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Column 1021Commons, and will faithfully and truly declare my mind and opinion on all matters that come before me without fear or favour." That is from the Privy Councillor's oath, which the Lord President has declined to publish. Happily, I did it for him some time ago. If Parliament is to be credible, people must know that when we come here we are public servants. No one would argue that we do not bring our experience to the House or that we may not do other things in parallel--some Members of Parliament write, for instance--but that is quite different from being paid to perform an aspect of one's parliamentary duties.
Mr. Bottomley : I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. His speech is interesting, but I seem to recall his saying on the radio that he had failed to persuade members of his own party of various things that he thought were right, and then saying that he had best explain or put forward what he disagreed with. If the point of view in the second part of his speech includes his diary form, I think that many people will find points to criticise ; the first part was rather better.
Mr. Benn : I will conclude by putting to the House some proposals that I believe the Committee should consider. First, I propose that every Member of Parliament should be required to list the sources, though not the amounts, of all his or her financial interests. Secondly, the procedure for Ministers should apply to all of us. Thirdly, certain financial interests should be held to disqualify a person from serving in the House of Commons. As you know, Madam Speaker, an office of profit under the Crown disqualifies : it is not possible to serve the Executive and be a member of the legislature. That is an old principle and is the reason why Members of Parliament wishing to retire apply for the Chiltern Hundreds. But are there not other offices which should disqualify ? I think that at one stage people working for contractors to Government Departments were included. If people are engaged in making money as a result of being in Parliament, is that not a disqualifying office ? I believe that the rules, whatever they are, should be embodied in statute and not just in the "old boy" regulations of the House.
I also believe that every candidate should publish his or her interests with the nominations papers, and that all organisations making payments of any kind to any Member of Parliament should be required to make a declaration to that effect in a separate register. If an organisation pays a Member of Parliament, it should be under a statutory responsibility to declare, "We paid that Member for that purpose." All lobbyists should declare the names of all persons whom they employ for that purpose, and the list should be published. When a Member declares an interest when speaking or voting--as he should--that interest should be printed in Hansard , having been picked up from the Register. The oath should oblige us to do all those things.
No doubt the Committee of Privileges will examine the question of the Members concerned and what happened in the current instance in detail, some of which has been touched on today. However, I urge the House not to allow
Column 1022this opportunity to deal with the wider question to pass. If people at home not only hear what is happening in the House but wonder whether the newspapers pay for things to be done which they subsequently report independently, as part of the democratic process, the House will do itself a disservice and will richly merit criticism.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. First, however, I should like to thank you personally, Madam Speaker, for responding to my letter and to those of many others giving us an opportunity to have this debate. As a result, I hope that the Privileges Committee will be able to look into the matter.
I want to make it clear to Opposition Members that I have no objection to the Privileges Committee sitting in public or to everything being recorded. In fact, I look forward to the tape recordings of my conversations being heard in full. I welcome that. I believe that they would have the same effect as the Richard Nixon tapes had on Richard Nixon and on the individual who obtained those recordings. [Interruption.]
Mr. Walker : From time to time The Sunday Times gives us titbits of news which it thinks will titillate the interest of the public at large and help the newspaper's circulation. I am concerned that from now on the newspapers should not use edited versions of recordings in order to increase their circulation. I have made my view clear : I am happy to have the tapes involving me heard and printed in full in the Committee report. I welcome the fact that the Privileges Committee has the powers that it has and I trust that it will use them. The Sunday Times claims that the methods used were justified and in the public interest. Consequently, I believe that it could not object if I were to tell the House the name and address of the business man, the potential investor and job creator, who told me that he had given up being a haulage contractor because he had come into a substantial inheritance which he wished to invest in a company manufacturing a new drug that would be a cure for a particular type of serious throat problem. The House will recollect that last year I was off ill for quite some time with just such a health problem. Was I not the right chap to approach with that sort of instant cure ? I should certainly have thought so. The idea of a cure together with the prospect of jobs was what made me interested in the gentleman--or rather the agent provocateur, con man, liar and cheat--who tried to get me to accept a cheque, which I refused, and who recorded all our conversations on the telephone and all the conversations held in my room in the House without my knowledge.
If Jonathan Calvert of 35 Cambridge Cottages, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 3AY is listening, I hope that he will recollect that I also have his telephone number--081 940 2534--on which I have spoken to his wife. I obtained the clear impression that he was genuine.
I ask hon. Members to think carefully. The right to ask questions and to have questions answered is the
Column 1023cornerstone of our unwritten constitution. Anyone tampering with that for whatever motive--or ulterior motive--should be dealt with severely by Parliament.
I am prepared--I imagine that I have no choice--to appear before the Committee of Privileges. If I have erred, as I often do--I live in a house full of women who constantly remind me of that--the Committee will quite properly point out my erring ways. If The Sunday Times has erred--I believe that it has erred in a ghastly way--the Committee should treat it properly as well.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey) : I hope that the House will vote for the motion, and that the Leader of the House will ensure that the Committee is set up speedily, which I know he will want to do. I am sure that that is the mood of the House. At this stage, I do not intend to dwell on the behaviour of the press. It is right that that should be investigated and, like the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), I am certainly not convinced that the press complaints procedure is an effective guardian of the public interest. It may be that the behaviour of the press in this context needs to come back to us in the House. I hope that your statement, Madam Speaker, was so clear that the Committee of Privileges will be under no misapprehension. I believe that both halves of the motion should be followed comprehensively. The Committee should look not only into the specific matter of the complaints relating to two colleagues, but consider all the matters that flow from that and are related to it. That means that three separate matters need to be examined by the Committee.
The first is that there may well be contempt of Parliament by colleagues, because one of the allegations clearly implies that hon. Members might be in contempt. I should add that we are all and always prospectively at risk of that, and I do not want to suggest that at different times any of us might not be. It is clear from the wording on page 119 of "Erskine May" that
"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" is a breach of privilege and puts the Member in contempt. Two types of effort are made to influence us here. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) gave me a specific example of a type of effort made by many. When he ceased to be the leader of our party, he was approached by a consultancy firm offering him a five-figure sum for one year simply to book rooms for entertaining and to look after clients of a consultancy. That is entirely inappropriate. My right hon. Friend declined that offer clearly, having, in his own words, been "astounded" that it had been made. That is one level of activity which involves using the building and facilitating contacts. Another level of activity is attempting to influence the business in the Chamber--speaking, voting and tabling motions and questions. The matters raised in the motion and in The Sunday Times relate to that much more central matter of the business of Parliament. Attempts were made to influence the business of Parliament, with money as the reward.
Column 1024Those of us who have been taught the criminal law are taught about the legal difference between attempting to do something which can actually be done, such as stealing something, or attempting to do something illegal that one cannot do, for example because there is nothing to steal. I hope that the Committee will not find on a technicality that, because there was no real company and because people were pretending something, there was not an offence. I hope that the Committee will exclude that, because the issue is as serious as if it were a real company and a real individual seeking to influence us in some way.
Secondly, there may be contempt--on the face of it, it looks as if there is --by those who attempted to bribe 20 hon. Members. I do not know whether other people have done that before, but your statement, Madam Speaker, made it clear that you wanted the wide rather than the narrow set of issues to be considered.
It is also clear that the Committee can find such action to be in breach of privilege, and that it can deal with it. On both of those matters, you rightly made the point yesterday, Madam Speaker, that the law of the land was not clear. There is ambiguity as to whether, in ordinary criminal law, such action could also land anyone before the courts--when would contempt in this place also be illegal outside ? That matter should be sorted out.
We must know whether any person who approached our 20 colleagues was guilty of a criminal offence, and whether hon. Members who respond to such an approach and accept and pocket money are also guilty of a criminal offence. The matter should be made clear, and the public should know what the position is. If the law needs to be amended, it should be. The Committee should deal with the matter. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) alluded to the third issue, which is a subsidiary one but linked to the main issues, as your statement, Madam Speaker, made clear. It relates to whether the Register of Members' Interests is sufficient to achieve the purposes for which it was intended.
First, hon. Members do not have to declare an interest until a month afterwards. Secondly, the Register, although it is published annually, updated periodically in a loose form and can be inspected, is by definition not up to date in a public form. The relevance of an interest may be past by the time it is in the public domain. It may be no good, for example, for people to discover only a year afterwards that an hon. Member was given money for an air ticket to North Korea. The relevance may be when the payment was made, not later.
Thirdly, and perhaps most important, currently we do not have to declare the value of the interest. The register is almost useless unless the actual amount of money that passes hands appears in it. There is all the difference in the world between being paid tuppence and being paid £1 million to do something. The amounts that people receive for their non- parliamentary duties should be explicitly included in the register for everyone to see. [Interruption.] The register should include everyone, and all the money that hon. Members receive other than as a result of their parliamentary duties.
Column 1025Another issue may also be debated later tonight--an appropriate amendment has been tabled, although I do not know yet whether it has been accepted. I have argued my case on the issue, and I have previously forced votes on it. In my view, all the money that we receive from elsewhere should be deducted from what we earn as a Member of Parliament. [Interruption.] I should add that that view is not shared by every one of my parliamentary colleagues, let alone other hon. Members. A significant number of people share my view, and it has been placed on the record before. Many hon. Members resist such a view. It would embarrass them publicly if their constituents knew how much money they earn as a result of being elected to this place which they would not have earned if they had not been elected. In any event, however, it cannot be right that the taxpayer foots the bill for answers to questions from which hon. Members can gain private financial reward, because, by this means, the taxpayer is lining the pockets of hon. Members who accept money.
When hon. Members go to the Table Office and table an early-day motion, they are required to say whether they have a relevant interest to declare. There is no reason why there should not be the same requirement when we table a question. We should declare an interest. If we are in breach, at least we have been alerted, and have failed to declare the interest knowingly.
It may be argued that it is also nonsense for the taxpayer to pay, through the licence fee, the British Broadcasting Corporation, which then pays hon. Members to appear on television. We are elected to represent different views. [Interruption.] It does on certain occasions. Television and radio payments should also be in the public domain.
When we visit our constituents, a common view is that Members of Parliament are here for their own advancement and interest. A common view is that we are here to make a profit for ourselves. A common view is that we do financially very well and that we have our snouts in the trough.
If we are to enhance democracy, the Committee should consider that issue as widely as possible ; otherwise, we will be regarded as open to the same form of corruption as some other democracies around the world. Your statement, Madam Speaker, made it clear that you would find that unacceptable. I hope that the Committee will be as tough as possible, to ensure that the system is clearly organised to be protection against any risk of corruption of this sort again. 5.56 pm
Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley) : I think that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and others raised some interesting points about the Press Complaints Commission, and, in particular, my complaint to it, and I intend to consider what they have said. Madam Speaker, I am thoroughly relieved that you have proposed the setting up of the Committee of Privileges. It means that I will have my peers from this House, and not the press, sitting in judgment over me. I too, therefore, support the motion.
I very much regret what I hope the House will accept was a lack of judgment on my part rather than anything worse, and I apologise to you, Madam Speaker, and the House that it is in part actions by me which have made it necessary for you to initiate the debate.
Column 1026I feel that the House will agree that now is not the time to go through in detail the sequence of events that took place. I will, of course, be talking to the Committee. But as the House, I think, knows, I was approached by a Mr. Jonathan Calvert--that name again. He claimed to be a business man, but he turned out later to be a Sunday Times journalist.
I recognise that I was unwise to have even considered doing what he asked me to do. Consultancy was mentioned. He told me that he had been advised by a former constituent of mine that I was always prepared to help small business men. He talked about his Yorkshire connections, but I accept that I made an error of judgment in agreeing to table a question and in agreeing initially to accept a fee.
I can tell the House that soon after I started to reflect on what I had agreed. I came to my own conclusion that I could not justify accepting a fee, and I decided that I would not accept the payment. This was before the Department of Social Security had told me that it did not know anything about the fictitious company and before I knew that I was the victim of an elaborate Sunday Times scam. I returned to my Yorkshire home last Thursday. The cheque arrived on Friday morning. I sent the cheque back by return of post on that Friday.
Madam Speaker, I am grateful for your decision to refer the behaviour of The Sunday Times to the Committee of Privileges. It does seem to me to be somewhat dubious, to say the least, that a journalist from a national newspaper should masquerade as a business man and tell a Member of Parliament a tissue of lies to manufacture a story.
Beyond the challenge to my own integrity, which I deeply regret, the thing that has mortified me the most is that my judgment may have undermined the general standing of Members of Parliament, and even perhaps have damaged the reputation of this Parliament. I regard it as an enormous honour and privilege to serve in the House of Commons and to be able to help my constituents as their Member of Parliament. I am sure that that is the view of most--if not all--hon. Members. I apologise for the trouble that I have created for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, for whom I have so enjoyed working, and for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the very time when he was fighting for Britain's interests in Naples. But most of all-- [Interruption.]
Sir John Gorst : On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick) is virtually making an apology to the House. On such occasions, the House usually hears hon. Members in silence and toleration. I wonder whether you could encourage such conduct on this occasion.
Column 1027Member. I look forward to giving evidence to the Select Committee on Privileges, in which I have complete faith and confidence. 6.1 pm
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : I want to make a short contribution on a narrow point but to take a little further the contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) and that by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn).
To the best of my knowledge, the motion provides an opportunity, which the House should seize, for us to attend in detail for the first time in some 15 years to the immunities granted to Members of Parliament. They are immunities-- [Interruption.]
Madam Speaker : Order. I have just asked for order for one hon. Member, and other hon. Members are equally entitled to it. Will those who are having meetings do so outside the Chamber ? May I have the doors closed ? Will hon. Members either come in or leave ? I do not want any more meetings in the Chamber. An hon. Member is on his feet and I want to hear him.
This debate provides the House with an opportunity that should be grasped. Many hon. Members in the Chamber today--perhaps the majority--were probably elected after 1979, after some turbulent Sessions during which one hon. Member resigned and three were called to book, after the Select Committee that investigated the conduct of Members reported and after various other events in the late 1970s which, of course, brought into being the Register of Members' Interests.
In many ways, we have been here before. When we examined the immunity of Members of Parliament in the past, we were found wanting--we cannot fail this time. Although we have to ask the Privileges Committee to examine the immunities from the law of the land which are granted to Members of Parliament and which set us apart from our fellow citizens, it is not generally appreciated that our immunities go beyond free speech.
I often hear it said on the radio in the morning that Members of Parliament in Italy or Russia are voting to grant or remove immunity from prosecution for some malfeasance, and I think that at least that does not happen here. However, the fact is that we have certain immunities that go beyond that of free speech. Free speech is the crucial immunity ; it is very narrow but sets us apart from our constituents. It is a specific immunity in respect of our duties in the House. It therefore elevates our duties in this House above everything else and separates us from our fellow citizens. That is where we should draw the line.
We hear about "the law of Parliament" or "the High Court of Parliament"-- indeed, we heard such language in your statement yesterday, Madam Speaker-- but I submit that there is no such thing. I think that we should all be equal before the common and criminal law. It is a matter that we, as a House, have been asked to deal with in the past but which the House has refused to address. I remind the House why that was so.
In respect of our parliamentary duties and our actions in Parliament, we, as Members of Parliament, have an immunity in the criminal law from charges of corruption,
Column 1028bribery and attempted bribery. Outside we are equal ; inside we are not. I do not think that that should be the case. I want the Select Committee to widen its remit, as the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) has suggested.
We govern ourselves essentially by self-regulation, but we have to ask ourselves whether the Committee of Privileges and the Register of Members' Interests are good enough. Do our constituents believe that we all receive equal treatment ? The Register of Members' Interests is of fairly recent origin--it did not exist when I was elected just over 20 years ago. To some extent, it has been strengthened, but is it good enough ? It has already been called into question today. I wonder whether the ultimate sanction of an inquiry by the Committee of Privileges is sufficient but, fortunately, we do not have to reinvent the wheel.
I should like the Committee of Privileges to revisit the report of the Royal Commission on standards of conduct in public life, which has never been debated in the House. It was published in July 1976 after an inquiry that commenced in December 1974. It has never been the subject of debate. I asked my colleagues in the Labour Government and I have asked this Government by means of parliamentary questions in the early 1980s to allow the House to debate the report. I do not deny that many of the report's recommendations, in so far as they affect our fellow citizens in business and local government, have been implemented over the years, but some of its recommendations relating to this place have not been dealt with. The report was published under the guidance of the commission's chairman, Lord Salmon, in July 1976, 18 years ago. It is Cmnd. 6524. Let us consider dates for a moment. The Register of Members' Interests was set up by resolution in June 1975 ; and the Royal Commission on standards of conduct in public life was sitting at that time and taking evidence from various people.
I draw the House's attention to the report's conclusions. Chapter 17 is entitled "The law affecting Members of Parliament" and runs to only 12 paragraphs. The conclusions and recommendations are worth putting on record. The final paragraph-311-states :
"Membership of Parliament is a great honour and carries with it a special duty to maintain the highest standards of probity, and this duty has almost invariably been strictly observed. Nevertheless in view of our report as a whole, and especially in the light of the points set out in the foregoing paragraph, we recommend that Parliament should consider bringing corruption, bribery and attempted bribery of a Member of Parliament acting in his Parliamentary capacity within the ambit of the criminal law. Our recommendation is limited to this single point, and we do not raise any questions about other aspects of Parliamentary privilege and related matters." That recommendation has never been debated by the House or by any Select Committee. Part of the background to that recommendation is the fact that the commission felt strongly that Parliament is not a public body for the purposes of the Public Bodies Corrupt Practices Act 1889 ; Members of Parliament are not agents for the purposes of the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906 ; and, in fact, membership of this House is not a public office for the purposes of the common law. Of course Ministers, in their capacity as Ministers, are public officials, so they are separate. But our status is unique. In this country we are immune ; we are the prosecutors, the jury and the judge. That is wrong. Now the Privileges Committee has the opportunity to address that issue. I make no comment
Column 1029whatever on the merits of the arguments. I know that some hon. Members have done so, but I think that they have been unwise, bearing in mind the fact that the Select Committee on Privileges is not yet constituted.
I finish by reminding the House that during my exchanges with the Government concerning the lack of serious attention to the report, I once asked the Home Secretary
"what proposal he has in mind to improve the standards of conduct in public life."
The answer that I received was :
"To set a good example to others."--[ Official Report , 15 June 1979 ; Vol. 968, c. 343 .]
That was in the days when we had a gent as Home Secretary ; he is now Lord Whitelaw. His answer was not a Willieism ; it was actually true. We are here to set a good example to others.
The lack of attention that the House has given over the years to the royal commission report as it affects our vested interests means that we have failed in our duty to our constituents. I look upon the motion as an opportunity for us to make amends for our negligence in the 18 years since the report was published.
Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West) : I shall make two brief points. First, I had a telephone call last week ; I believe that it was from a Mr. Calvert, but unfortunately I threw away the pink slip. I gave the name to my secretary and said, "I have never heard of this guy, and I have never heard of the company. Could you please ring him ?" That was the end of it.
I do not want to comment on the position of my two hon. Friends. One of them has explained his position, and the matter will go to the Committee. However, one or two aspects involving The Sunday Times need examining. In connection with entrapment and other such ensnaring schemes, the press code mentions suspicion of a misdemeanour, and the general public interest. The only suspicion that the newspaper could have had of me derives from the fact that, like most of the other Tory Members who were contacted, I am a member of Lloyd's. So I do not think that The Sunday Times could claim that what it did was in the public interest.
The Committee must examine that matter, because that was the newspaper's only possible excuse for bribing Members of Parliament, for coming on the premises of the House with recording equipment and for encouraging Members of Parliament to table questions, knowing full well that those questions would cost the taxpayer money. Perhaps for a start The Sunday Times could reimburse the two Departments for the cost of answering them. I hope that the Committee investigates carefully the role of The Sunday Times in the saga. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said that when one signs an early-day motion and has an interest in a company, trade association or whatever, one's interest must be marked as having been registered. I do not see why that cannot apply to questions, too.
In any case, I think that questions are a hugely overrated technique. Why should one want to table a question, unless one wanted information quickly ? Surely if one wants information one can write to a Minister, ask for a meeting with a Minister or ring him up. Only in extreme cases would one want to table a question. I have not had the answers that I wanted to the questions that I have tabled
Column 1030during the past year. I have always found it far more helpful to write to a Minister. Perhaps one consequence of this unhappy saga will be that less taxpayers' money will be wasted in answering questions--apart, that is, from questions for oral answer. The subject of Members' outside interests has been touched on, and the inquiry may consider that subject in some detail. I declare an interest as a paid director of a company, or a paid consultant to a trade association. I do not hide such connections. I am proud of the role that I play. However, if the Committee is to examine interests it must also consider Members who are sponsored by trade unions, and Opposition Members who are paid by airlines from other countries to visit them. If Members will be influenced by directorships, surely they will be equally influenced by unions sponsoring them in their constituencies and paying for their offices and other expenses. On that note, I feel that the matter should be committed, and that is why I support the motion.
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead) : At least two thoughts occurred to me while I was listening to the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) telling us about the banqueter who offered a five- figure sum as an inducement to the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel). First, I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman had reported the improper approach to the House authorities. Secondly, I wondered who got the job after he had turned it down.
I do not think that this has been an especially edifying parliamentary occasion. Conservative Members, for the most part, have not approached the debate with the seriousness and humility that I had imagined they would display. It has not been a pretty sight to watch them braying at the Murdoch newspaper empire--that was not a sound that we heard when on polling day The Sun ran pictures of the former Leader of the Opposition on its front page, headlined : "Will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights ?"
Nor did we hear it the next day, when The Sun trumpeted : "It's The Sun wot won it".
It seemed then that the devil Murdoch could be supped with using the shortest of spoons. So it is not convincing when Conservative Members now claim that the Murdoch empire is engaged in a profoundly anti-Conservative crusade.
I have no animus against the two individuals involved in the story. Indeed, with one of them, the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Riddick), I have a friendly relationship. I simply wish, as I suppose he now wishes, that he had not been quite so zealous in his unsubstantiated denunciations of the activities of Monklands district councillors in the very week when he was making what he now concedes were errors of judgment. Certainly if a Monklands district councillor had accepted £1,000 from anyone for doing anything in the council he would now be behind bars. That may be a lesson to Members of Parliament to avoid casually imputing dishonesty to others, especially people who cannot answer back.
I am no zealot about work outside Parliament. I do not agree with those of my hon. Friends who say that we should not have other jobs, nor with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, who says that we should hand the money back. I occasionally write for money, for
Column 1031newspapers and magazines including occasionally, in years gone by, The Sunday Times under a previous editor. However, there is all the difference in the world between work of that nature, and registered consultancies with companies--again, I disagree with some of my hon. Friends here--and the acceptance of money for one-off parliamentary acts such as tabling a question.
Somebody asked me today what the moral difference was between a consultancy and a one-off question. I put it to him with what I hope is not too colourful a metaphor to use in the presence of ladies, including yourself, Madam Speaker. At least a consultancy is transparent, rather like a declaration of marriage between the company and the Member of Parliament. Everyone can see that the Member has that relationship, and knows that the marriage will involve the invoking of conjugal rights by one party or the other from time to time. But the act of tabling a question for a big one- off fee is more akin to a five-minute knee-trembler down by the railway line in exchange for a quick cheque. The difference between the two kinds of commerce is like the difference between such rampant commercial promiscuity and open transparent marriage.
It will not do for Conservative Members to think that the public regard whatever sin has been committed by The Sunday Times in the same light as whatever sin has been committed by Members of Parliament who have accepted money in that way. In fact, most members of the public will regard The Sunday Times as having carried out a signal public duty in exposing transactions that ought not to have taken place, as at least one hon. Member has had the grace to concede this evening. In exposing that, the newspaper has done a public duty.
I hope that what The Sunday Times has done is not used as an excuse for the introduction of new curbs against the press or new privacy laws, as has been attempted in the recent past in the House. Such legislation would build high walls and dig deep moats around the lives of Members of Parliament and powerful and rich people so that they might repel all would- be boarders who wanted to see what those rich, powerful and important people--people like us, business people and others--were actually doing.
The tossing around of the word "bribery" in respect of what The Sunday Times did is ill advised because bribery is a criminal offence and, as a criminal offence, requires criminal intent. My dear friend the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Central (Mr. Darling), who is a barrister, has told me that the Latin phrase used is "mens rea", which I take to mean the question of the intention behind the money being offered. There cannot be criminal intent in offering money to expose malfeasance or to expose an abuse in public life ; that cannot be true. It is simply a contradiction in terms. If the money was offered for the noble purpose of exposing a wrongdoing, it should not be condemned with the ignoble use of the word "bribery".
I wish the Committee godspeed. I hope that it goes about its work diligently, I hope that it does so publicly and I hope that it does so with the view of improving the standing of this House in the public eye, compared with the rather parlous state it is in, I fear, at the minute.
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Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay) : Your statement yesterday, Madam Speaker, which was the catalyst for this evening's debate, will be remembered in the House as a wise adjudication and as a timely opportunity to examine the relationship between the media and this House. I have worked --I declare an interest--for The Sunday Times . I believe that The Sunday Times "Insight" team has had a long and honourable tradition of exposing corruption and treachery. When I worked for The Sunday Times , we were able to expose two hitherto unknown traitors and I believe that that was in the public interest. In the 1960s, the "Insight" team gained considerable admiration for its work in exposing the Whitehall cover-up of Kim Philby. Bruce Page and Philip Knightley were primarily responsible for the investigation and exposure of that episode.
I fear that since those days, investigative journalism has changed. I fear that since the days of Watergate, the journalistic school of Woodward and Bernstein has encouraged journalists to target people in public life. It has made it the acme of journalists' ambition to bring down somebody in public life. In the case of Woodward and Bernstein, it was, of course, the late Richard Nixon.
The reality is that, in this case, clandestine recordings have been made. Conversations have been taped illicitly in the Palace of Westminster. That raises important issues which, I hope, the Committee will investigate. If The Sunday Times can demonstrate a legitimate complaint from an authentic source--the Privileges Committee will need to take evidence on that topic-- I well recognise the newspaper's right to pursue its investigations. Investigative journalism is not, however, a licence to invade privacy. According to the terms of the code of practice published by the Press Complaints Commission, clandestine methods, such as recording, are justifiable only when there is no other method of obtaining the information. If there was widespread corruption or, indeed, any corruption in the House, and if there had been rumours, hon. Members on both sides would have heard those rumours. We now know that, since January, The Sunday Times has been on a quest to ferret out corruption. If the journalists were in pursuit of a single legitimate, authentic complaint, they could, of course, have targeted the person or persons who were the subject of the complaint. However, we now know that hon. Members who, in my judgment, are of considerable probity were approached and offered money. They are individuals whose previous reputation is completely untarnished, even by rumour. The journalists who undertook the investigation will have to answer some very severe questions. Was this, for example, the only way in which they could obtain the evidence ? Was there any supporting evidence that justified their actions ?
The fact is that the relationship between Members of Parliament and the media will now be investigated by the Committee and I welcome that. I recall making allegations in the House about Robert Maxwell. Soon afterwards, I was interviewed in the Lobby by a journalist in the pay of Robert Maxwell who manufactured a completely bogus story alleging that I had a pecuniary interest in making my remarks and complaints. In fact
Column 1033What is more remarkable is that a few days after an apology had been made in the High Court, the same journalist went round many Opposition Members attempting to create an early-day motion that was critical of my conduct. I have many friends among Opposition Members and I was alerted to what was happening. Again, that matter became the subject of litigation.
The conduct of the press has now got completely out of control in this House. Although there is always the justification of public interest, I hope that the Committee will look carefully at the way in which journalists behave, not just in the Palace, but elsewhere.
Mr. John Butcher (Coventry, South-West) : My hon. Friend will know that The Sunday Times has asserted that 20 names were chosen at random. The newspaper drew a blank on 16 of them. Does he agree that the Committee should brook no refusal by The Sunday Times to supply the names of all those approached so that we may know either the scale of the operation that was mounted or whether a truly random sample was put together ?
Mr. Allason : My hon. Friend makes an important point. You will have noticed during the afternoon, Madam Speaker, that several hon. Members have declared that they were the subject of approaches from The Sunday Times . What is curious is that as far as am aware--I have sat through the debate from the beginning--no Opposition Member has declared that he was approached by The Sunday Times . It is important that The Sunday Times declares the matter fully to the Committee ; there should be no excuses.
If the excuse is used that the newspaper has to protect its sources, I remind you, Madam Speaker, and the Committee that on the previous occasion that that defence was deployed--during the Vassall tribunal when two journalists went to prison for refusing to reveal their sources--the reason why the journalists went to prison was that they did not have any sources. They had made up the story and it was on that occasion that the two journalists were exposed and Fleet street itself was exposed for the most disgraceful hypocrisy.
I carry no brief to prevent journalists from investigating issues in the public interest. I have seen no evidence at all so far that anything that has taken place in the past few days, which has tarnished the reputation of hon. Members whom I count among my friends, has been in the public interest.