action against the company. Bringing such matters to this Chamber under privilege, albeit on a limited number of occasions, is useful and may well redress the balance, and that is very important. We know that there is an issue to address in respect of witnesses giving evidence. If they are not covered by privilege, I do not know whether they will be completely candid; the proposal in the Bill could mean that the Committee system in this place would fall into disrepute. We begin to erode the principle of privilege at our peril. We do not lightly refer to the Bill of Rights and we do not make reference to it in every debate in this place, but it is of vital constitutional importance that privilege is retained.
It is unusual for the Clerk to express his views on things of this kind in the manner that he has today. I believe that he did so because of the vital importance of this matter and that he was right to do so, because we need his expertise in this regard. He makes the point by saying the following:
“I should stress that I make no comment whatever on the merits of the Bill’s policy proposals; it would be improper for me to do so. My concern is only with the constitutional implications for Parliamentary privilege (including the right of free speech) and the extent to which the courts are likely to come into conflict with Parliament thereby.”
He goes on to say:
“It would mean that the words of Members generally, the evidence given by witnesses (including non-Members) before committees and advice given by House officials on questions, amendments and other House business could be admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings. This could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Members and of witnesses before committees”.
Free speech in Parliament is essential if abuses are to be examined, including the abuses of Parliament itself.
This debate has been a good one and very serious points have been made. I have not seen such unanimity across political parties as on this issue. I took part in the pseudo-pre-legislative scrutiny part of the Bill and, with great respect to the Justice Secretary, I must tell him that he shifted position many times on many amendments. He accepted many amendments and was reasonable throughout that particular part of the Committee stage, but that just makes that point that this has been a bad Bill from the very beginning. The fact that although it has been amended on several occasions by several Members around that table, it is still in its current condition now makes the point. I have no criticism to make of the right hon. Gentleman, or of his colleague, the Leader of the House, because they were doing their job, but this Bill was rotten from the beginning and it remains rotten now—it is a dangerous Bill too.