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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Legal aid is a matter for the Lord Chancellor's Department. On Question 31, there were three supplementaries. The first might be judged a smear. You, Madam Speaker, ruled the second out of order. The third was a lengthy question from the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris), who asked about civil legal aid. As the question went on, I accused him of bias and of moving away from the point.

If that was interpreted as a comment on your ruling, Madam Speaker, I apologise unreservedly. However, it is very exasperating when a right hon. Member is allowed to ramble on, away from the point, so that right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House are held up when they try to deal with points relating to your own statement. Nevertheless, I apologise if my remarks came out wrong.

Madam Speaker: I understand what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Of course I am always willing to learn, but I do not think that I need any lessons from the hon. Gentleman. However, if he thinks that there are lessons that I can learn from that exchange, perhaps he will use the Order Paper to put down a substantive question.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Further to that point of order--

Madam Speaker: Order. I understood the hon. Gentleman, and I certainly accept his apology, if he has apologised to me. That matter is ended now, and I would like it to finish right away. I have made my point.

Mr. Bottomley: In my point of order, Madam Speaker, I plainly explained what was in my mind, and I unreservedly withdrew my remarks if they were interpreted as criticism of the Chair. If I may respectfully say so, the remarks that followed were not called for.

Hon. Members: Order!

Madam Speaker: Order. All through Question Time, I have my ears riveted to what is being said, but I can also hear what goes on in other parts of the Chamber. I think that I heard clearly, but I accept the right hon. Gentleman's apology, which I believe is what it was, if there was any misunderstanding. I think that the matter should be left there.

Mr. John Hutton (Barrow and Furness): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received any request for a statement to be made in respect of the proposed acquisition of--Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd. in my constituency by GEC or British Aerospace? Six thousand jobs in my constituency are completely dependent on VSEL, and my constituents would welcome the opportunity for the Government to clear up any confusion about whether they would block either of those bids for VSEL.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Is it not extraordinary, when many thousands of jobs are at stake, not only at Barrow-in-Furness but on the Clyde at Yarrow, when

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there are hugely important matters of national interest in warship building, and the taxpayer's interest facing the prospect of a single provider and a single purchaser--

Madam Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman must come to his point of order for me. We are not in debate.

Dr. Cunningham: Is it not extraordinary that the House is denied the opportunity to question Ministers? Will the Leader of the House assure us that a statement will be made to the House of the Government's intentions? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I can respond to those points of order. I should prefer that they had been put to me correctly. I have not received any request by a Minister to make a statement on these matters.

Mr. Oliver Heald (Hertfordshire, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Would it be in order for the Committee of Privileges to start a separate inquiry, in addition to your own, into the behaviour of the editor of The Guardian so that-- [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order. I am on my feet.

As I think the hon. Gentleman and the House knows--if they do not, let me make it quite clear--I will always look at matters of privilege, which the hon. Gentleman is now raising, but they must be put to me in writing. I hope that any other hon. Member who wishes to raise such matters will first put them to me in writing, so that I may look at them and respond properly.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Are you aware that Westminster underground station has been closed for most of today, first because a scaffolding pole fell on to the platform, and now because it has flooded? Obviously that is to the inconvenience of hon. Members and others, but there is also concern about the amount of work that is being undertaken in that area.

We heard over the weekend that Big Ben, apparently, was trying to relocate itself--though somewhat slowly--from the building, and, of course, we know that Members of Parliament are very capable of digging themselves into holes, but I would not like us to fall into a hole dug by someone else. Can you call for a report from London Underground and those responsible for the construction that is going on, so that we know that the highest safety standards are being adhered to and that corners are not being cut on the grounds of expense?

Madam Speaker: I have been informed that, shortly after 9 am, a metal object fell through a glass roof on to the walkway leading to Westminster station. The station was closed and work on the Westminster station section of the Jubilee line extension suspended while a full inquiry was carried out. I understand that London Underground is working to reopen the subway under Bridge street and Westminster station at the earliest opportunity.

So far as Big Ben is concerned, no excavations have begun. If there are any, we shall be monitoring them, and let me tell the House that, as I am the one person who lives under Big Ben, I shall be the first to see that everything is in order in that area.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North): Further to your statement, Madam Speaker. In addition to his unsavoury

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relationship with Mr. Al Fayed, which I understand goes back rather further than the House or the public have been led to believe, the editor of The Guardian , who has misappropriated paper from the House, has forged a letter purporting to come from a Minister of the Crown and has sought to impersonate a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Defence. I have written to you, Madam Speaker, to ask that Mr. Preston be brought to the Bar of this House. Will you please arrange for that to be done?

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Madam Speaker: Order. If the hon. Gentleman had looked at his mail, he would have seen that I have replied to him. I signed the letter before I came to the House this very afternoon. I will take no further points of order on this matter. I made it quite clear to the House, in a very carefully worded statement, what I was about to do, and I shall not have anything further to say until I receive the Sergeant's report. That is the way in which we proceed in this House.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): When the debate takes place later today, there will be a need for some hon. Members to declare their interests, as usual when debates take place in the House. In view of the developments over the weekend, when it was reported that 51 Tory Members of Parliament have benefited by having a tax write-off because they invested in the Lloyd's gambling den and lost money, will they have to declare that interest? Will they have to declare their interests in the debate this afternoon?

Madam Speaker: All hon. Members are fully aware of their obligation to the House. If there is any interest, they must declare it at the beginning of their speech.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Upminster): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The House will rise for a short period in four days' time. Can you give us an undertaking that the Serjeant-at-Arms will report to you before it rises, so that these serious matters can be examined before we leave?

Madam Speaker: As the House knows, the rising of the House is not in my hands. I am working every minute of the day on the issue.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Have you received any request from a Minister in either the Scottish Office or the Department of Transport to make a statement to the House about the grounding this morning of yet another factory vessel in my constituency? I ask particularly in the light of Lord Donaldson's recommendation in May that, before the onset of winter, the United Kingdom's Fisheries Departments should state that they would not entertain an application for a transshipment licence unless the master showed adequate insurance and a minimum of safety standards.

Madam Speaker: I have not been told that a Minister is seeking to make any statement on the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You made it perfectly clear that you were already examining the question of Mr. Preston. May I ask you whether it is within the competence of the Select

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Committee that has already been established to include an inquiry into that case in its terms of reference, without a further reference of a complaint from the House?

Madam Speaker: The answer to that is a clear no. As I tried to explain earlier--perhaps I did not make myself clear--if there are references of that nature, they must come to me in writing for examination in the first instance.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Further to your statement, should not the editor of The Guardian have asked you whether he could come here--

Madam Speaker: Order. The House is now carrying things too far. I have made a carefully worded statement, but I believe that hon. Members came here fully determined to put a point of order irrespective of whether I had made a statement. I ask them to respect the proceedings of the House, and to look very carefully at the statement that I have just made. I think that we should now make some progress on the important debate that is to follow.


Private Security (Registration)

Mr. Bruce George, supported by Mr. David Atkinson, Sir Nicholas Bonsor, Mr. Menzies Campbell, Mr. Don Dixon, Dr. John Gilbert, Mr. Keith Hill, Mr. John Home Robertson, Ms Glenda Jackson, Mr. Michael Shersby, Sir James Spicer and Sir Keith Speed. presented a Bill to provide for the establishment of a Private Security Registration Council and to give that Council powers and functions for the regulation of firms offering private security services and of persons employed as private security agents; to require the registration of such firms and persons with the Council; to impose requirements upon such firms and persons; to make provision for training of persons employed as private security agents; to make provision for compensation to be paid in respect of inadequately insured death or injury arising from the activities of such firms and persons; to define offences and specify penalties; and for connected purposes: and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Thursday 3 November, and to be printed. [Bill 170.]

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Opposition Day

[20th Allotted Day]

Committee of Privileges (Evidence)

Madam Speaker: Before we embark on the motion before us, let me say that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister. I have not been able to select the manuscript amendment submitted to me by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), but, if he catches my eye during the debate, he will be able to deploy his arguments as he would have done had the amendment been selected.

Let me make a plea for short speeches. This is only a half-day debate. I also remind the House of the terms of the motion, which are confined to a single issue.

3.42 pm

Mr. John Prescott (Kingston upon Hull, East): I beg to move, That, in the opinion of this House, the Committee of Privileges should exercise its powers under Standing Order No. 108 so as to secure that when examining witnesses it sits in public, except when for clear and compelling reasons, especially for reasons of natural justice, it is more expedient that press and public should be excluded and all or part of the evidence heard in private. I welcome your comments relating to The Guardian , Madam Speaker. While I accept that that investigation has clearly been in the public interest, the use of House of Commons writing paper on false authority is deplorable and must be fully investigated.

This debate is not about the rights and wrongs of individual Members or individual cases; that has been given an extensive airing in the media. Nor do we seek party political gain from our deliberations. Far from it: it is clear from recent events that all of us--all hon. Members--are to some extent on trial. People should remind themselves that the television records such events, and the country at large will be watching to see how we handle the matter under discussion.

This debate is about the public's faith in Parliament. It is about whether the public will be satisfied by private inquiries into very public allegations of how the actions of hon. Members should be held to public account. It would be absolutely absurd to continue to read in the press, hear on the radio, see on the television and hear in this Chamber allegations about Members of Parliament, but not be allowed to see, hear or read about the examination of those allegations in the Privileges Committee.

Today's debate is about whether the public trust Members of Parliament to investigate other Members of Parliament, free from party political considerations. I fear that they do not, in the current climate. We should not fear open investigation and debate, as it is in the interests of all of us that malpractice is rooted out and guidelines are devised which are easily understood by both us and the public.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (Derbyshire, West): The right hon. Gentleman said that he would like the inquiry to take place in public. Will he publicly declare how much of the £800 fine that was imposed on three Labour

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Members by Customs and Excise for bringing in cameras which they did not declare was met by him, and how much was met by his two colleagues?

Mr. Prescott: It is wrong to say that I smuggled in a camera. I paid the duty on the camera as required, and declared it when I went through the channel.

I am trying to make the point that this debate should be about serious matters. You, Madam Speaker, have made it clear that matters of individuals will not be raised in the debate. We are dealing with the issue of the House-- [Interruption.] That is what you said, Madam Speaker, and I respect that. There are no allegations whatever about individual Members in my contribution. Indeed, that is your ruling, Madam Speaker, in this debate.

I shall address directly the point about the House dealing with individual complaints made against hon. Members. That is the point I make. In calling for the Privileges Committee to hear evidence in public, we are supporting a move that we believe is in Parliament's long-term interests. We must restore the esteem of Parliament, and this is the first step. It is not, as has been suggested, an invitation to peddle any old allegation in public.

Madam Speaker, you must decide whether there is a prima facie complaint to answer, and the House has leave to debate a motion to refer a matter to the Privileges Committee. You have already decided that there may be a case to answer. That is why you referred the current matters to the Privileges Committee on 12 July.

More recent allegations have led to ministerial resignations, so the Prime Minister is wrong to call them simply matters of "tittle-tattle". This is a serious issue of genuine public concern, which requires public examination, and I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree with that.

This debate is about openness and standards in public life. It is about the nature and quality of our democracy. It is about whether we have procedures that will enable us to regulate ourselves. That is the issue that we are discussing today--and not for the first time. But let us be clear: the days when we could take those procedures for granted are over.

The Privileges Committee is a major Committee of the House, which is convened to investigate serious matters of breaches of privilege. But it is the last major Select Committee to continue to sit in private. The House is aware that the members of the Committee are divided over whether it is proper to sit in private or in public to conduct the inquiry that was established on 12 July. The Committee was divided and voted to remain in private on the casting vote of the Chairman.

I have been told by the Clerk to the Committee that I am not entitled to know that the Committee was even divided, and I am not entitled to raise the matter in the Chamber. However, we are aware that the Leader of the House, the Chairman of the Committee, made a statement about the issue when he left the last meeting of the Committee, so it is proper for the House to discuss the issue. It is already a matter of public knowledge, having been reported in the press.

Society, democracy and Parliament are evolving systems. As society has changed, attitudes have changed. So must Parliament change, and it is changing. When the electorate demand greater accountability for our actions

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and intentions, we must be more accountable to them. The matter of the abuse of privilege is a parliamentary matter, and it is proper for Parliament to deal with it.

That is why the Opposition have in the past few moments made the decision that Opposition Members will be allowed a free vote at the conclusion of the debate as our contribution to removing the party politics from this issue. I hope that the Leader of the House will accept that as a serious contribution to the House making decisions about Members of the House of Commons.

Will the Leader of the House likewise remove the party Whip from Conservative Members, and allow them the freedom to vote according to their conscience? I hope that he will give us his response. The matters that have led my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition to table today's motion are of major public concern, and the public demand the right to hear the investigation of those matters. Concern has been growing for some time. It is concern about the growth of quangos, the influence of lobbyists, the practice of former Ministers joining the boards of companies they have privatised, and the recent allegations about Members of Parliament. Their proliferation has created a culture that has undermined public standards and the public's faith in those standards.

Recent events show the seriousness of the matters. Two Members of this House are being investigated by the Committee of Privileges. Two Ministers have resigned. There is controversy about other Ministers. There is talk of blackmail and misleading information. All that has undoubtedly increased public concern about standards and the accountability of the House. It is not a simple party political matter.

Even The Daily Mail , in its editorial on Friday, said:

"What is at stake here is the reputation, not just of Government, but of our whole Parliamentary process. John Major must change his mind. And let the Privileges Committee work in public."

If I cannot convince Conservative Members on whether the issue is about party politics or not, I assume that the Daily Mail editorial might persuade them that there is a proper issue to be considered in the question whether the Committee should conduct its work in public.

In response to public concern and pressure from the Opposition, the Prime Minister has set up the Nolan inquiry into public standards. I welcome it, but it does not go far enough. It does not cover everything that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition requested last week. It does not cover the specific allegations that have been made, and it will leave many questions unanswered.

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The Government's handling of the whole affair has been questionable. The Prime Minister has dithered, been made to look foolish, been buffeted by events. Finally, he lost his temper in public. He has publicly supported Ministers-- [Interruption.]

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Prescott: But he is the Prime Minister.

Madam Speaker: Order. I appear to have a point of order.

Mr. Brazier: I should be most grateful for your ruling on whether the alleged conduct of the Government or, indeed, the Prime Minister is relevant to the motion before the House.

Madam Speaker: As I said earlier, the motion before the House is a very narrow one, but references of that nature are reasonably in order. I am sure that hon. Members will make similar references throughout the debate.

Mr. Prescott: Thank you for that ruling, Madam Speaker. The way in which the House deals with these matters--whether it is the Prime Minister or the Committees of the House--is an important issue. The Prime Minister has made several statements to the House on that very issue, and it is obviously right to refer to him.

Mind you, if I was a Minister in the Prime Minister's Government I would be a little uneasy-- [Hon. Members:-- "No chance."] No chance may be the case for those Ministers in whom the Prime Minister said he had full confidence, but whom he got rid of within 48 hours. If the right hon. Gentleman says that he has confidence in you, it is the surest sign that you should be clearing your desk.

It is also not sufficient for the Prime Minister to instruct the Cabinet Secretary to prepare a report. Anyone reading about recent events cannot be satisfied that the Prime Minister has not compromised the Cabinet Secretary. It is clear from statements to the House that Sir Robin Butler's report is insufficient and incomplete. Sir Robin did not have all the information available to him at the appropriate time. In the absence of evidence, he was forced to accept the word of those he interviewed, and he was unable to interview the chief complainant, Mr. Al Fayed. He has already given the House a report, to which the Prime Minister referred. Some people may also feel that Sir Robin's meeting with the Conservative party Whips may well have compromised his role as the head of the civil service. The real question today is whether Parliament can regulate the actions of its Members. The issue under debate is whether the Select Committee on Privileges should meet in public.

Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South): It may surprise the right hon. Gentleman to know that I have taken some heart from his argument, apart from the party political rhetoric. Could he develop his argument about why the House should break with precedent in this matter? Is the free vote that he announced genuine, in the sense that it

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means that there has been some difference of opinion within the Opposition parties as to whether there should be such a vote?

Mr. Prescott: The issue is very important, and events have developed, even over the weekend, sufficiently for us to say that we would like to contribute to the House making an honest decision about whether the Committee should meet in public. It is clear that things have developed quickly. I will come to the matter of precedent, as it is important. Other matters of accountability clearly involve the Prime Minister, and I dealt with those.

I think that the hon. Member for Wirral, South (Mr. Porter) will accept that the Cabinet Secretary was asked to undertake investigations and to report back to the Prime Minister. There has been considerable coverage of that matter in the press and a report to the Prime Minister, which was published in this place last week. Events have moved on since that report, which is why I referred to the different pieces of information and dates.

You have ruled, Madam Speaker, that we cannot refer to all those matters, and I shall not do so, but I want to deal with the accountability of the House and of Members to it. The real question is whether Parliament regulates the actions of its Members. The issue under debate is whether the Privileges Committee should meet in public. It is not a question of whether it can do so, as we all know that it can. Standing Order No. 108 makes it clear that a Select Committee

"shall have power, if it so orders, to admit strangers during the examination of witnesses."

The question is whether it should, and that is the question posed in the motion.

It is up to the Privileges Committee to take that decision, but as it is deadlocked, the House can guide it. There is much talk of precedent, but one precedent can give way to another. The evolution of the procedures of the House has required precedents to be set on several occasions. The admission of the press to report our proceedings in 1803, the admission of television and radio to provide live coverage of events in this Chamber and in Committees, and the opening of other Committees to public scrutiny, were all unprecedented and controversial decisions at the time. All those decisions made the House more accountable to the public, and they were all to the benefit of greater democracy.

It is true that Privileges Committees have never sat in public before, but they can do so, as I have shown. The motion merely asks the Committee to exercise its powers under Standing Order No. 108 and to sit in public now, except when there are clear and compelling reasons why it should not do so.

Last week, the Prime Minister said:

"It is necessary to have an investigation in depth, without unsubstantiated allegations subsequently being made. That is a matter of natural justice."

It is right that there are checks and balances to prevent unwarranted slurs being made, but those exist in the procedures of this House.

Let me repeat what I said earlie: if a complaint is made by a Member of this House, Madam Speaker will decide whether there is a prima facie complaint before she will allow a motion of referral to the Privileges Committee. The motion of referral can be debated in this House, as it

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was some weeks ago on a recent referral, and the Committee can decide whether it wishes to hear evidence in public or in private.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford): If we assume for the moment that we accept the right hon. Gentleman's proposal that the Committee hears evidence in public and then allows itself to vote to go private on certain issues, will he now give an undertaking that, if the Committee voted to go private, the Opposition members of the Committee will not walk out and make a public spectacle of it?

Mr. Prescott: The House is generally agreed that members of the Privileges Committee will make their own decisions on the matter. The issue here is that we have divided along party political lines. All the Opposition parties have opposed the Government Members on that Committee. The issue--if I am allowed to refer to it--is that a motion which would have allowed the Committee the possibility of sitting in public and taking certain evidence in private was not put before the Committee, and the Committee now finds itself deeply divided along party political lines.

I should have thought that it was in the interests of the House not to have further debates along party political lines, and for the House to have this debate. We are trying on this occasion-- [Interruption.] I have made it clear that we are not whipping the Labour members of the Committee, and I presume that the Government are not whipping their Committee members. But since the Government are so bitterly divided, we have said that we should debate the issue, and we have provided an opportunity for the House to do so. The Committee could have a public hearing of evidence, it could deliberate in private and--in those areas where the Committee so decided-- it could take evidence in private. That applies to all of the Committees of the House. We do not dispute the rights of the Committee to hear evidence--

Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way? [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Prescott: I shall not give way, because the hon. Gentleman does not have an intelligent intervention to make.

We do not dispute the right of Committees to hear evidence in private when it is in the interests of natural justice to do so. We ask that there be a reasonable balance between public and private hearings--as there is already in the majority of our Committees--that the evidence be heard in public and the deliberations take place in private, that the conclusions be published and debated by this House, and that to sit in public should be the norm and in private the exception.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West): May I follow down the road of hearings being held in private where the interests of natural justice dictate that that should be the case? What would the effect be on the media if the Committee decided that some of its hearings would be held in private and some held in public? Surely the media will

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immediately focus on that, and ask what the Committee has to hide. Will not the media say that the Committee is covering up by having some hearings in private?

Mr. Prescott: The obvious answer is that it depends on the reasons which are given. The courts and professional bodies often make such judgments, and the press has to live with the fact that it cannot observe matters because the agreement of that professional body--or the Privileges Committee--is that they believe it to be right to have private hearings.

We disagree about the decision that has been made that the Committee will never take any hearings in public--quite contrary to the rest of the Committees. All we are saying is that the Committee members should make the judgment, and that that judgement should start from the proposition that evidence should be heard in public unless there are special reasons not to do so. That is the simple point which we are trying to make.

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