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Sir John Gorst: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Prescott: I must get on, as an awful lot of hon. Members wish to take part.

Sir John Gorst rose --

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Prescott: I am bound to say that, when the argument of natural justice is invoked, there are some contradictions in Government Members' arguments.

Sir John Gorst: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I plead with you to find out whether it is possible to obtain information during this debate as to whether any Labour member of the Select Committee will address himself without party politics in mind when he is heard in public.

Madam Speaker: That is not a point of order. Were the hon. Gentleman fortunate enough to catch my eye, he might employ such a point during the debate.

Mr. Prescott: I was right the first time--the hon. Member for Hendon, North (Sir J. Gorst) is not capable of making an intelligent intervention: he has amply proven that.

Some contradictions are apparent when the argument about natural justice is invoked. If it is in the interests of natural justice to suppress all the evidence from the hearings of the Privileges Committee until the report is published, why is it not equally in the interests of natural justice to suppress all the evidence given at a Crown court trial until the verdict is reached? On Thursday, the Prime Minister told the House:

"I am not prepared to see confidence in elected or unelected public servants undermined by the public parading of unsubstantiated slurs and innuendo."--[ Official Report , 27 October 1994; Vol. 248, c. 1002.]

Why is he therefore prepared to allow the public parading of unsubstantiated allegations against defendants in a court of law? It is the central tenet of justice that, for justice to be done, it must be seen to be done. If it is seen to be done in the courts, why will the Prime Minister not agree that it should be seen to be done in Parliament?

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We live in a different climate today, because professional bodies are becoming more open. The professional conduct committee of the General Medical Council meets in public; the solicitors disciplinary tribunal now meets in public, and the barristers disciplinary tribunal is now considering a report that recommends that it should also meet in public. Other Parliaments are moving towards greater openness, and some have even accepted the recommendation that to accept money is a criminal offence. That recommendation was made in 1975 by the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life, but the House did not accept it.

The Government themselves are moving towards greater openness in their inquiries. Ten years ago, the Scott inquiry would never have been held in public. Now, the Nolan inquiry has been established, and we will be able to hear its evidence in public. The reputation of our public life is at stake, and only public examination will satisfy the public's concern.

The House has nothing to fear from supporting the Opposition motion, but the public will assume that we have something to hide if we continue to investigate such matters in private. We need to display to our constituents the simple truth that we are here to serve them before we serve ourselves. That is best done by being open and by holding the investigations of the Privileges Committee in public. I commend the motion to the House.

4.6 pm

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton): I beg to move, to leave out from "That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:

this House re-affirms the long established practice that decisions as to how a Select Committee once established should proceed are for the Committee itself.'.

Before turning specifically to the terms of the motion and the amendment, I think it right to make as clear as I can, both to the House itself and to those who follow and comment on these matters outside, four very important points about the background to today's debate.

The first is that the Committee of Privileges is not a Committee appointed by the Government, or with terms of reference determined by the Government. It is a Committee appointed by this House, on a motion moved by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown), following your statement on 12 July, Madam Speaker, and with a remit determined by what you said in that statement.

Secondly, I am its Chairman not on the basis of having been imposed on the Committee by any group of members on the Committee, let alone by the Government, but on the basis of a motion moved, in accordance with precedent, by a member of the Committee and accepted without dissent by the Committee as a whole. It is in that spirit that I have sought to act as Chairman and it is in that spirit that I shall speak in the debate.

The third point is one that takes me into somewhat more difficult territory, but which I nevertheless think it right to make, given that public reference has already been made to the fact that the decision to maintain the precedent of taking evidence in private followed a tied vote in the Committee, so that the matter necessarily had to be settled by my casting vote as Chairman.

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I need to make two things clear. One is that I had not intervened in the very full discussion that had taken place, except to assist in elucidating points made in the course of it. The other is that the vote I eventually had to cast was cast quite explicitly on the basis of the nearest parallel to what you, Madam Speaker, would be expected to do following a tied vote here in the House: that is to say, to maintain the status quo. In this case, it seemed to me that that meant my vote should be cast to maintain the established precedent, never before breached, that the Committee of Privileges conducts its proceedings in private.

Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): On status quo and precedent, why did the Attorney-General, when writing to advise the Committee, say:

"There are no settled rules governing the proceedings of the Committee of Privileges"--

Madam Speaker: Order. We must be very careful in this debate. The hon. Gentleman is now bringing Committee proceedings to the Floor of the House. We should not use Committee proceedings in this debate because the Committee has not yet reported to the House.

Mr. Newton: Without following the hon. Gentleman fully down that path, I can properly make the point that it is not in dispute that the Committee has the power, as it has accurately been stated, to take evidence in public if it thinks it right to do so. But the Committee did not think it right to do so and my vote was cast on the basis that I have just set out: to maintain the status quo, which, in this case, meant preserving a long-standing precedent.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. When my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) described what happened in Committee, you properly drew attention to the normal rule that proceedings are not mentioned until a Committee has reported. Understandably, the Leader of the House has described proceedings, including the fact that I moved the motion that he be in the Chair, according to precedent. [Interruption.] Well, of course I did. As the senior member, I convened the Committee on instructions from the Clerks.

The point that I am making is that this debate is about the Privileges Committee while it is proceeding, so it must be in order for us to refer to what has happened. We would not be having this debate had there not been a vote in the House. I therefore hope that you will relax your judgment on the matter or those of us on the Committee will be unable to explain what went on and why we take a different view.

Madam Speaker: The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) was speaking about a deliberative meeting that is not mentioned in the motion. If he reads the motion carefully, he will see that it is about the Committee exercising its powers under a particular Standing Order

"so as to secure that when examining witnesses it sits in public".

The motion is extremely narrow and does not deal with what has taken place in Committee. I understand the point that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) puts to me. It is difficult to debate this matter without making some reference to the Committee's proceedings.

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But we must be careful about how we proceed and keep in mind the fact that the Committee has not yet reported to us.

Mr. Newton: I am grateful for your guidance, Madam Speaker. If the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) reads my words when they are reported in Hansard , he will find that I was careful not to mention which Member moved the motion to put me in the Chair. I simply said "a member of the Committee" and that I was put in the Chair without dissent.

Mr. Benn: The precedent is that the senior Member moves the Leader of the House into the Chair. The Clerks told me to do that. It was not my desire to put him in the Chair, but it was my duty to convene the Committee and then perform that function. It is no good the Leader of the House saying that, in not mentioning my name, he was not reporting proceedings. He was, and the House must discuss the proceedings in the course of this debate.

Mr. Newton: I cannot sensibly add to what I have already said on that point. May I make it clear, if it was not already clear, that in no sense was I levelling what the right hon. Gentleman has treated almost as an accusation. I merely recorded the fact against the background of the sedentary interventions in this debate suggesting that I was somehow imposed on the Committee by the Government and that I voted as instructed by the Government. That is simply not the case.

The last of my preliminary points is another on which I hope that I will carry all members of the Committee, regardless of their opinions about the way in which evidence should be taken; it is that there is no equation between what has been called a "cover-up" and the hearing of evidence in private session.

Every member of the Committee is determined that its inquiry should be conscientious and thorough. Its report and any recommendations that it may make will be published, and would be expected to be discussed and debated in the House. Most important of all, in that context, the evidence that it heard would be published in full with its report, for all to read. That is subject only to some very limited possible reservations, notably where publication of part of the evidence could clearly be held to be prejudicial in relation to legal proceedings that were taking place.

Sir John Gorst: Will my right hon. Friend say whether any part of his reservations with regard to the Committee's meeting in public has to do with the fear that the opportunity may arise for certain members of the Committee to deploy party political arguments? That would seem to me to be a strong indication in favour of retaining the procedures that have previously prevailed.

Mr. Newton: If my hon. Friend will allow me, I shall shortly make some of the arguments that I hope the House will bear in mind in considering the motion and the amendment.

Let me now turn to the motion that the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) moved, which seeks to bring about a situation in which the Committee's hearings of evidence would be in public--that is to say, with press reporters, radio microphones and television cameras present.

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The right hon. Gentleman set out his arguments in favour of that proposal. I think that what I can best do is to set out as clearly as I can what I believe to be the anxieties that led those people who wished to maintain the precedent of private hearings to take that view, and which hitherto--I make no apology for repeating the point--have led all the Committee's predecessors to the same conclusion, believing that that was what was required in defence of natural justice.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): The Leader of the House repeatedly talks about precedent. Will he accept that precedents are set and precedents end? The current situation is unprecedented--that is the whole point. Therefore, we are asking the Leader of the House to recognise the significance of what is going on, and the interest outside the House. We need the information to be in the public domain, for the public interest. That is what we should be thinking about--not the interests of Members to keep things quiet.

Mr. Newton: As it happens, I do not accept the proposition that the circumstances of the moment are unprecedented. I shall return to that later.

In essence, the anxieties of those who believe that the Committee should take evidence in private and publish that evidence only at a later stage arise from the nature of the Committee of Privileges, and especially of the parliamentary privilege under which it operates. Although one of the Committee's functions is to establish the facts in the case, it is not, as is sometimes suggested--and a parallel is sometimes drawn--comparable to a court. It has none of the protections that a court offers to its defendants. Witnesses who give evidence to it do not have the benefit of legal representation.

The Chairman does not have the same powers as a judge to rule questions out of order. Witnesses can therefore be subject to questioning from as many as 17 people. Some of those questions, perhaps making allegations of which the witness has had no previous notice, asked under the protection of parliamentary privilege, could be highly damaging. Later in the proceedings --as has happened in the past--the allegations may well prove to be unfounded, but if the evidence has been taken in public, the damage to a witness would already have been done.

Sir Jim Spicer: May I ask my right hon. Friend to amplify that subject? In those circumstances, surely the Committee could never meet without those people appearing before it employing, if they wish to do so, lawyers to sit alongside them, as happens in all courts in America.

Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend raises an important point about what would be strongly argued for in the circumstances envisaged by Opposition Members. Undoubtedly, there would be pressure for what my hon. Friend has suggested, and it would dramatically change the nature of the inquiry that could take place, and hitherto has taken place.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): As one of the very few people who were unfortunate enough to be called in front of the Privileges Committee back in the 1960s, may I

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suggest that the Leader of the House should be a little careful on the concept of justice to witnesses? If giving evidence in public can be damaging, let me assure him from personal experience that giving it in private can be very damaging. I think I can now say that the then Chairman Elwyn Jones had great doubts before he died about the Privileges Committee acting in private.

Mr. Newton: The hon. Gentleman knows that I have enough respect for him not simply to make a debating point, and I hope that he will not think that what I am about to say is a debating point. His argument, however, is rather more on my side than on his. I accept that it will not be comfortable or easy for people if suggestions that they have done something against the rules or order of the House are investigated by such a Committee. He talks about the damage caused when investigations are conducted in private, but it can hardly be other than that that damage would be compounded if the investigation were in full view of television cameras.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Newton: I shall give way, but I should advert to the fact that Madam Speaker has asked hon. Members to keep their speeches reasonably brief and that interventions are considerably extending this one.

Mr. Ashby: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if proceedings were conducted in public, the person being investigated should have the right to have counsel cross-examining all witnesses and to call witnesses on his own behalf, as would happen in a court? Does he further agree that anything less than that would amount to a kangaroo court?

Mr. Newton: My hon. Friend makes another important point which I am sure would be raised and many people would wish to pursue were the House to take the decision that the Opposition have invited it to take today.

The effect of the potential prejudice to witnesses giving evidence in public could operate in two ways: on the one hand, it might result, as I have already said, in damage to witnesses; on the other, it could constrain Committee members from asking questions that they think should be answered. In either case, the Committee's objective of achieving a thorough and fair investigation and of reaching balanced and considered conclusions in the light of all the evidence would be gravely damaged.

Moreover, we need to be clear that this cloak of parliamentary privilege would be available not only to hon. Members called before the Committee and to members of it, whom we would all expect to use its protection responsibly, but to any outside witnesses called before the Committee who could, if they wished, use the opportunity to make any allegation, however unfounded, against anyone that they chose to name. In the light of some of the things that we have read in recent times, I do not think that anyone can say that that is a negligible risk.

If Opposition Members think that these arguments have been assembled only in the circumstances of today, perhaps I may remind them--this is why I said that I did not entirely accept that the circumstances are unprecedented, as the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) suggested--of the words of Lord Callaghan. I make no apology for quoting what was said

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by Lord Callaghan, then Prime Minister, in the debate establishing the Select Committee on the Conduct of Members in 1976 following the Poulson affair. He said:

"There are important differences between the proceedings of the courts and those of a Select Committee. In the courts, there are specified charges, known to defendants beforehand. The evidence brought forward has to be relevant to those charges. In this case there are no specified charges, nor is the identity known of all those against whom allegations might be made. There are no rules of the House which say this or that evidence is inadmissible." There was a great deal of comment along those lines.

Lord Callaghan went on:

"It is our view"--

that is, the then Labour Government's view--

"that, if the Committee sat in public, evidence, whatever its basis-- whether it was groundless or not--would be subject to daily public sifting. A lie can be half-way around the world before truth has got its boots on. We should have instant judgments on allegations before the Committee had been able to weigh them, before the reputations at stake could be properly upheld or cast down, which might do unnecessary harm not only to the individuals concerned but also to the standing of this House."--[ Official Report , 1 November 1976; Vol. 918, c. 973-76]

I am bound to say that I see nothing that has happened in the intervening period to lead me to dismiss what Lord Callaghan said then; and the introduction of television, in my view, multiplies the risk.

Mr. Prescott: The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Poulson case involved Members from both sides of the House. There had already been an investigation by the prosecuting authority and a royal commission inquiry into standards of public life, and the Committee itself was specially set up for the circumstances. It was not related to the Privileges Committee.

Mr. Newton: That point does not dent my argument one bit. I am of course aware that, in a sense, the motion recognises these problems by conceding the risk to natural justice. It has the air of attempting to suggest some kind of halfway house, in which the Committee might take part of the evidence from individual cases in private and part in public--or even perhaps move from one mode to the other in the course of a hearing. There is no evidence, either in the motion or in anything else that I have heard or read, to show that such arrangements could be made to work.

In relation to the cases that have been referred to the Committee, I cannot see how it would be fair to hear some witnesses in public and others in private--perhaps the Members of Parliament in private and The Sunday Times in public, or vice versa. That would not be seen to be fair. Nor do I see how, in practice, the Committee could make judgments in the course of a hearing as to whether matter might be introduced that would more appropriately be heard in private. Even if it did, the result would all too readily become a form of complete chaos, with the public shuffling in and out of the Committee in accordance with what was going on.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is it not, however, of some interest to note that Lord Nolan observed to the press that a large amount of the evidence that he is to hear--much of it allegations--will be heard in public? Does not that show that times have changed and that people believe that such allegations should be aired mainly in public? Obviously, as the motion concedes, some cases should be heard in private, but

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generally the public should be satisfied that justice has been seen to be done. The secrecy that used to prevail must no longer be allowed.

Mr. Newton: The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East has already effectively made the point that Lord Nolan's committee will not be looking into complaints against individuals. It will scrutinise general issues surrounding standards of conduct in public life--so the hon. Gentleman's parallel does not stand up.

I very much doubt whether the difficulties of this halfway house can be overcome. I am sure, however, that unless it is sure that they can be, it would be very unwise of the House to pass the motion. There are also wider arguments for not proceeding as the motion proposes, and they are reflected in the Government amendment: "this House reaffirms the long-established practice that decisions as to how a Select Committee once established should proceed are for the Committee itself."

The House is rightly firm in its defence of the integrity and independence of its Select Committees. I have to say bluntly that it seems to me no more acceptable for the official Opposition to seek to determine how such a Committee should go about its work than it would be thought acceptable for Ministers or the Government to do so. If we are to go down this path, I believe that we put at risk exactly those attributes of our Select Committees which the House itself most values and which is the basis of their public reputation: the fact that Members, once appointed, serve as individuals, not party representatives; not as part of a caucus, and not on the basis of voting in accordance with a party line. I believe that the House should think long and hard before going down the path to which the motion invites us, and I hope that it will instead endorse the amendment.

Mr. Barry Porter: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. If, as has been claimed, this is a House of Commons issue and not a party issue, it does not seem to me to matter much whether the motion or the amendment is passed. Will it not still be for the Privileges Committee to determine its own procedure, regardless of what the House decides this evening? If that is so, it is a matter for the Committee to decide whether it is to be a party vote. I intend to vote as a House of Commons man.

Madam Speaker: What meaning is attached to the motion is for Members to decide. It is not for me as Speaker to interpret for Members what is before them. They must make their own judgment as to what is in the motion and the amendment.

4.29 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): This is a major parliamentary debate, and it is appropriate that the Clerk of the House, Sir Clifford Boulton, should be in the Clerk's Chair for the last debate of his period of office. I am sure that his background advice will have been helpful.

I declare my interests, as recorded in the Register of Members' Interests, as a writer, broadcaster and shareholder, but my real interest is as a Member of this House. I have been 10 years on the Privileges Committee, and I moved the Leader of the House into the Chair,

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which demonstrates a non-partisan inclination. I must be the only Member of Parliament who was expelled from the House by the Privileges Committee on a motion.

When my father died, I was summoned to the Committee and ordered to produce my birth certificate and my father's death certificate. On the advice of the Privileges Committee, the House moved to declare a by-election in my room, which I won. I was subsequently removed by the House. I therefore have some interest in the workings of the Privileges Committee.

I have been in the House for 44 years and have been elected 15 times because, by a coincidence, I have won four by-elections. I shall not go into those. My only interest in this matter is that of the people who sent us here. I do not accept the view that we are here to protect Parliament, as if Parliament were a little club. We are here to protect our electors. That is the basis of privilege, because it protects Parliament only in so far as it can do its business in the interests of our constituents. The word "privilege" is an unhappy one because it gives the impression that it relates to the privilege of hon. Members, whereas it relates to the privilege of an elected body to do its job without improper interference. The debate is not a trial of Members who may be involved in the matters that we are discussing. I am not by instinct a muck-raker and I do not think that the House should today consider who may have done what. It is not a trial of the Government because they are responsible for their own conduct. Happily, the electors will judge both Members and Government--all of us--at the next election. We are accountable to the electorate and the only consideration in deciding how to vote must be based upon that.

Serious allegations have been made about individuals, hon. Members, lobbyists and the media. My argument is extremely simple: that the only way in which the electors' rights can be considered is for everything--evidence and deliberations--to be held in public. Otherwise, rightly or wrongly, there will be a feeling that the parliamentary club has got together to cover up what is happening so that Parliament's reputation can survive. Parliament must live on the confidence of the people or people will not have confidence in it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): As my right hon. Friend says, the Privileges Committee has certain duties and powers in respect of the electorate. Notwithstanding that, does he agree that it would make much more sense if the Committee did not investigate Members of Parliament--that such investigations should not be undertaken by members of the club, as my right hon. Friend calls it--but by an independent body?

Mr. Benn: By a strange coincidence, I have experience of that too, because after the House had thrown me out and when I reappeared and was kept out, I was referred to an election court. In the 19th century, the House used to deal with contested elections but, in view of the partisan nature of election Committees of the House, the matter was referred to a judge. In fact there were two judges, and they came to an absurd conclusion, which I need not go into, which kept me out of the House.

The principle mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)--that the House is not the right place in which to consider these matters--

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has been recognised. My point, however, is that not just the evidence but the deliberations should be heard in public. I do not know whether I will be on the Committee after I complete my speech, but some of the matters that we on that Committee will discuss are of the highest importance. What rules should there be? Why should not hon. Members be entitled to hear the views expressed by Committee members about what the rules should be, what the obligations should be, what the sanctions should be and what legislation is required?

I have my own opinion, and I have expressed it already--that the rules should be similar to those that apply to Ministers and that those who do not adhere to them should be dealt with by the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975. Of course, that is just one view; others may wish to put their views. The whole Committee should be held in public.

Mr. Peter Butler (Milton Keynes, North-East): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Benn: I shall do so only if it is a serious and important point; otherwise, I want to get on with my speech. I rely on the hon. Gentleman to assist me in that regard.

Mr. Butler: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, but that is rather like the problem of deciding, before one has heard the evidence, whether it is in breach of natural justice for it to be heard in public.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept a serious point? It is that, as a new Member, one of my privileges in this House is actually being able to listen to him. Will he explain where any problem arises, as all the evidence, any motions--including defeated motions--and the report will be published and debated in full on the Floor of the House? Taking part in that debate will be members of the Committee as well as hon. Members who did not serve on it. How can that be secret, and in what way is the public interest not served? In what way is information hidden from the public by that procedure?

Mr. Benn: The Clerk or the Attorney-General would be better able to give an authoritative view, but, as I understand the matter, and as the Attorney-General said in the Committee, the Committee is entitled to do as it likes and either hear evidence in public or refuse to do so. The Committee voted, for the reasons given by the Lord President, on his casting vote, against my motion that we should hear the evidence in public.

Of course, the deliberations have never been heard in public in the Privileges Committee. My argument, to which I shall return, is that the deliberations are important because they will set the framework for the recommendations that I hope the House will pursue. I want to make a statement--

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Benn: No, I am on a serious point.

As Madam Speaker said earlier, I sought permission today to move a manuscript amendment in the following terms:

"That the House instructs the Committee of Privileges to hold all its meetings, both when evidence is taken, and when it deliberates, in public."

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As I said a moment ago, I moved a motion in the Committee that the evidence be heard in public. The Lord President will recall that I argued that all the Committee's deliberations should also be held in public. That is because I am no longer prepared to accept the traditional practice of the Committee of Privileges that its proceedings, including the hearing of evidence, should be held in private. My first responsibility is to those who have elected me to Parliament and who are entitled to know what is being done in their names. In my judgment, that duty must take precedence over any conventions of the House.

House of Commons debates were held in secret for many years. There was great resistance from some Members of Parliament to the public reporting of proceedings. From 1803 to 1811--a year or two before I came to the House-- William Cobbett reported the proceedings of the House in the pages of the "Political Register" and was reported to the House for an alleged breach of privilege in the way in which he reported them. Cobbett, who later became the Member of Parliament for Oldham, was at one stage imprisoned for sedition for a pamphlet that he wrote, as was Thomas Hansard, who printed it. It was not until 1855 that parliamentary reports by Hansard were officially sanctioned.

The secrecy of Committee proceedings raises exactly the same questions as the proceedings of the House, and the time has come when they, too, should be held in public and properly reported. I very much hope that the House will now intervene to change the existing practice of the Committees of the House, including the Privileges Committee, so that the evidence taken and the deliberations of those Committees are held in public.

Whatever the decision of the House or the Committee, I am no longer prepared to accept the present restrictions, and if I return to attend future meetings of the Committee of Privileges, it is my intention to issue my personal report of those proceedings that I attend. My reports will be based on notes made at meetings of the Privileges Committee and they will be as fair and accurate as I can make them. [Hon. Members:-- "Oh."] It will be for the House to determine how to deal with that matter, but I believe that I have a duty to make my own position plain in advance. I hope that the House will understand and respect my reasons for doing so.

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