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Mr. Waldegrave : The highest number the civil service achieved--if that is quite the right word--was under the previous Labour Government. We have brought the number down from 732,000 in 1979 by almost exactly 200,000. That is an achievement of which we should be proud. We should also be proud of the fact that the smaller civil service is carrying great burdens and doing great work with greater efficiency than was the case then.
Mr. Simon Burns (Chelmsford) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the major achievements of our civil service over the past century has been its ability to evolve and to develop in response to changing circumstances and needs ? Does he accept that the White Paper published today advances that fine tradition ? It looks yet again at cutting out inefficiency and wasteful bureaucracy and it seeks to improve even more standards of efficiency and user-friendly services, both for those who receive them at the sharp end and for the civil servants themselves.
Mr. Waldegrave : I believe that my hon. Friend is right and I also believe that if one gives a clear task and a clear challenge to the civil service, it always shows itself willing to meet it. The gains in efficiency that we are seeing and the gains in service to the customer--the patient, the pupil and everyone who relies on the civil service--are genuine. The civil service should be congratulated on them. Civil servants understand as well as we do that the search for efficiency gains never ends.
Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh) : Does my right hon. Friend accept that the many thousands of my constituents who are employed in the private sector, who have often learnt at great personal cost of the need in the modern world for ever-increasing efficiency and productivity and who have realised that there is no such thing as a right to a job for life, will be pleased to learn that the rules that apply to them are about to apply to the people whose salaries they pay ?
Mr. Waldegrave : What my hon. Friend says is right. We have a duty in the House to the taxpayer as well as to the public service. I believe that the balancing of those two has been achieved in the White Paper. We need to continue the drive for efficiency, but we also need to protect the apolitical, independent nature of our civil service. I believe that the White Paper achieves that.
Mr. John Garrett (Norwich, South) : Surely the fact is that the right hon. Gentleman, nominally the Minister for the civil service, has simply copped out. Rather than produce a policy for the future of the civil service, he has
Column 1002signalled the start of a competition between Ministers to fire as many civil servants as possible. The results will be purely arbitrary, with the fast streamers and mandarins, like him, getting off exceptionally lightly and junior jobs going in their thousands. The right hon. Gentleman paid tribute to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, so why did he stop it carrying out a direct investigation of the civil service ? Will he ask his successor to reconsider these thoroughly incompetent proposals ?
Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Gentleman achieves a new low. He always manages to go below the level of the subject, but today he has managed to get right under the carpet. As usual, the hon. Gentleman is factually wrong. In recent years, the proportion of those leaving has been higher from the senior civil service than from the civil service more widely. If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the wireless this morning, he would have heard the First Division Association pointing that out.
I have answered questions in the House before about the survey of the civil service. The issue is perfectly simple. As the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Meacher) demonstrate all the time, those matters, at least for the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen, although not for all the Back Benchers, are of political dispute. If we involved the opinions of civil servants in that political knockabout and we identified those opinions, we would have done more at a stroke to damage the political impartiality of the civil service than if we had done anything else.
Mr. Harry Cohen presented a Bill to make further provision for the retention, registration, use and disclosure of
automatically-processed information relating to individuals ; to regulate the provision of services in respect of such information ; to provide for a Data Protection Commissioner and a Data Protection Tribunal ; to replace the Data Protection Act 1984 ; and for purposes connected therewith : 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 151.]
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to review the effect of differential treatment of war disablement and war widow pensioners by local authorities ; to bring forward means for equal treatment ; and for connected purposes.
The Bill would correct one small but important injustice in the way in which we treat war pensioners in this country. Over the years, it has been accepted by Governments that war pensioners, by which I mean war widows and war disablement pensioners--people who were in active service or those who were injured in the war when they were at home--have been treated by the state as the recipients of a justified form of compensation for their injury or bereavement. Answers on that point have been given over the years --I am grateful for the presence of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)- -by Ministers from the Department of Social Security which have made that clear. Over the past decade, or a little longer, the cost of that compensation has been assessed and there has been a change in the way that the legislation has treated those people. First, dating back a little more than 20 years, local authorities in Britain were obliged--it goes back to the Housing Finance Act 1972--to disregard a proportion of war widow and war disablement pensions when assessing the entitlement of people in that category to housing benefit. In 1986, under the general review of social security legislation, there was no change to the discretionary position of local authorities, above the obligatory minimum amount of disregard. We then had an uprating in 1990 when the disregard went from £5 to £10.
By the arbitrary nature of which local authority area one lives in, it may be that if one is a war disablement pensioner or a war widow, one's entire pension is disregarded, part of one's pension is disregarded or the statutory 10 quid only is disregarded. That is not in any way a party- political point, because local authorities of all political colours and, indeed, of none fall into each of the categories. For example, if a war pensioner lives in Bristol, the City of London, Croydon, Leeds, Oxford, Pendle, Restormel or Wear Valley--I have chosen, at random, a group of local authorities across the country--not more than £10 would be disregarded, whereas if a war pensioner lives in one of the authorities next door, everything would be disregarded. So the anomaly has arisen that certain people, in exactly the same predicament, are treated differently by virtue simply of their residence. For a pensioner on a limited income, that difference may be significant and it is certainly unfair. The other relevant aspect is that the disregard now applies also to council tax benefit, so it applies to the help that pensioners receive with housing costs and with council tax bills.
All I want to argue is that there should be an urgent review and the Government should be asked to look at their policy again to see whether they ought to change it to give equity of treatment across the land.
Column 1004The latest available figures--they were given to me by Ministers in the past month--are that more than 290 local authorities offered a full disregard. A further 28 offered a full disregard for disablement pensioners only and another five offered a full disregard for widows' pensions only. About 150 local authorities did not operate a full disregard system. As a result, in 150 areas such pensioners were treated less fairly. Certainly they were less well off.
The full cost of my Bill would be very small. The Southwark local authority offers a full disregard and it costs every adult about 8p a year to do that. We are talking only of pence. It is also obvious that the problem is becoming less expensive to solve, because there are fewer war disablement pensioners and war widows left. In 1978, there were about 382,000 in those categories, and in 1992 there were only just over a quarter of a million. The bill to the Treasury is becoming smaller.
In the past financial year, the Government paid out--the figures were supplied by the Government--about £225 million in war widows' pensions. On the last day of last month, there were nearly 50,000 war widows' pensions and about 250,000 war disablement pensions. This is the 50th anniversary year of D-day and next year will be the 50th anniversary year of VE-day. I am raising an issue which pensioners' organisations and ex-service people's organisations, such as the Royal British Legion, have been on about for a very long time, as Ministers will know.
I wish to put down a marker today so that between now and the Budget in the autumn the Treasury can seriously consider whether the very small additional cost in revenue terms of righting a social injustice for increasingly few people is something that it can now meet as a reward to a specific category of our fellow citizens during this year of all years.
The reality is that some people in the category that I am talking about are very old. They served, or were alive, in both world wars. The rest were alive during the second world war although not the first. They all deserve equity and I hope that the House will allow the issue to be examined. Above all, I hope that the Government will allow the Bill to be considered and that they will bring forward a proposal to put money into the kitty so that every local authority can treat every war pensioner in the same way from next year onwards.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Simon Hughes, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Andrew Mackinlay, Mr. David Shaw and Mrs. Diana Maddock.
Mr. Simon Hughes accordingly presented a Bill to review the effect of differential treatment of war disablement and war widow pensioners by local authorities ; to bring forward means for equal treatment ; and for connected purposes : 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 152.]
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : I wish to call attention to a report in The Sunday Times of 10 July that Members of the House had been offered, and had accepted, payment for the tabling of parliamentary questions ; and to move,
That the matter of the complaint, together with the issues referred to in the statement by the Speaker on 12th July, be referred to the Committee of Privileges.
Mr. Brown : The motion is facilitated by the statement made yesterday by Madam Speaker. Its purpose is not to decide the matters of substance but to call the attention of the House to recent allegations and to refer them, and wider questions of principle, to the Committee of Privileges.
The specific allegation arises from a story in The Sunday Times of 10 July 1994. The allegation is :
"Two leading Tories were willing to table official questions in the House of Commons in return for £1,000."
Madam Speaker, you reminded us yesterday of the section of the report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, which states :
"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."--[ Official Report , 12 July 1994 ; Vol. 246, c. 829.]
On page 119 of "Erskine May" we are told in a section headed "Corruption in the execution of a Member's duty" :
"The acceptance by any Member of either House of a bribe to influence him in his conduct as such Member or of any fee, compensation or reward in connection with the promotion of, or opposition to any bill, resolution, matter or thing submitted or intended to be submitted to the House or any committee thereof, is a breach of privilege. Members of the Commons who have been found guilty of such an offence have been expelled or committed. It is also a contempt for a Member to enter into an agreement with another person to advocate the claims of such person in the House, for pecuniary reward."
The newspaper allegation is clearly that such a breach has been committed. The questions that were tabled relate to fictional matters--a drug called "Sigthin", and a company called "Githins". Both are anagrams of "Insight", and both are clearly bogus. It is therefore not open to anyone to claim a long-standing interest or alleged public interest in either the drug or the company. They are both clearly fictional.
It is also painfully clear that, if the drug and the company had been real entities, the only beneficiary of the parliamentary questions would have been the business men who procured the tabling of the questions. On the face of it, there is no public interest justification for tabling the questions.
The transcripts of conversations between Members of Parliament and the investigative reporters have been published. One Conservative Member is quoted as saying :
"The main point is the question you have asked will be answered . . . one way or another, so we will just have to wait and see." The reporter then says :
"I will send you the £1,000 in the post now, then."
The Conservative Member of Parliament then says :
"That's very kind of you."
The reporter then says :
Column 1006"And thank you again for your help."
A separate conversation with another Conservative Member of Parliament deals with the ethical issues involved. The reporter asks :
"Did you manage to have--you were going to talk to the Members' Interests people."
The Conservative Member of Parliament replies :
"Yes, yes. I do not see any problem."
The reporter then asks :
"There is no problem at all ?"
The Conservative Member says :
"No. I would be quite happy to go ahead."
The reporter then says :
"What do you want to do about paying you the £1,000 ?" The Conservative Member then says :
"I don't really mind. Why don't you just send it to me ? Do you want my home address ?"
On the face of it, the relationship between the money and the tabled questions seems overwhelming. In any event, it is my contention that it is strong enough to justify referral to the Privileges Committee.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Is my hon. Friend aware that I am no defender of many of the exploits of the tabloid press or the serious press when the press intrudes into people's private lives, be they Members of Parliament or anyone else ? However, for the life of me, in this case I cannot understand why there should be any criticism of The Sunday Times . If The Sunday Times had not done what it did, we would not be debating, or referring to the Privileges Committee, the whole question whether parliamentary questions are being tabled for money. If anything, The Sunday Times is to be congratulated.
Mr. Brown : My hon. Friend has made his point. I will deal with precisely that point later, because my motion refers to that, just as it refers to the wider issues of principle--as, indeed, you did, Madam Speaker, yesterday. However, I would like to make my speech in my own way, because I want to persuade the whole House to support my motion.
The two hon. Members involved will want to tell their side of the story and should have the opportunity to do so. I understand that 20 Members of Parliament were approached--10 Labour and 10 Conservative. The 10 Labour Members and six Conservative Members who appear to have rejected the approach outright clearly have something of value to say.
Another Conservative Member allegedly offered to table a question about a fictional disease called "thising", which is another anagram of "Insight", and apparently wanted his cheque for £1,000 given to his favourite charity. That allegation should also be considered by the Committee of Privileges. It is the exchange of money specifically for the asking of parliamentary questions that I believe to be the breach of privilege. The use to which the money is put, no matter how noble or worth while, is wholly beside the point.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : I trust that the hon. Gentleman will note that I requested exactly what Madam Speaker has given us today : the opportunity to have this matter considered by the most senior Committee of the House. I was deeply concerned about the activities of the individual who approached me. Before the hon. Gentleman says too much about me, he should remember that, if there are recordings, they will all be on tape.
Mr. Brown : I have already said that I believe that all the hon. Members mentioned in the allegations should, of course, have the opportunity to explain what they have done before the Committee of Privileges. That is the very reason why I am moving my motion. I hope that the House will have noted that I am carefully avoiding naming individual Members. I have to set out the allegations to make the case for referral to the Committee of Privileges. I am trying to do so in a way that does not spark off a debate on the matters that I am asking the Committee to consider and not asking the House to determine this afternoon. It is a difficult line to tread, and I hope that the House understands that I am doing my best.
It is not possible to consider the ethics of taking a payment without looking at the ethics of offering payment--the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick). "Erskine May" states on page 128, under the section on improper influence : "Attempts by improper means to influence Members in their parliamentary conduct may be considered contempts. One of the methods by which such influence may be brought to bear is bribery and in 1695 the House of Commons resolved"
to deal with this issue. When my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) raised that point, hon. Members laughed, thinking that 1695 was a long time ago. The resolution carried then is still the law of Parliament on bribery, and it is worth repeating to the House. The resolution states :
"the offer of money, or other advantage, to any Member of Parliament for the promoting of any matter whatsoever, depending or to be transacted in Parliament is a high crime and misdemeanour and tends to the subversion of the English constitution".
That was before the Act of Union.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : My hon. Friend has just quoted from the rule. Is not consultancy, in principle, above that ? Is it not fair to argue, as have a number of my hon. Friends, that the entering into a consultancy agreement by a Member of Parliament in return for money, in the knowledge that that consultancy requires the promotion of an interest that benefits a Member, is in breach of the law ?
I shall first deal with the issue of contempt--the offering of the bribe rather than the acceptance of it, if bribe it was. The Sunday Times story made it perfectly clear, at least to me, that Members of Parliament had been entrapped. It was also perfectly clear that Members of Parliament had been subjected to attempted entrapment. The investigative journalists involved will say that they were acting within the ethics of their profession-- [Interruption.] I am not always sure whether hon. Members are listening properly. What I said was that the investigative journalists involved would say that they were acting within the ethics of their profession--quite. The Press Complaints Commission has an excellent code of practice--it would be excellent, if anyone took any
Column 1008notice of it--and it has something to say on the topic. It has quite a long section on misrepresentation. Section 6(iii) states : "Subterfuge can be justified only in the public interest and only when material cannot be obtained by any other means.
In all these clauses the public interest includes :
(a) Detecting or exposing crime or serious misdemeanour."
Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood) : Given the nature of the rumours that we have heard about hon. Members tabling questions for money, it is clear that evidence of that would never become available, as those spending the money would not expose the action. Does my hon. Friend agree that The Sunday Times has done British democracy a favour through the investigation in exposing such gross behaviour, which must be scrutinised by the House of Commons ?
Mr. Brown : I am trying to make the case for my motion in as neutral a way as I can, while still placing the facts in the public domain. It is clearly my duty to say what the issues are without trying to take sides in too partisan a way.
Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw) : Is my hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) has made a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission, which has now said that it will investigate his complaint ? Would it be right for the PCC to investigate and pronounce judgment before the Committee of Privileges has had a chance to sit ? It may not start sitting until October, and it may not produce anything until January or February. What would happen if the PCC came to a verdict before the Committee of Privileges ?
Mr. Brown : I was not aware that the complaint had been made. We are trying to establish an organisation with authority, and there is already an established body that has the authority to make investigations in its own different arena. I am certain that it is not for me to tell it how to proceed or to conduct its affairs. It is clearly open to the "Insight" team to mount a defence of their actions on the grounds of public interest. I share what I think is the general prejudice against entrapment.
Mr. Tim Devlin (Stockton, South) : I am interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, because surely there would be a defence if the "Insight" team had been trying to reveal an activity that it was suspected was happening in this place. I have been a Member only seven years, but I have spoken to a number of hon. Members from both sides of the House, and no one has ever heard of an instance of someone attempting to bribe a Member of Parliament to table a question in the House. Is not that the reason we are having this debate ?
Mr. Brown : The reason that we are having this debate is that a number of hon. Members wrote to Madam Speaker following the publication of The Sunday Times article. You, Madam Speaker, made your statement to the House yesterday, which facilitated this motion. That is the reason we are having today's debate.
I am trying hard to introduce the motion in a neutral way, without denying the House the explanation of what lies behind it. I do not think that I am helped in that by interventions that invite me to go further than I should now into the matters of substance. I hope that, if the Committee of Privileges decides that it wishes to meet the "Insight" team, they will, if asked, willingly co-operate with its inquiry.
The "Insight" team have also said that they started their entrapment procedure because a business man had told them that he was in the business of giving Members of Parliament money to table questions. Will the "Insight" team be obliged to answer the questions that should be put to them : who is that business man, and what real evidence have the "Insight" team got ?
Mr. Brown : That is exactly what I asked the House not to do in response to the last intervention. Clearly, that is a matter for the Committee of Privileges to consider. My motion seeks to get the issue--and, indeed, some wider issues--to the Committee of Privileges and to allow it to consider how best to proceed. Certainly it is not my place to tell it how to proceed.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : This is a serious debate, and not a matter for joking. Will the remit of the Committee include those Members of the House who engage an excessive number of research assistants, many from America, who obtain information from the Library to enable them to get their D.Phil, doctorate or whatever ? That is a nuisance to every Member of the House.
Mr. Brown : Frankly, I had not given that matter the consideration that I perhaps should have done. Again, I feel that I am being drawn into the details of the matter, when I want to deal at this stage with the broader questions of principle.
Yesterday, Madam Speaker, you spoke of the
"urgent need to clarify the law of Parliament in that area." You gave that as a specific reason for granting the motion today. You also said that the Committee would 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."--[ Official Report , 12 July 1994 ; Vol.246, c. 829.]
It is a difficult area.
An excellent research paper prepared by the home affairs section of the House of Commons Library sets out the background to the topic, and explores the problems. There is a widespread fear among many who originally supported the Register of Members' Interests that it acts more as a licence than as a safeguard.