Madam Speaker : I have a statement to make arising from a number of privilege complaints that I have received from Members based on an article which appeared in The Sunday Times newspaper of 10 July. My inquiries went wider than simply accepting the account of matters as given by the newspaper itself.
It is relevant to the issue that I should remind the House of a paragraph in the first report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests of the Session 1991-92, which reads as follows : "There is a danger that some Members may make the mistake of believing that correct registration and declaration adequately discharge their public responsibilities in respect of their private interests. Such a mistake could have serious consequences both for the Member concerned and ultimately for the House. As the Speaker reminded the Committee, a Member must be vigilant that his actions do not tend to bring the House into disrepute' and, in particular, Members who hold consultancy and similar positions must ensure that they do not use their position as Members improperly'. A financial inducement to take a particular course of action in Parliament may constitute a bribe and thus be an offence against the law of Parliament".
It is because I consider that there is an urgent need to clarify the law of Parliament in that area that I am prepared to grant precedence to a motion on that complaint, and I do so without having the need to pass judgment on the particular actions of any of the several Members referred to in the newspaper article.
I now turn to the conduct of the newspaper itself. "Erskine May", at page 128, states :
"the offering to a Member of either House of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as a Member, or of any fee or reward in connection with the promotion of . . . any . . . matter or thing submitted or intended to be submitted to the House . . . has been treated as a breach of privilege."
This, too, is an aspect of the affair which I believe merits further examination, as well as the subsidiary matter of the clandestine recording of Members' conversations within the precincts.
If, as a result of a motion based on those issues, the matter is referred by the House to the Committee of Privileges, I should like to make it clear that the Committee will have power to inquire not only into the matter of the particular complaint, but into the facts surrounding and reasonably connected with it, and into the principles of the law and custom of privilege which are concerned. I hope that it will use that power for the assistance of the House in a difficult area.
The procedure now is for a motion to have precedence at the commencement of business at 3.30 tomorrow. As I said, I have received a number of complaints, including one from the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). He will now be able to table a motion in the proper form for tomorrow's debate.
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I went before the Select Committee on Privileges in 1974 as the Member of Parliament who originally raised the question of "MPs for hire". I was severely censured for contempt of the House, although I was the whistleblower and not the man who was taking the money. One of the grievances about this procedure, which I have borne for 20 years, is that there are no Hansard records of the Privileges Committee. The Committee can
Column 830decide to meet in private--and it did. It can decide to ask the people who come before it whether they wish to write to the Committee, and then various communications channels advise the Member to write to the Committee, because, if hon. Members go before top Attorneys-General, they are likely to face severe questioning. There is no guarantee that the report is ever brought back to the House to be debated. It certainly was not in my case, even though Reggie Maudling and the other two guys
Mr. Ashton : I am coming to my point of order. Is it possible for you, Madam Speaker, to make a ruling now, especially with regard to The Sunday Times , that the Hansard report must be printed in full and that the Committee must sit in public ? If not, there will be a great deal of disagreement about the recommendations.
Madam Speaker : I think that the hon. Gentleman understands that Committees are in charge of their own proceedings. The hon. Gentleman's point is not a point of order, but it is very much a matter for debate tomorrow. I hope that he will catch my eye in tomorrow's debate. As he knows, the Committee itself must determine how it proceeds.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. May I draw your attention to paragraph 24 of the first report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests in 1991 ? It deals with occasions when an hon. Member should withdraw from Committee proceedings. In this context, I refer to the proposed Privileges Committee. The Select Committee on Members' Interests said in its report :
"We feel that it is right that when a member of a committee, particularly the Chairman, has a pecuniary interest which is directly affected by a particular inquiry or when he or she considers that a personal interest may reflect upon the work of the committee or its subsequent report, the Member should stand aside from the committee proceedings relating to it. This convention is so fundamental to the proper conduct of select committee business that we recommend that it should be reinforced by an appropriate resolution of the House." In column 945
In column 945 on 13 July 1992, that recommendation was enshrined as a rule of the House. It was ordered :
"That this House takes note of the First Report"
and in particular paragraph 24, dealing with
"withdrawal from Committee proceedings."--[ Official Report , 13 July 1992 ; Vol. 211, c. 945.]
I put it to you, Madam Speaker, that the business of this Committee is consultancy. It is examining the future of consultancy. If the Privileges Committee is to comprise the great and the eminent in our ranks--that is, Privy Councillors who, in the main, have sat on all previous Privileges Committees in the House while I have been a Member--who are Members of Parliament who have directorships and consultancies in abundance, inbuilt in the Committee will be a conflict of interest which will prevent the Committee from properly deliberating on these matters. I believe-- [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker : Order. I want to listen to what the hon. Gentleman has to say, as does the House. However, he is anticipating a Committee that has not yet been established. We have not even had the motion tabled on the Order Paper ; we are not into debate. Although these are very valuable points, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will make them in the debate tomorrow. Would he come to the point that he is putting to me as a point of order ?
Mr. Campbell-Savours : I will come to the point, Madam Speaker. I wonder whether you can give the House an assurance that the conflict of interest to which I referred, in so far as the Privileges Committee will be dealing with the issue of consultancy, will not be allowed to happen in this case, or its report will be discredited ? The public outside expect an objective assessment about what is in the public interest and what is good for Parliament. We need that assurance, Madam Speaker.
Madam Speaker : Order. I want no further points of order on this matter. I have made a very considered statement on this issue, and I hope that hon. Members will consider that it is a full statement. There is nothing further I can add. The points of order that hon. Members are now raising are matters of debate. They are for the debate tomorrow ; they are not points of order for me.
Madam Speaker : Order. I have just made my point about my considered statement. I cannot add further to it now. I ask those hon. Members who still persist in seeking to raise their points of order to reflect on the important statement that I have just made. They should not pursue those points of order now, but should seek to make them in the debate tomorrow.
Mr. David Jamieson (Plymouth, Devonport) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. During Education Question Time, I raised the matter of an OFSTED report on Finborough school in Suffolk. The Secretary of State claimed to have no knowledge of it, but earlier this year I wrote to him about it. On 17 February, the Under-Secretary of State for Schools replied to me ; he named the school and noted my concerns. Can the Secretary of State be brought back to the House to correct his misleading statement ?
Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I am grateful to be called. During Education Question Time, the Secretary of State accused my hon. Friend the Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) of sending her children to a private school, but grant-maintained schools are state schools. What is more, that child is going to the school that his father attended--the local state school. Is it not scandalous that that sort of
Sir John Gorst : The point of order that I wish to put to you, Madam Speaker, is about the question of sub judice with regard to the matter on which you made your statement. The suggestion has been made that a Select Committee which is considering the conduct of the press might examine this issue. Where the matter now stands, are the press precluded from any discussion on the basis that it is sub judice ? That is the sole point I want to make.
Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley) : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I need some clarification of your statement, as a member of the hard-working Select Committee on Members' Interests. Do you think that that Committee has any interest in this case ? As my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has said, given that the Committee has dealt with lobbying before, I hope that it will not be ignored on this occasion.
Mr. Spencer Batiste, supported by Sir Rhodes Boyson, Mr. David Sumberg, Mr. John Marshall, Mr. Edward Garnier, Mr. Andrew Rowe, Mr. Alan Duncan, Mr. Greville Janner, Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody, Mr. David Alton and Mr. Mike Gapes, presented a Bill to prohibit companies from giving information for the purposes of a trade boycott which has not been approved by United Nations or European Union agreement ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 15 July, and to be printed. [Bill 147.]
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require medical practitioners to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in cases where they consider that their patients are unfit to drive on medical grounds.
The Bill's purpose is direct and simple. It would place a statutory obligation on medical practitioners, whether hospital based or in general practice, to report to the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency any cases in which they consider a patient to be medically unfit to drive.
I took up this case because one of my young constituents, Paul Scarisbrick, was killed in an incident on the M62 in circumstances which, had the Bill been in force, would not have occurred. To put it bluntly, if the doctors involved in treating the man responsible for causing the incident had reported his condition to the DVLA, he would almost certainly not have been allowed to continue driving, and Paul Scarisbrick would still be alive today.
Let me explain the circumstances. Two years earlier, the elderly gentleman involved in the incident, whom I will not name here, had been advised by a consultant psychiatrist not to continue driving, as he was suffering from the progressive disorder commonly known as Alzheimer's disease. However, as there was no statutory requirement to take the matter further, neither the consultant nor the GP who was also aware of the situation saw fit to communicate that information to any third party. The man accordingly ignored the medical advice, and the result was that which I have already described.
Why did not the doctors involved take the matter further ? They claim that the requirement for confidentiality between a doctor and a patient prevents them from passing on such information. Interestingly, in a letter to Mr. and Mrs. Scarisbrick's solicitor, the Liverpool district coroner, Mr. S.R. Barter MBE, said :
"I am in no doubt in my own mind that the existing law should be changed by statute. Once a doctor has made a clinical judgement, following full investigation, that a patient is suffering from a disease which makes him a danger to himself and the public if he continues to drive, then he should be under a statutory obligation to inform the DVLA of his opinion."
Coming from such an experienced and distinguished source, that is proof positive of the need for a change in the law along the lines that I am proposing.
I also have a letter from the director general of the Association of British Insurers, Mr. Mark Bole at, in which he says unequivocally :
"ABI agrees with the purpose of your Bill to require medical practitioners to report to the DVLA a case where they consider a
Column 834patient unfit to drive, either for physical or mental health reasons."
Once again, that shows support from an important body.
The medical profession, through its professional body, the British Medical Association, is opposed to the Bill. It is jealous, perhaps understandably, of the doctor-patient relationship with regard to confidentiality. I shall make two points on that : first, to some extent, doctors already breach that particular requirement with, for example, the reporting of notifiable infectious diseases ; and, secondly, such confidences should, in my opinion and that of many others, be subjected to a simple but overriding test--that the wider public interest should be taken into account.
A motor vehicle in the wrong hands is a potentially lethal weapon. It is much more lethal than a gun, for example, yet the rules governing the licensing of guns are rightly much more stringent, and require proper medical certification. Although I realise that I am not entirely comparing like with like, I feel that it is nevertheless a useful analogy to compare not a gun with a car but a potential gun user with a potential car user.
Finally, some people have objected to the Bill on the ground that it is the thin end of the wedge--a bridgehead towards the compulsory re-testing of elderly people. It is not. Different people respond in different ways to the aging process. I know many people well into their 70s and beyond who are fully capable of living a full life, including driving a car. As a forty-something myself, however, I sometimes feel that I have already started to disintegrate, so there is no clear comparison between people at different ages.
Far from being the thin end of the wedge, the Bill could halt the movement towards compulsory re-testing in its tracks, as it would deal with many of the problems by medical means, rather than by the remorseless march of the calender. I am convinced that public interest and public safety now require that we legislate to ensure as far as is reasonably possible that those whom we license to drive are medically fit to do so. It is a small measure, which could have a giant effect.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. George Howarth, Mr. Edward O'Hara, Ms Liz Lynne, Mr. Rupert Allason, Mr. Don Dixon, Mr. Stephen Day, Mr. Peter Kilfoyle and Mr. Joe Benton.
Mr. George Howarth accordingly presented a Bill to require medical practitioners to inform the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in cases where they consider that their patients are unfit to drive on medical grounds : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 21 October, and to be printed. [Bill 148.]
That this House rejects the options in the Government's Green Paper The Future of Postal Services' for whole privatisation or part privatisation of Royal Mail and Parcelforce ; records its concern that in order to achieve these options Her Majesty's Government proposes to break up the Post Office, putting at risk the close co-operation and mutual support of Royal Mail, Parcelforce and Post Office Counters ; recognises the vital role of post office branches within their local communities and is concerned that the survival of branches in small communities with low turnover will be threatened by the break-up of the Post Office ; believes that the best way to safeguard the continued provision of universal access and uniform affordable pricing by Royal Mail is to keep it in public ownership as a public service ; congratulates the Post Office on its efficiency while a public corporation in providing the most reliable mail service in Europe at one of the cheapest prices without calling on any public subsidy ; is of the view that the future of the Post Office and of its service to its customers can best be secured by providing it with commercial freedom as a single corporation within public ownership ; and calls upon the Government to adopt that option.
The Opposition thought it would be desirable that the House should have an opportunity to debate the Government's Green Paper on the Post Office before the Government produce their response to the consultation on that paper. Had the Opposition not initiated this debate, the House would not have had an opportunity to debate the Green Paper before the President made up his mind on it.
As it is, we are holding a debate without the President. He is missing, just as he missed the last DTI questions--when I was informed, with remarkable appropriateness, that he was attending an invisible seminar. Today I am informed that he is in Cape Town, so instead we have with us the Minister of State.
The Government's reluctance to debate these proposals brings me to my first question for the Minister of State. As the Green Paper was not thought of sufficient constitutional importance to justify a statement to the House when it was published, and as the views of the House do not merit a debate in Government time, may we at least have an assurance that the outcome of the Green Paper will be first announced to Parliament ?
I ask because I notice that the consultation period ends on 30 September. In view of the timing, may we have an assurance that the House will be the first to hear of the result, and that we will not first learn about it at the Tory party conference in October--not that we would want, or be allowed, to get in there, and I am sure that no Conservative Member with doubts will be called to air them there? I repeat : can we have an assurance that the fate of the Post Office will first be announced in this Chamber and not in Bournemouth ? I notice that the Minister is not leaping to his feet to provide us with that assurance. I appreciate that he does not have much discretion in the matter, but
Column 836perhaps, before he comes to reply, he will set the telex wires between here and Cape Town humming so that, when he rises, he will be able to give us the assurance.
While the Minister is thinking about that, may I try another question on him ? I notice that the Government amendment
"welcomes the opportunity of consultation on the range of options" in the Green Paper. I must therefore ask the Minister the question that the Under- Secretary appeared to have so much difficulty with a fortnight ago. How real will the consultation be ? Are the Government prepared to listen to the views expressed during it ?
If the consultation shows that the great majority of the British public do not want their Post Office privatised, will the Government accept that verdict ?
The Minister owes it to the House to answer the question, and he owes it to the public to listen to what they want done with their Post Office. I say that because the Government have no mandate to privatise it. There was not a word about privatisation of the Post Office in their manifesto. It included a passage about the Post Office, but it gave no hint of privatisation. One can try sprinkling water on it, but the wording still does not appear. I have found no word of privatisation in any election statement of the Government in the most recent general election campaign.
The only reference to the privatisation of the Post Office that I have been able to find in any general election campaign was the ruling out of privatisation of the Post Office by the noble Lady Baroness Thatcher, in the 1997 general election, the week before polling day. She said :
"I have indicated that the Royal Mail would not be privatised. People feel very strongly about it and so do I."
The Royal Mail, in her words,
"would remain inviolate."
I cheerfully concede to the Minister that that was 1987. It was an assurance that apparently joined the list of invisibles in 1992, but no one in 1992 told us that the Post Office was now ready to be privatised or violated.
I will happily give way to any Tory MP who can produce his election address from 1992 in which he told his electorate that he thought that privatisation of the Post Office would be a terrific idea. I shall not be surprised if there are none of them. It is very wise of them, too, because the most recent opinion poll, in June, showed that 71 per cent. of the public opposed privatisation. The numbers of people opposed to privatisation have actually increased since the word got out that the Government were thinking of privatising the Post Office.
Mr. Ainsworth : The hon. Gentleman may recall that the Conservative manifesto in 1992 included a commitment to maintain an affordable and uniform pricing structure, a commitment to a national delivery service and a commitment to maintain a large network of post offices. Did the Labour party's manifesto contain those commitments or not ?
Mr. Cook : Of course, those issues become matters of question only when the Government proceed to privatise the Post Office. There is no suggestion in our minds that we would seek to privatise the Post Office or put at risk the uniform postage, the chain of local branches or the right of any customer of the Post Office to post a letter from any address in Britain to any other address in Britain at the same low price.
Those things are put at risk only because the Government are now seeking to privatise the Post Office. That is why they have to give the assurances-- why give an assurance when those things are not at risk ?
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher) : The burden weighs heavily on me, but will the hon. Gentleman consider that the Select Committee and all the people involved in the Post Office have recognised that time has passed ? It is not a question of what we promised years ago. The fact is that
Mr. Cook indicated dissent .