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Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. In view of the right hon. Gentleman's statement, will it be in order at some stage to table a manuscript amendment seeking to have him removed from the Committee?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): No. That would be beyond the scope of our proceedings today.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Given the information shared by the right hon. Gentleman, may the House be told what Standing Orders say would happen if he does as he says?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I trust that all right hon. and hon. Members are capable of reading Standing Orders.

4.40 pm

Sir Edward Heath (Old Bexley and Sidcup): The Government's amendment refers to the long-standing

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practice whereby the Select Committee on Privileges makes its own decisions. That is absolutely right and is why I shall support the Government amendment tonight. Later, however, I will make certain suggestions about the Committee's consideration of the problem, in the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

There are other long-standing practices of the Privileges Committee. One is that debates in the House on such matters are always treated with the utmost seriousness and on a non-party basis, for two reasons: first, such a debate can affect either side of the House--reference has already been made to some cases that have been heard by the Privileges Committee--and, secondly, such matters are of the utmost seriousness to the right hon. or hon. Members directly involved. We have heard little about them this afternoon, but we know from past exercises that an hon. Member's life can be at stake, as can the future of his family, his relationship with his constituency and other interests of a political nature.

Mention was made of the Poulson case, which involved hon. Members on both sides of the House and a member of the Cabinet, who resigned. He was cleared, but that incident affected the whole of Reggie Maudling's life. I hope that debate on the Opposition motion and on the Government amendment continues with the utmost seriousness. I fully accept the four points made by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in opening, and I am glad that he made them. I am sure that he was perfectly justified in doing so.

On the question whether the hearings should be in public or private, I served on the Privileges Committee in the 1968 and 1969 Sessions. I acknowledge that that was 25 years ago and that many changes have occurred since in not only the House but public life and in the presentation of politics and technology. Twenty-five years ago, the proceedings of the House were not heard on radio, let alone seen on television. Similarly, our Committees did not exist in their present form. Today, they are televised as well as heard on radio, and the press attend them. We must take account of that.

All the signs are that the standing of the House in the eyes of the public has fallen in recent years, and that is a matter that we all want to redress. I do not place quite the emphasis on that as does the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), but it is essential that the House re- establishes itself in public high opinion. I should like the Committee to re-examine the problem and to consider again whether its proceedings should not be in public. Perhaps my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is unnecessarily worried. Some newspaper leaders have already commented that, if people offer to give evidence in public, that would lead to some persons showing off--asking to appear and then using the Committee for their own purposes. When I served on the Privileges Committee, the Attorney-General attended--and I believe that he does so today. He is at the top of the legal profession, and is there to challenge any witness on anything that he says, at the very moment that he says it. The dangers foreseen by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House could be dealt with by the Attorney- General. I agree that we would have to face the fact that persons called before the Committee might request legal assistance, but there is a precedent. When Robert Maxwell's sons were to appear before a Select

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Committee, they asked to be accompanied by their lawyers, and the Committee agreed. Everybody knew that a case was to be taken before the courts, but that did not present any constitutional problem. The Maxwells' lawyers were there to advise them on the spot and to make suggestions to the Chairman of the Committee on how matters should be handled. We should have to face up to that with the Privileges Committee.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster): Does my right hon. Friend recall that, when the Maxwell brothers appeared before the Committee, they did not answer a single question? They merely said, "Our legal advisers have advised us to say nothing."

Sir Edward Heath: The Committee drew its own conclusions, and the Privileges Committee would do the same.

Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking): I suggest that there is an important difference between the Privileges Committee and run-of-the-mill Select Committees, if I may use that term. In any case, the Maxwell brothers were not accused of possible contempt of Parliament.

Sir Edward Heath: My right hon. Friend says that there is a difference. The question is whether that difference should continue. In the present situation of public doubt about the House and the operation of politics, political parties and political systems, we must face up to that new situation.

Another point that affects right hon. and hon. Members in particular is the inordinate length of time that the House takes to deal with such matters. The House sent the present case to the Privileges Committee before the summer recess. We are now heading for prorogation, followed by the Christmas recess, and no progress has been made. Change is essential. We cannot carry on like that in the modern world.

A Committee dealing with matters of such personal importance to an individual Member of Parliament must be prepared to sit continuously until it has reached a decision. That must be taken into account by the Whips in regard to parliamentary proceedings. In fact, it should please the Whips because they would know that members of the Committee would be here in any case. The time factor is of immense importance for particular Members of Parliament.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): The lives of the persons who are under investigation and who are perhaps accused are of great importance. If my right hon. Friend's suggestion were adopted, does he believe, in absolute fairness, that the persons concerned should have legal representation to cross-question other witnesses, rather than leave it to the Attorney- General or to the Committee to protect their reputation? Would not that alter the structure of the Committee as we know it?

Sir Edward Heath: That, again, will have to be decided by the Committee, but the Attorney-General could advise on the matter. If it means changing the structure, so be it, because I believe that it is necessary

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to deal fairly with Members who are brought before the Committee. I am dealing with the fair treatment of Members as well as with the status of the House.

Sir John Gorst: Will my right hon. Friend address himself to another consideration--that some of the matters to be considered might be the subject of criminal charges at the end of the hearing? If they were, would not that prejudice the cases of the individuals concerned? Is it not better, therefore, that matters be considered in private until it has been decided whether any criminal charges might arise?

Sir Edward Heath: Of course it must be taken into account, but that could not have arisen in most of the cases that have come before the Privileges Committee.

I shall now deal with the last point made by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield about the Committee's deliberations and evidence being taken in public. In his years in politics, the right hon. Gentleman has made many persuasive and many important points, but again--it has characterised the whole of his political life, and I have known him since Oxford days--he went a bridge too far. Anybody who sits on an organisation that must reach final decisions knows that there will be a point at which one will want to discuss the matter informally and not take up a fixed position--to say, "I want to ask about this to clarify my own mind and decide exactly where I stand."

That cannot be done in a public hearing; people have to take a fixed position. They are then accused of abandoning their previous positions and are asked why they have done so. I cannot see any difficulty in having private discussion. There is nothing that I regret more than people coming up to me after a meeting and saying, "Of course, what I really wanted to ask was so and so, but I didn't like to because I knew that it would then become known outside." That is a great drawback. In fact, it is a great loss not only to any Committee but to the individual.

I ask the right hon. Member for Chesterfield to reconsider and agree that there can be such discussion--there will be in any case, because he cannot stop it--before people take up fixed positions, which they then feel they must justify in public.

Mr. Benn: The right hon. Gentleman must recognise that the public are intelligent. They know that, in arriving at a new recommendation about a matter, views will have been put tentatively, and then a final view taken. He underestimates the extent to which people understand the tentative nature of deliberations leading to a recommendation.

Sir Edward Heath: I have taken part in a good many tentative deliberations in my time, and I am absolutely convinced that they are necessary to reach a sound solution.

I support the motion tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I agree with its first four points, which are absolutely right, but I hope that the Committee will reconsider its position to permit public hearings, after which it could continue its discussions in private and publish its report, which would be discussed in this House.

4.53 pm

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill): The Father of the House has given us wise advice today. I

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particularly support his remarks about the wisdom of having deliberative meetings in private, as that enables members to move their positions should that be their wish.

We have listened to some interesting points, but it should be said at the outset that the motion that was moved by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) establishes a clear principle, and it is on that principle alone that the House will be invited to vote this evening. I will be supporting the right hon. Gentleman's motion and I shall recommend my right hon. and hon. Friends to do likewise.

It does, perhaps, illustrate the way in which the Committee has been proceeding that the points that were made, first, by the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East about there being a third way, and, secondly, by the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) about the value of deliberative sessions, were put before it.

Indeed, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Wythenshawe (Mr. Morris) and I suggested that there was a third option--that we should assert the value of meeting in public but be prepared to derogate from that. There would be times when we would want to meet in camera--for example, where issues of natural justice were involved; where we might be given compelling advice by the Attorney-General; or for whatever reasons we might sometimes wish to meet behind closed doors. But the principle should be that we should start out with the determination to meet in public wherever possible.

That is not an unknown principle to the House or to democratic bodies throughout the nation. I was sorry that that compromise--if I may call it that--was not accepted. That was no fault of the Leader of the House. In fairness to the right hon. Gentleman--and without digressing too much into the meanderings of what happened in the Committee--it should be said that he took on board the voices in that Committee; that everyone put their view; and that there was a genuinely held difference of opinion. Those differences were arrived at for different reasons of principle.

The issue tonight is whether any Conservative Members have changed their minds, because if they have not, I cannot see how there will be any change in the way in which the Committee should proceed. Perhaps the most interesting speeches this evening will be those of Conservative Members, who, having listened to the thrust of the debate, will recognise the importance of trying to re-engage Her Majesty's Opposition in the debate. It will be interesting to see whether they will be prepared to find any room for manoeuvre. If they are able to do so, it will serve the House well, not least for the reasons advanced this evening by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup: the reputation of this House has been damaged publicly and that reputation needs to be reasserted.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Alton: Let me make a little progress first, because time is short and many other hon. Members wish to speak; then I will happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

A week ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and told the House of his intention to set up the Nolan committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) said that he supported that move--indeed, there was a general welcome for it throughout the House. The Prime Minister set out the terms of reference

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of Lord Nolan's committee and said that it would be established to look at standards, the level of integrity and the level of ethics in public life and the proprieties of lobbying. He said that, if it wants to, it can go on to look at accountability and appointments to quangos, perhaps the political honours system and the remuneration of Members of Parliament. In all those respects, the Nolan committee is long overdue and welcome.

The Prime Minister also said in his statement that specific allegations concerning Members of the House or the conduct of the House would have to be met and dealt with by Committees of the House. That must mean the Procedure Committee or the Committee on Members' interests. So we have not only been charged with a responsibility by Parliament itself--the House of Commons having passed a motion establishing the Privileges Committee for the duration of this Session: we have been told quite clearly by the Prime Minister that the terms of reference, which have already been established for that Committee, must be continued and maintained as our inquiry proceeds.

Mr. Winnick: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, although this is not a matter for those outside the House, it is certainly a matter for us in the House, and that we must bear in mind the fact that much opinion outside is undoubtedly in favour of the Committee meeting in public, of which I am in favour? Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that, if justice is to be done, the Committee should meet in public, but that, if the deliberations are also to be in public, it could well be argued that that is a denial of justice, because the Committee should be in a position, as the Father of the House said, to deliberate? It will be extremely difficult to do that in public and could well be a denial of justice for the people involved.

Mr. Alton: I agree. I made that point a little earlier in my speech. The hon. Gentleman makes a proper point. There are areas between which we much distinguish in determining the way in which we proceed.

Mr. Ashby: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Alton: I will give way once more, but after that the House would expect me to get on with my speech.

Mr. Ashby: The hon. Gentleman's party has always believed in justice. We have always heard that, if justice is to be done, it must be seen to be done. That is nonsense, because this is an inquisition. The Committee is not a court; it is conducting an inquiry. Once it has opened its doors, its procedures--which give defendants no rights whatever--will be exactly the same as those of the old Star Chamber courts that were hated by everyone because they were so unjust. The hon. Gentleman is opting for injustice, not justice.

Mr. Alton: It is precisely because I believe in natural justice that I readily agreed to serve on the Committee. I used the very phrase that the hon. Gentleman has just used: I said that I would oppose any move to turn it into a Star Chamber or a kangaroo court. I believe that the Committee could consider many matters in public rather than in private.

There is no question of the Committee's meeting in secret. All the transcripts will be made public eventually, apart from those relating to the deliberations. The issue is whether the proceedings should be transmitted

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simultaneously by television, radio, journalists and, indeed, members of the public who might wish to be present.

Mr. Jenkin: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Alton: No, I will not give way again.

A longer-term issue is the question of self-regulation, and whether ours is indeed the right body to make such decisions and conduct such investigations. We should ask ourselves whether we ought to employ procedures that smack of the blackballing associated with the more prestigious gentlemen's clubs, or whether, in all cases such as this, we should invite someone from outside to sit in deliberation. The Father of the House alluded to the Poulson scandal. I was in local government at that time, and local government was a difficult place to be: everyone assumed that all those in local government were on the make, with their fingers in the till. Indeed, during my service as deputy leader of a city council and as its housing chairman, I often had to deal with contracts and tenders involving considerable sums.

After the Poulson scandal, the House decided that it was not enough to expect local government to deal with its own affairs on a self-regulatory basis. A panoply of bodies was established--comprising the fraud squad, district auditors and local government ombudsmen--to be called in when a local councillor was thought to be in disrepute. The councillor might then risk criminal proceedings. I hope that Lord Nolan will examine the precedent of local government.

In local government, people do not simply declare a pecuniary interest in advance; they must subsequently withdraw from all proceedings connected with that interest, and take no further part in them. That is a good precedent for the House of Commons to follow. We should be open to the same charges of dishonesty, fraud and criminal action. Many of my friends and colleagues who are still in local government do not understand why we exercise such double standards. For now, the Committee of Privileges is the body charged with investigating the most recent accusations levelled against Parliament. The first issue, on which I have already touched, is whether it should meet in private or in public. I believe that we should meet in public unless there are good reasons for us not to do so. Secondly, there is the question of precedent, which has been mentioned regularly during the debate. Precedents need not be slavishly adhered to; there are times when we can change the way in which we go about things.

The right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup was right: times have changed over the past 30 years. It is not a partisan issue. People expect our affairs to be more open--which is why the Prime Minister himself has identified a more open approach to many realms of Government life as one of the features that the Government can be proud of. I believe that, on the whole, such openness will be possible in this instance as well.

Thirdly, there is the question of natural justice. Let me take up a point made by a Conservative Member. It can be argued that, when criminal proceedings are likely or writs have already been issued--we can think of one example immediately--the Attorney-General will in any

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event advise the Committee that that part of the proceedings cannot take place in the open. Any hon. Member who did not accept that, or who left the Committee and reported the circumstances, would prejudice the outcome of any court hearing that subsequently took place. In that context, I ask the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) to reflect on one of the points that he made in an otherwise excellent and thought-provoking speech.

The fourth issue is reputation. That is the most important issue of all. Parliament's reputation has been damaged in an extremely high-profile way, and unless we put the matter right in a high-profile way, confidence in our institutions will continue to be sapped. Public cynicism about our institutions and politics has reached dangerous new depths: the Church, Parliament, the royal family, the City, financial institutions and publicly appointed bodies are all among the casualties of the new cynicism.

Thoreau said, prophetically:

"If you cut down all the trees, there will be nowhere left for the birds to sing."

If our institutions are cut down one after another, we shall leave it to others with whose views we may strongly disagree to provide the answer to the new civic reckoning that is now under way.

Another issue that arises--as it did in the Committee--is what should be done if the motion is rejected tonight. Before our Committee debate, we had already agreed a timetable and modus vivendi: the Committee's proceedings have already been put in motion. We met last week to listen to tapes, and it is no secret that two hon. Members will come before the Committee tomorrow to give evidence. It will continue to hear evidence as the House has charged it to do, come what may. The inquiry has been proceeding as we all agreed that it should, but it must now be deepened and widened.

We need to hear from other hon. Members who have been named, from Mr. Al Fayed and Mr. Tiny Rowland, from the editor of The Guardian and from a number of others who have been mentioned--very publicly--in the media. I hope that members of the official Opposition will be present at tomorrow's meeting to support calls for the widening and deepening of the inquiry, but even if they are not, the Committee will be duty bound to proceed with the task entrusted to it by the House and by the Prime Minister last Tuesday.

Mrs. Jane Kennedy (Liverpool, Broadgreen): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Alton: No. I said that I was going to conclude my speech, and it is nearly finished.

Until the House makes a resolution to do otherwise, it is the House's duty to proceed. That is why I, for one, will remain a member of the Committee until it has completed its task . That task is no more or less than what the public want and expect: they want us to clean out the Augean stables, and to put our own house--the House of Commons--in order. Political trench warfare would be a pitiful response to that expectation.

Sir Edward Heath: Is it not possible for the Committee, when it next meets to discuss the proposal of

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one of its members, to reconsider the decision to hear all matters in private and to decide that it is prepared to hear witnesses in public?

Mr. Alton: Of course that is open to the Committee. I should be happy to raise the issue, but, if the right hon. Gentleman could persuade one of his colleagues on the Committee to reflect on the issue, the proposal would be far better coming from that source. As the Leader of the House has told the Committee, the issue was determined on a single casting vote.

In 1695, the House of Commons resolved, in not dissimilar circumstances, that

"the offer of money, or other advantage, to a Member of Parliament for the promoting of any matter whatsoever, depending or to be transacted in Parliament, is a high crime and misdemeanour." Surely it is not too much to expect that, 300 years later, we may effectively circumscribe the malign effects of an industry that is suffocating Parliament and destroying its reputation. It will be a sorry reflection on the state of our contemporary House of Commons if we cannot find a common-sense way forward tonight.

5.8 pm

Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking): The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made a typical speech; I rather agreed with the criticism made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). The views that the right hon. Gentleman expressed about the results of a vote on deliberation in public are not the views that he held when he was last a member of the Privileges Committee. On that occasion, the question which he put to the vote was defeated; all three of his colleagues voted with the rest of the Committee against his proposition. I am glad to say that he attended at least two subsequent meetings of the Committee and I am not aware that he has divulged, except in the privacy of his diaries, the proceedings that took place. I hope that he will reflect carefully on the threat which he seemed to issue.

To come back to the motion and the amendment, the House should remember that it has given the Privileges Committee two distinct tasks. One of them is an instruction to investigate matters relating to the conduct of two of our colleagues, and the involvement therein of The Sunday Times ; to establish the facts so far as we can to give our opinion on whether they show that a contempt has been committed; and to recommend in a report the appropriate action to be taken by the House as a whole.

I want to devote most of what I have to say to that specific matter, but the other wider-ranging remit contained in the Speaker's instruction to the Committee is much more general. It relates to matters which are complicated and involved; which may bring the Committee into a position of overlap with the Nolan inquiry; which may bring us into conflict with the Committee on Members' Interests; which we certainly cannot resolve in a hurry; and which will require a great deal of deliberation on all parts.

Against that background, it is important that the Committee should be allowed to go on as fast as possible with the first part of its inquiry and try to get that out of the way as expeditiously as we can. My right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup knows, as I do, that it is not the Committee's fault that it has not been able to make more progress throughout the autumn. The

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Committee is not empowered to sit when the House is not sitting but perhaps it should be so empowered. That point could be pursued. As matters stand, my right hon. Friend must not blame the Committee; he must blame the House's rules of order.

We must also bear in mind the requirements of natural justice. I am glad that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) referred to that; my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup referred to it as well. It may surprise hon. Members to hear that "Erskine May" is not an authority on the subject of natural justice. Even the law books are not especially helpful. I asked someone I know well, who is a lawyer, to see if he could provide me with any authority on the subject. I received a note from him which says:

"The courts in the interest of fairness impose certain obligations upon those with power to take decisions affecting other people. These obligations arise from the rules of natural justice which, although sadly lacking in precision' have generally been subsumed under two heads"--

the House will understand the rules when I read them in Latin-- "the audi alteram partem rule and the nemo judex in re sua rule". I will not insult the intelligence of hon. Members by attempting to translate them. The note goes on to say:

"By virtue of these rules decision makers must act fairly, in good faith and without bias, and must afford each party the opportunity to adequately state his case."

I do not believe that if we met in public to consider the specific matters relating to the conduct of our two colleagues and The Sunday Times , it would be at all easy to meet the requirements of natural justice, even if we were a court of law, which the Privileges Committee is not. Not being a court of law, the Committee has no provision for legal representation, as my right hon. Friend and others have pointed out. There is no possibility of cross-examination and there are not even any charges set out--not even that old catch-all of section 40 of the Army Act 1955 with regard to conduct that is prejudicial to good order and military discipline. The whole situation is inverted, in that the Committee's task is first to establish what the rules may be and then to judge whether its opinion is that someone has offended against them.

Sir Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington): Does my right hon. Friend consider that the Committee's task would be made much more difficult by the introduction of television and, to a lesser extent, radio? When the hearing takes place, the atmosphere in the Committee will be charged. Does my right hon. Friend realise that those who are accused cannot expect a fair trial or hearing? If he has any doubts, he should look at what is happening in America, where a celebrated murder trial is in absolute chaos because television cameras are giving it wall-to-wall coverage.

Sir Cranley Onslow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who anticipates the very point that I was about to make. I do not need to look to America for evidence to support his argument and mine. It is essential that individual witnesses who come before the Privileges Committee should be protected when the proceedings may result in the Committee recommending a penalty against them, whether they are Members of Parliament or editors of national newspapers.

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We have a duty under natural justice to provide protection in those terms for those who appear before us. As my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir D. Smith) pointed out, to do otherwise--to meet in public--would be an absolute media circus. For a start, we should need to hold our meetings in the Grand Committee Room, if not in Westminster Hall. No room on the Committee corridor would be big enough to contain all those who want to come and listen to our proceedings and report them.

As I said, we have evidence on our own shores of the way in which press coverage can frustrate the purposes of justice. On 15 June 1993, The Times Law Reports reported the result of an appeal hearing in an important case. The appeal was based on two grounds, the second of which was the concern that arose as a result of press coverage of the trial. I quote:

"In granting the appellants leave to appeal the single judge described that coverage as unremitting, extensive, sensational, inaccurate and misleading'. Having had the opportunity of reading a substantial selection of the newspaper reports in question, their Lordships saw no reason to dissent . . . They were satisfied that the press coverage of the trial did create a real risk of prejudice against the defendants and for that second reason as well the convictions were unsafe and unsatisfactory and had to be quashed." We are not in exactly that position with regard to the offence or the forum in which it was heard, but we do not need to use our imaginations vividly to see that there might well be unremitting, extensive, sensational, inaccurate and misleading reporting of Privileges Committee sittings if they were held in public.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): I have a great deal of sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman's point of view, especially with regard to publicity. Can he explain who the publicity will influence? Clearly, in a court of law, there is a possibility that jurors can be influenced by publicity. How can the publicity which might attach to the right hon. Gentleman's illustration influence the members of the Committee who will, in the final analysis, make the judgment?

Sir Cranley Onslow: The hon. Gentleman's imagination must be limited if he cannot see that. Even if he thinks that some of his colleagues may sometimes think that there is a compromise position to be adopted--a sort of halfway house where witnesses can be interrogated half in public and half in private--I recommend that he read the second leader in today's Evening Standard , which points out that it is disingenuous for Opposition Members to think that interviewing witnesses partly in private and partly in public would work. I quote:

"Can they imagine the effect on press coverage if reporters were removed from the room for part, and only part, of the proceedings?" The leader goes on to recommend that the status quo--the traditional precedent by which the Committee meets in private--should continue. Whatever view one takes of that, it must surely be right that the Committee must make up its own mind as to how it does its work. It is not for the Leader of the Opposition to request the Prime Minister to allow the Committee to meet in public. It is not for the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) to blame someone else if we choose to meet in private. The

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decision depends on the individual views of members of the--and it is not members hunting as a pack or acting in concert but making up their own minds in their own way and in accordance with their own beliefs.

The editorial in the Daily Mail , which the right hon. Gentleman quoted, was misconceived in its arguments. I have no sympathy with them. It is up to each of us to make our own judgment and to do so in the light of our interest in Parliament as a whole and our belief in the parliamentary process. I do not believe that we shall be able to retain the public confidence we need if we are to keep authority over our procedures unless we pass the amendment tonight.

5.19 pm

Mr. Alfred Morris (Manchester, Wythenshawe): Happily, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir Edward Heath) took a much higher view of the abilities and standing of the Privileges Committee's membership than some of his colleagues have taken in their interventions today. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the legal profession is represented by some distinguished lawyers, not only by the Attorney-General but also, for example, by my right hon. and learned Friend and namesake the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris). He also is held in the highest respect in this House.

I have no intention of exciting any avoidable controversy in the debate, and I know how seriously and conscientiously the Leader of the House takes his role and responsibilities in this extremely sensitive affair. In that spirit, may I ask him for a response, not now but before the debate concludes, to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) about whether there will be a free vote for Conservative Members of Parliament as well as on this side of the House? I want now briefly to explain, as a member of the Privileges Committee, why I oppose the holding of its proceedings solely behind closed doors. In my view, secrecy is permissible only when there is a clear and compelling reason, more especially a legal reason, and even more especially any risk of infringing natural justice.

For me, the issue is not one of party or parliamentary tactics. The accusation has been made that the Committee's Labour members acted like spoilsports, taking our ball home because we did not get our way. But we were not playing a game. The issue was one of very important principle and, for my part, I simply could not bring myself to say, when the vote for secrecy was decided, "That's fine. I will change my principles."

There was no meeting of the Committee's Labour members to discuss its proceedings before the meeting on 18 October. Nor at any time have we met outside the Committee since then. Those are matters of ascertainable fact. We voted as individuals and were joined in opposing the motion for secrecy, as you heard, by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), the representative on the Committee of the Liberal Democrats.

Who in this debate can deny that, on 18 October, we acted in accord with the wishes of the vast majority of the British people? We put our votes where the Prime Minister's rhetoric was when he said that standards in public life should be

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"seen and recognised to be beyond criticism".--[ Official Report , 25 October 1994; Vol.248, c.759.]

That cannot be achieved on the basis of total secrecy.

Urgency is now extremely urgent if we are to allay mounting public disquiet at the failure of this House to deal effectively with allegations of malfeasance. The public resent being kept in the dark.

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