Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will recall that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry came to the House some time ago and made a statement, based on the options set out in the White Paper, on the Post Office. It now seems that the options that were described to the House have been cast aside and that fresh proposals are being cobbled together in an ad hoc way and are being discussed at this very moment in an upstairs Room.
Can the House be given a statement on the options for the Post Office; and can it be communicated to the Secretary of State that the future of the Royal Mail and the Post Office is not a matter to be dealt with as a bartering process among Conservative Members?
Madam Speaker: The hon. Member will have seen that there are appropriate Ministers on the Treasury Bench. I have not been told by any Minister that he is seeking to make a statement on that matter today.
I had anticipated that there would be a point of order for me today about the events that took place last night when the Committee of Privileges finished its meeting. As there is no point of order, however-- [Interruption.] I can cope without one. It is a matter of great seriousness and great importance. What has taken place could have repercussions for the working of the whole of our system of Select Committees. Clearly, the matter has privilege
Column 1566aspects-- [Interruption.] Order. Does the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) have a point of order for me?
As I was saying, the matter clearly has privilege aspects, and for that reason I could have insisted that it was first raised with me in writing. But because of its importance, and because this is the last full working day of the Session, I have decided, exceptionally, to make an interim ruling today.
My ruling is that the Committee of Privileges must have an opportunity to make a report on this matter to the House before the House takes any action. Members will find described on page 136 of "Erskine May" the practice of the House whereby
"A matter alleged to have arisen in committee but not reported by it may not generally be brought to the attention of the House on a complaint of breach of privilege."
The purported written report from the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) was issued, so I understand, after the conclusion of yesterday's meeting of the Committee of Privileges. The Committee has therefore not yet had the opportunity of making a report on it to the House of the kind to which I have just referred. I hope that, following its next meeting, the Committee will make such a report so that the House can have an early opportunity to consider this matter in an orderly manner and to take any action that it may think fit.
For those reasons, I do not propose to take any points of order on this matter today. The House knows exactly where it stands if hon. Members have listened very carefully to all my words.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for a system of consultation when legislation relating to disabled persons is proposed and to set rules for formulating compliance cost assessments in the case of such legislation.
The House will be aware that the Government have recently consulted on their proposals to tackle discrimination against disabled people. It will also be aware that that exercise was conducted in response to the overwhelming support for the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. No doubt that accounts for the attendance in the Chamber at this time.
I am sure that support for the Bill, inside and outside the House, encouraged the Government to put forward their own proposals. I am also sure that their consultation document was published in response to the widespread disquiet at the manner in which the Government blocked that Bill temporarily. Nevertheless, I welcomed the consultation exercise, not least because, by issuing that consultation document, the Government made it quite clear that disabled people face systematic discrimination and that they believed that this must be tackled through legislation. Therefore, in common with other hon. Members, I eagerly await the Government's publication of the results of that consultation exercise and further debate on that issue. In the meantime, my Bill is a modest attempt to address and correct some of the serious limitations in that consultation exercise.
The main issues that we must consider are the way in which consultation exercises are undertaken and the misuse of so-called compliance cost assessments. For example, it is said by many people, including the Prime Minister, that the price tag on the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill is £17 billion. As I shall demonstrate, that figure has no basis in fact. That a document claiming to be a compliance cost assessment could come up with that figure suggests that we should carefully review the rules for compliance cost assessments in order to ensure that truthful figures are produced, not figments of people's imagination.
In relation to the consultation process, my Bill recognises that the Government may, of course, consult on whatever proposals they wish--there is no question about that. Disabled people, however, have felt and still feel that it was regrettable that, in the recent consultation exercise, the Government refused to consult on the one proposal for tackling discrimination against disabled people that disabled people wanted--the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I recently received a communication from the Spastics Society--I am sure that hon. Members would like to join me in congratulating that society on the fact that, tomorrow, it will change its name to Scope--in which it pointed out that it regretted that the Government had excluded from their consultation exercise items that featured in the civil rights Bill. That regret has been repeated by other organisations of and for disabled people.
My Bill contains some very modest proposals. It would require that, when the Government undertook a consultation exercise, they would include with their proposals for disabled people any proposals relating to similar matters that disabled people supported. That seems perfectly reasonable.
Column 1568Secondly, it would also be reasonable to state that any proposed Government consultation should include legislation that received an unopposed Second Reading in the Chamber. A Bill is not carried every day of the week by 231 votes to nil on Second Reading. That vote expresses the view of the House and should be the subject of consultation.
Thirdly, my Bill would require that any legislation that had successfully completed its Committee stage should be a matter for proper consultation. Finally, any legislation that had completed either of those stages in the other place should also be the subject of consultation.
I am sure that hon. Members are reasonable, although I do not want to over- egg it, and I am sure that they would agree that any legislation that has passed any one of those four tests, let alone all of them, is worthy of detailed consultation in the sort of exercise in which the Government have just engaged.
The second issue dealt with in the Bill concerns compliance cost assessments for proposed legislation. Those sound very grand. Some people think that the assessment is based on a widely accepted technique for evaluating policy, whether by economists or anyone else. It is not and no self-respecting economist would touch many of the assessments with a bargepole. Indeed, the appalling errors in the compliance cost assessment for the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill have led me to suggest these new rules. They are not controversial, but they are worth stating.
First, when undertaking a compliance cost assessment, one should refrain from counting the same thing twice. Double counting, whether by accident or by design, obviously inflates estimates of costs. That may be welcome to someone who opposes the legislation, but it hardly brings such an exercise into good repute. For example, the compliance cost assessment for the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill included the cost of providing access to existing buildings in the environment section, but some of the costs were counted again in the sections on employment and education. That double counting accounts for £6 billion of the alleged £17 billion costs.
Secondly, one should not assume a phasing-in period that is not contained in the proposed legislation. It was assumed that everything contained in the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill would have to be done within five years. That does not feature in the Bill. If we allow for a proper phasing- in period for transport, we could reduce the costs by yet another £6 billion.
I am running short of time, so suffice it to say-- [Hon. Members:-- "Hear, Hear."]--I appreciate why some opponents of the Bill might be happy about that. The £17 billion figure should never be used again. According to the Government's assumptions, if we avoid double counting and do not allow for time periods that are not in the Bill, we are down to £5 billion.
Compliance cost assessments should also be required to take into account the benefits of legislation. It has been estimated that discrimination excludes disabled people from the labour market at a cost of between £3 billion and £5 billion a year. The cost of inaccessible transport is £1 billion. My Bill would ensure that much more meaningful consultation took place on legislation relating to disabled people and it would ensure more meaningful cost-benefit
Column 1569analyses. Today's Bill, like the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill, has all-party support and I commend it to the House. Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Roger Berry, Mr. John Austin-Walker, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. David Congdon, Ms Jean Corston, Mr. Don Dixon, Sir John Hannam, Mr. Alan Howarth, Ms Liz Lynne, Mr. Gordon McMaster, Mr. Alfred Morris and Mr. Dafydd Wigley.
Mr. Roger Berry accordingly presented a Bill to provide for a system of consultation when legislation relating to disabled persons is proposed and to set rules for formulating compliance cost assessments in the case of such legislation: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed. [Bill 173.]
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In the light of your wise and understandable statement, and as the Government knew perfectly well as far back as 10 May that a letter had been written on House of Commons notepaper, is not it rather odd that we should give preference above other business to a debate such as this at this time? We must remember how long the Government have known about the letter and surely your statement rather alters events, does it not?
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. The motion on privilege is extremely narrowly drawn--as you reminded us when we considered a similar motion earlier this week. In view of last night's events, there will be a clear temptation in today's debate for hon. Members on both sides to discuss the proceedings of the Privileges Committee. That is something which you warned us against previously and which I am sure you will warn us against today.
Secondly, anyone voting for the motion today cannot have any idea whether, if carried, the complaint will be considered by the Committee in public or in private, or how the proceedings of the Committee will be arranged.
Mr. Madden: I believe that to consider the motion today would be premature. Could it be withdrawn to enable us to consider it when the proceedings of the Privileges Committee are themselves clear and made known to the House?
Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) rose --
Madam Speaker: Order. I can deal with the two points of order now. I think that I have captured the mood of the House on this matter. There is certainly no conflict between the motion before us today and the statement that I made earlier. The motion is in perfect order and it is ready for debate. Quite frankly, the House has a responsibility, at this stage, to deal with the motion now.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. As you know, during the time that you have been in the Chair and prior to that, there have been countless instances every year of people, both inside and outside the House, using House of Commons notepaper when they should not have done so. Can you tell me on how many occasions such people have used the notepaper but not had it brought before the Privileges Committee?
Madam Speaker: Of course, I cannot give the hon. Member a figure for that at this stage, but I shall certainly have some research carried out and do my best to respond to his question. It is not a point of order for me, but I am always willing to give as much information as I can to individual hon. Members.
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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): I wish to call attention to the alleged action of The Guardian newspaper in representing that a letter sent by it to the Ritz hotel, Paris, was sent in the name of an honourable Member of this House.
I beg to move,
That the matter be referred to the Committee of Privileges. There are occasions when I would give my eye teeth to address the House in prime time and on an important issue, but this is not one of them. This debate opens up all sorts of predictable criticism and offers us assorted traps into which we can all fall. I fully understand that in a debate such as this it would be very easy to sound pompous, sanctimonious and utterly party political, but when we seek to defend our collective reputations and, more importantly, the status and symbols of the House, there will always be a risk of allegations of hypocrisy, oversensitivity and being out of touch. While the debate is, of necessity, about a possible abuse of the House and contempt of Parliament, I hope that the whole House would be just as concerned if the victim of this alleged conspiracy, impersonation and forgery were the proverbial Joe Bloggs, whose letter heading did not have a portcullis or the words "House of Commons".
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): I would have much more sympathy with the case being made by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) if the information about the use of a piece of notepaper purporting to come from the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) had been brought to the attention of the House when the right hon. Gentleman himself knew about it. He knew about it on 10 May. The Cabinet Secretary knew about it on 18 May. Why was not the House so informed at that time if it is so important now?
Mr. Dalyell: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. This is a point for you. You have emphasised, understandably, that this is a matter of precedence over other business. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) says, the matter was known about in the public print on 10 May and the Cabinet Secretary wrote letters on 18 May. Why is it given precedence?
Madam Speaker: The hon. Member cannot disrupt our proceedings in this way with points of order that are really not points of order. It has been determined that this matter takes precedence today and it is the responsibility and duty of the House to debate it. It is about time that we faced up to some duties in the House.
Mr. Wilshire rose --
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North): In view of the points that have just been raised, does my hon. Friend accept that the Prime Minister and the Cabinet Secretary apparently considered referring the matter to the Press
Column 1572Complaints Commission, but as at that time Mr. Peter Preston was a member of the Commission, they felt that it was not worth doing so?
Madam Speaker: As I have told the House and the hon. Member, the motion before us and the way in which we are proceeding are completely in order according to the business of the House and precedents that have stood us in good stead over many years.
I also want to make it clear at the outset that in saying what I say this afternoon I do not seek to criticise all journalists and all editors when I criticise one. I make no claims at all to be better than or different from anyone else. I know that I run the risk of setting myself up for abuse and criticism, but so be it. That is the lot of all politicians.
All I know is that if I was caught forging faxes, however much I felt that I could justify it, I would expect to be pilloried by every newspaper in the land, and that is a fate that I would richly deserve. If, when I was found out, I indulged in self-righteous self-justification, I would rightly deserve the contempt of every fair-minded person.
Again at the outset I want to say that I am anxious to try to avoid cheap party politics. [Interruption.] I guessed that that would get a hollow laugh. All I can say is, please hear me out and then judge at the end whether I am playing party politics.
I am relieved that you, Madam Speaker, have made it clear that the debate must confine itself to narrow issues--in fact, the issues in my motion-- because those are the issues that I wanted to raise when I wrote to you on Monday. Whatever an hon. Member may or may not have done is not part of the issue, although I can quite understand why there are people in the House who want to pursue that story. This issue is sufficiently important to require separate and immediate attention. What concerns us today are the methods employed by a respected national newspaper when investigating a Member of Parliament. At best, those methods were ethically flawed; at worst, they were downright criminal. Whichever they were, they were a flagrant abuse of the House and need to be investigated.
I say that for three reasons. Those in a privileged position must be above reproach--at least, that is the message that newspapers have been trumpeting these past few weeks. I am perfectly happy to accept that Members of Parliament are in a privileged position, even if most of us do not have much power. I am, however, clear in my mind that newspaper editors are in an equally privileged position and wield substantial power.
Column 1573in the public interest in revealing the fact that Conservative Members failed to register pecuniary interests: yes or no?
If editors maintain that Members of Parliament should be above reproach, it follows that they also should be beyond reproach. My second reason is that two of the most important duties of all Members of Parliament are to stand up for the rights of the individual and for the rule of law. Perhaps the greatest threat to both is the belief held by people in powerful positions that the ends justify the means. Down that route lurks the jackboot and the lynch mob. If I understand history correctly, this Parliament came into existence to protect the citizen from arbitrary abuse and victimisation. Throughout Parliament's history, we have had to square up to the over- mighty who seek to place themselves above the law. My third reason is the total lack of a proper apology by the editor of The Guardian . From time to time, we all allow our enthusiasm to run away with us and do things that we later regret. When I do that, I find people willing to accept a proper apology, while I want to hide in a dark corner for quite a while. But not so the editor of The Guardian . Over the past few days, and again in Mr. Preston's letter of resignation from the Press Complaints Commission last night, the nation has been treated to the mocking of decency and honesty, and to the attempted justification of deceit and deception.
My description of the details of the allegations is based on comments made by Mr. Preston, Mr. Al Fayed and reports in The Guardian . In the circumstances, I hope that the House will find all those sources reliable. Last autumn, Mr. Al Fayed told Mr. Preston about a Ritz hotel bill. Quite how or why an extremely busy international tycoon found time to interest himself in such a matter of detail is not reported, as far as I can discover. Mr. Preston wanted a copy of that bill, while Mr. Al Fayed wanted to protect his own reputation and that of his hotel. They concocted a plan to forge a fax.
Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your guidance. Are we debating whether the matter should be considered by the Committee of Privileges, or are we debating what should be discussed by the Committee at a later date?
Madam Speaker: That is a very good point of order. We are debating today whether the House should refer the matter to the Privileges Committee. I have just read the motion for the umpteenth time and it is very narrow. Although references may be made to certain matters, they should not be detailed and ought to be brief. The
Column 1574House should keep it in mind that it is considering only whether the matter should go before the Privileges Committee for detailed investigation there.
As I said, because Mr. Preston wanted a copy of the bill, a plan was concocted to forge a fax. I am no lawyer, but that sounds like a criminal conspiracy to me. As a result, Mr. Preston arranged for the top of a letter from my right hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken), on official House of Commons stationery, to be stuck to the top of a fax to make it appear that it came from a Member of Parliament. That sounds remarkably like forgery to me. Finally, Mr. Preston worded the fax to suggest that the sender was my right hon. Friend's private secretary. Lawyers to whom I have spoken tell me that that sounds remarkably like impersonation. Thus, it appears to me that Mr. Preston has admitted not only to an abuse of Parliament, but to criminal activity. That is why I have referred the matter to the police.
Mr. Wilshire: No--I have detained the House long enough. I want to make a couple more points; then I am sure that you, Madam Speaker, could call the hon. Gentleman to speak, if he is on your list. I can think of no better way to sum up my case than to quote something that I heard on Radio 4 on Monday morning:
"I think that anyone other than a Member of Parliament writing on parliamentary paper is unacceptable and I think that there does need to be some investigation into exactly what happened. I don't think it's right for others than Members of Parliament to take on that role, and I think there are some questions that need to be answered there."
I agree with every word of that comment made by the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), Labour's shadow Leader of the House. Thus the hon. Lady and I stand united across the party political divide. That is why I want the matter referred to the Privileges Committee. That is why I want to hear its verdict and its views on possible punishment. That is also why I welcome the verdict of a jury and the punishment handed down by a judge.
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Tony Newton) rose --
Mr. Skinner: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The Leader of the House is Chairman of the Privileges Committee, which will deal with the matter. He used his casting vote on a previous occasion, and I have no doubt that if it meets again he will use it for this matter. I want to know why he can take part in the debate, leading on behalf of the Government, when he will be acting as judge and jury.
Mr. Newton: As I had indicated to you, Madam Speaker, I felt it appropriate to say a word, but really only two sentences. First, as Leader of the House, I hope that the House will accept my hon. Friend's motion. Secondly, as Chairman of the Privileges
Column 1575Committee, I think that the House will understand that it would not be appropriate for me to comment beyond that.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). I very much regret the extravagant and intemperate language that he used, which did not help his case.
The basis of the complaint is that the editor-- [Interruption.] If we are able to consider the matter carefully, it will do the House a great deal of good; it is an extremely important issue.
The basis of the complaint that the hon. Gentleman made, in respect of allegations that the editor of The Guardian used House of Commons notepaper and forged the signature of a member of staff of a Member of the House, is very serious, and on Monday, you, Madam Speaker, instigated inquiries through the Serjeant at Arms. The motion proposes that the matter be referred to the Privileges Committee. Clearly, there has been a prima facie breach of parliamentary privilege. I repeat what I said on Monday morning, which the hon. Member for Spelthorne quoted. I made it clear, as soon as I heard the allegations against Mr. Preston, that for anyone other than a Member of Parliament to use official notepaper is completely unacceptable, as it clearly is for anyone to forge any signature. It is unacceptable behaviour for an editor of a newspaper or, indeed, for anyone else. Anyone who receives a letter on House of Commons writing paper must be able to believe that the letter is genuine, not least to protect our ability to serve our constituents. When we write to doctors, lawyers or, indeed, anyone else, those recipients must feel confident that the letters are genuine.
The reference to the Privileges Committee is therefore inevitable and entirely appropriate. I do not seek to defend the actions of the editor of The Guardian , or to justify them. Mr. Preston has said that, in retrospect, he may have been wrong to do what he did. He was wrong; he was foolish; and it is right for the Committee to consider his actions.
I hope that the Committee will also consider when hon. Members first knew of the fax, and of the forgery that forms the subject of this inquiry. It is important that the Committee finds out who knew about the forgery, when they knew about it and why, if Members of Parliament knew that there had been a flagrant breach of this kind, they did not report it earlier to you, Madam Speaker.
Sir Ivan Lawrence (Burton): Why does the hon. Lady think that the timing is relevant? The important point is that either this was done, or it was not. I gather from what the hon. Lady is saying that she thinks it was thoroughly wrong to do it. It was against the principles and rules of the House, and that is the end of the matter.
Mrs. Taylor: I think that any hon. Member who finds that there has been a flagrant breach of privilege has a responsibility to report it to the House. I think it entirely right for the Committee of Privileges to examine this matter as well as the other details that have been mentioned.
Column 1576Statements have been made in today's press that Cabinet members--including the Prime Minister as well as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury--knew all about the misuse of House of Commons paper several months ago. It is not for the House to consider that in detail this afternoon, but I believe that it is relevant to the inquiry, and I hope that the Committee will take that aspect on board.
The fact that Mr. Preston was wrong should not be used as a reason for ignoring the issues that he was raising and, indeed, the evidence that has come to light. Mr. Preston might claim that he used a foolish device to verify essential evidence and to protect his source of information. It is interesting that no one has challenged the factual information that he presented, nor are those facts challenged by this debate.
Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): The hon. Lady, surely, is trying to change the facts completely. Surely what happened was a conspiracy by Mr. Preston to try to hide the fact that he was working with a blackmailer in an attempt to bring down the Government.
Mrs. Taylor: I am sure that the Privileges Committee will hear everything that is said. [Interruption.] As some of my hon. Friends are saying, it would be wise not to make allegations of that kind outside the House.
Mr. Corbett: I do not disagree with a word that my hon. Friend has said. Does she acknowledge, however, that although paragraph 7 of the Press Complaints Commission's code of conduct, which was generally approved by the Government, states that subterfuge should not be used, it also states that it is possible if it is in the public interest?
Mrs. Taylor: It is interesting to note that, when Opposition Members have attempted to increase the accountability of the press, they have generally been blocked by Conservative Members. We are considering one aspect of the means used to obtain information. The ends do not justify the means, but neither do the means invalidate the attempts to raise issues of genuine and important public concern. The methods adopted raise some big questions and we should not lose sight of the fact that journalists and others are trying to prise out information because we do not have a sufficiently transparent system of accountability in this country. If we had a better system of registering the interests of Members of Parliament and Ministers, this might not have happened.