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Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You told the House, rightly, that this is to be a narrow debate. The hon. Lady is attempting to make some party political points.
Madam Speaker: I am listening to the debate carefully; the hon. Gentleman can leave it in my hands. The hon. Lady is doing perfectly well at the moment. I believe that she is about to finish, if the hon. Gentleman will allow her to do so.
Column 1577The Nolan committee will consider some of the wider issues, and it is important that the House does so too. Mr. Preston's action must be referred to the Privileges Committee, and I hope that its members will investigate all the issues that are raised by this reference.
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): On a point of order, Madam Speaker, arising from what was said by the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who moved the motion. He said that he had reported this matter simultaneously to the police. For many years, the House, which has a jurisdiction of its own, has kept a wide boundary between its jurisdiction and that of the courts. If this is to be pursued in the courts with, presumably, a prosecution for forgery, while the Committee is handling the matter, we could be in difficulties. [Interruption.] I hope that the House will listen because this is a point of substance.
If the case is taken to court, it will be heard in open court, whereas in the Committee of Privileges it will be heard in secret. [Interruption.] Yes, that is the decision of the Committee. If Mr. Preston is referred to the Committee of Privileges and he asks for the right to print in his newspaper what happened in the Committee, he will be guilty of another breach of privilege for revealing the Committee's proceedings. I am drawing to your attention, Madam Speaker, an important question. We have stumbled into this without thinking it out. There are two jurisdictions and two regimes: an open regime in the court and a private regime in the Committee. If Mr. Preston were to be hauled up, he would be put in an impossible position.
Madam Speaker: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but it is not a point of order for me. It is a speech that he might wish to make during the debate, when he may have something of substance to say. It is not a point of order at this time. Mr. Benn rose --
Mr. Benn rose --
Madam Speaker: Order. Sit down for a moment. I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman. It is not a point of order at this stage. It is a point that right hon. and hon. Members may wish to employ during the debate. It is not a point of order on which I can rule.
Mr. Benn: With great respect, I have no intention of speaking today because I spoke on Monday. By accepting a motion after we have been told that the issue is going to another jurisdiction, the jurisdiction of the House is infringed. That is a matter for you, Madam Speaker; it is not a matter of judgment for the House. It is for you to protect the jurisdiction of the House and to order the hon. Member for Spelthorne, if we do proceed, not to take the matter to the courts, otherwise the rights of the House of Commons will be taken over by the courts.
Column 1578Wilshire) in moving the motion. I spent a great deal of time taking legal advice on the subject, and the way in which we are proceeding is perfectly in order.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Will you confirm that one reason why Committees sit in secret is that they collect evidence? Police and other investigations are carried out in secret, and only when all the information has been looked into and collected--
Madam Speaker: Order. Hon. Members are attempting to conduct the debate through me. They must wait for me to call them. I hope that there will be no more points of order--we must proceed with the debate.
Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. Madden: On a point of order, Madam Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) asked a number of questions that other hon. Members had asked earlier. It was clear that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) was either unable or unwilling to answer those questions, which related directly to the motion. The House requires clear information that the Leader of the House was unable to give--
Madam Speaker: Order. That is not a point of order, but a matter for debate. Hon. Members are raising matters for argument, not points of order. There has been no breach of our Standing Orders or procedures. Hon. Members are raising matters for debate across the Floor of the House.
Mr. Dalyell: I have a point of order that is directly for you, Madam Speaker; it falls within your jurisdiction. The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) asked my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) what possible relevance there was in the timing of all this. Is there not an obligation on the Government at least to give an explanation? They may have a perfectly good explanation, but the debate cannot continue without their explaining why something that was known in May was not tackled until November. That is a fundamental point and the Leader of the House of Commons has an obligation to explain.
Madam Speaker: That is not a point of order for me; it is a debating matter. The hon. Gentleman is attempting to extract information, which is perfectly reasonable, but he cannot extract information from me; he must do it through other hon. Members. Several hon. Members rose --
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Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North): I wish to raise five matters that are relevant to the decision that we will be required to take later today. I shall confine those issues strictly within the bounds of the motion. I am well aware that some of what I have to say will not be palatable.
Before raising those issues, I want to ask the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) a question. She indicated that she intends to support the motion. In the light of her partisan statements and the partisan comments from Labour Back Benchers, I want to know whether the Opposition intend to support the referral of a breach of privilege to the Committee. Will the hon. Lady's Back-Bench colleagues support that referral?
Mrs. Ann Taylor: That is a matter for the House, and I hope that all hon. Members will exercise their judgment. I clearly said that I support the referral to the Select Committee on Privileges. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman should ask me about that.
Mr. Gale: It seems that Opposition Members are trying to have their cake and eat it by half-heartedly condemning the clear breach of privilege while trying to curry favour with the press. The press have sought to give the impression to the public that we are discussing the misuse of House of Commons writing paper and, in so doing, have sought to trivialise the matter. They have given the impression that we are talking merely about a letter that was written on paper, which we now know was not stolen paper but just the clipped heading of a piece of House of Commons paper. They have given the impression that the matter involved a trivial misuse, and simply represented a mistake.
That is not all that we are dealing with this afternoon. We are dealing first with the forgery of a letter purporting to come from a Minister of the Crown, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Secondly, we are dealing with a very clear intent to deceive. Thirdly, we are dealing with the impersonation not only of a member of the Chief Secretary's staff but of someone who was at the time a senior civil servant at the Ministry of Defence, whose signature was copied. That is the first series of issues. They are not trivial matters but serious and possibly criminal offences. The use of writing paper was certainly a discourtesy to the House, but the matter goes much wider than that and we need to focus on it, however much others may seek to mislead the public.
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): In the world of modern communications, whether one is dealing with a fax or another communication to a newspaper, are not the chances of a letter getting into general circulation--even with none of the explanations attached to it that the editor of The Guardian has sought to attach to it--such that they make such an action even more culpable and fraudulent?
Mr. Gale: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. I hope and believe that those responsible for bringing criminal charges in this case will consider his point very seriously. I would expect a criminal action to follow, but that is not what we are here to consider today.
Column 1580This matter does not relate only to The Guardian , although we are debating the referral of the actions of its editor to the Privileges Committee. The Guardian set itself up as the gamekeeper of political morality and all the other Fleet street newspapers clung to the gamekeeper's coat tails. The gamekeeper's coat pockets have now been found to be full of stolen pheasants. The other newspapers that ran stories about my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary, that ran pictures of his wife and children and that sought to drag him and his down, are left with sizeable egg on their faces. If I may mix my metaphors, the rats are now quickly leaving a ship that is holed and sinking.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): The hon. Gentleman, like me, is a journalist by profession. Is he even mildly curious about what the former Minister of State for Defence Procurement was doing in a hotel in Paris at the same time as three Saudi arms dealers?
Mr. Gale: I am entirely content to accept the explanations that have been offered to the House, as they should have been, by my right hon. Friend. If I may digress slightly in response to the hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin)--
Madam Speaker: Order. I have cautioned the hon. Gentleman and the House. The hon. Gentleman knows full well how narrow the motion is. We are debating whether, if the House so wishes, to refer the matter to the Committee. We are not arguing the merits or demerits of any individual.
Mr. Gale: My right hon. Friend is answerable not to The Guardian or any other medium but to two sets of people: his constituents and hon. Members. His constituents have faith in his integrity and he has answered to the House.
Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow): Does my hon. Friend agree that the tone of the debate, especially from the Opposition, is frightening? We have seen a casual disregard for the rule of law, which is a frightening portent of what would happen if the Labour party were to get into power.
Mr. Gale: Much has been made of the fact that knowledge of the forgery was in the hands of certain people--in particular, the Cabinet Secretary--some time ago. It is important that we consider that because the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman has referred to it, as have other Opposition Members. As I said in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), my understanding is that referral of the forgery to the Press Complaints Commission was considered carefully by the Cabinet Secretary, who concluded that, as the editor of The Guardian was at that time a member of the commission, there was little point in asking the turkey to vote for Christmas.
Mr. Tony Banks rose --
Mr. Madden rose --
Column 1581intervene in the debate. It is better if I conclude my remarks and let other Members make their own speeches.
Last night the editor of The Guardian resigned from the Press Complaints Commission, not as a matter of personal honour but as a result of pressure from inside the House.
We must consider another salient point. Throughout the affair, the Press Complaints Commission has maintained a stunning silence: not one word of condemnation has been heard. [Interruption.] It is another issue, but I suggest that the time has come for the House to create an independent press tribunal with statutory powers--
Madam Speaker: Order. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. We are not discussing any press tribunal. I have cautioned the hon. Gentleman; many people want to speak in the debate, and I now ask hon. Members to stay with the point and get on with debating the motion.
Mr. Gale: We have been discussing whether the editor of The Guardian , a former member of the Press Complaints Commission, should be referred to the Privileges Committee. I seek to give the House instances showing why I believe that that referral should and must take place. I believe that because of the forgery, the deceit and the impersonation that he has practised, using House of Commons notepaper, Mr. Preston's conduct as a member of the Press Complaints Commission is part and parcel of the matter that we are considering. The press, especially the editor of The Guardian , have set themselves up as the guardians of the public interest, but that guardian angel has turned out to be the whore from hell. I believe that some good may yet come from the matter. If it is referred to the Privileges Committee and the Committee considers it correctly, as I believe it will, and the report is published and debated by the House in full, as it will be, the public may at last realise the depths to which that editor and others are prepared to sink to stand up a story at whatever cost to the truth.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) asked whether any hearing would be held in camera or in public. That is an interesting question, and I am sure that the press will take a keen interest in it. If the matter is referred to the Privileges Committee, as I believe it must be, I should prefer Mr. Preston to have the opportunity to give his evidence in private.
I believe that the Committee may also wish to call Mr. Al Fayed-- [Hon. Members:-- "Fayed."]--and to hear Mr. Fayed's evidence in private. That should not be turned into yet another media circus and yet another feeding frenzy. For that reason, if for no other, I hope that the Committee, if the matter is referred to it, will decide to hold the hearings in private, and then to publish in full.
Column 1582I have written to the chairman of Guardian Newspapers to ask whether the company believes that its editor has acted properly and whether he still has the confidence of the board. If former Ministers should be required to resign their offices to clear their names, the editor of The Guardian should be required to do the same. Several hon. Members rose --
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In deciding whether to support the motion, several of us will find ourselves in a dilemma because of the following question: did the editor of The Guardian and his newspaper, using House of Commons notepaper--using it wrongly; I do not try to justify its use--intend to serve a genuine public interest in trying to secure information that he believed could not be obtained in any other way? I ask you, Madam Speaker, whether in those circumstances we could have a little more information. As matters now stand, many of us will have some difficulty in approving the motion.
Madam Speaker: I feel that hon. Members are trying to debate the motion through the Speaker. I cannot answer questions such as that. Hon. Members have to attempt to extract that information from others. It is certainly not a point of order. Perhaps, if the debate were to proceed, we may get the information. If hon. Members were to speak briskly, I could call as many as possible and the information may come.
Mr. Madden: It is relevant, Madam Speaker. As everyone so far has been unable or unwilling to answer the questions which a number of hon. Members have put, I assume that those questions were put by the Serjeant at Arms in the inquiries that you asked him to undertake. Therefore, assuming that his report has been completed, may I ask that it is made available to hon. Members before the vote takes place in the hope that the Serjeant at Arms' report reveals the information which a great many hon. Members require?
Madam Speaker: There is only one matter before the House today--the motion printed on the Order Paper. It is for the House to determine whether the subject is of such seriousness that we want it examined by our Privileges Committee. That is all. If we want to leave the matter as it is, the motion is defeated. If we want to go further into it, it is for the Privileges Committee to go into all those details, not the House at the present time. There is a simple motion before us.
Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield): I suspect that some hon. Members would expect me to declare an interest in the present debate in the sense that I was the subject of what I considered a scurrilous piece of journalism by a sister paper of The Guardian fairly recently. Some may think that I rise, in some sense, to even the score, but I assure colleagues in the House that I shall be either abstaining or voting against the motion. I want to explain to the House and put into context the
Column 1583reason why I have come to that decision. As someone who co-authored a biography of Harold Laski, it is with some sense of irony that I speak today when we are looking at a problem involving the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken). Much of my time, when I was writing that biography, was involved with an illustrious or notorious predecessor of his in the famous Laski 1946 libel trial, which is interesting for the historical record.
It seems to me that there are two institutions in crisis at present in Britain. The first is our Parliament, where we seem to be in so many senses out of touch with what ordinary people think or believe or care about. This debate is very much about whether by its actions tonight, we will show that we are in touch with ordinary opinion or totally out of touch with it. The second institution that I believe is in crisis is the British media--the newspapers and the other media. One can analyse easily why our media are in crisis. It is a question of the new media of communication, increasing competition, new technology--
Mr. Sheerman: The hon. Gentleman says it is also a question of low standards. Perhaps some of those low standards are a consequence of the failure of the Government to act on a crisis, which has been coming for a very long time and has been unanswered by the present Government. That is the crisis of increasing monopoly ownership of the media, cross-ownership of the media between the Fleet street media as they used to be called--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. I know that the hon. Gentleman has been in attendance throughout the debate. He will have heard Madam Speaker's firm ruling on what the debate is about. It is certainly not about the ownership of the press.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for being sorry, but Madam Speaker has ruled and I am confirming her ruling. I should be most grateful if he carried on with whatever other points he has to make.
Mr. Sheerman: I was merely putting into context the reason why I shall be abstaining or voting against the motion tonight. As I was saying, the institutions that are out of touch with ordinary opinion are Parliament and the media. I was explaining why I believe that the media are in crisis. Increasingly, there is a war in Fleet street which is not just about price and whether The Times is 20p or The Independent is 30p. The war is also about who can produce the most scurrilous story.
That competition in Fleet street, not just in the tabloids which seem to concentrate more on the royal family and sex scandals, but in the broadsheets, seems to have undermined our strong and excellent tradition of investigative journalism. Investigative journalism now seems to be any story--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman seems to be having some difficulty relating his contribution to the motion. The motion is very clear about referring the matter to the Privileges Committee. Unless
Column 1584the hon. Gentleman can relate his remarks firmly to the motion, I must ask him to resume his seat or develop his argument properly.
Mr. Sheerman: I was about to develop that argument. I believe that Fleet street has moved towards picking up stories that are poorly researched and presented in a tradition of investigative journalism in respect of which we once led the world. I believe that that has led us to our present problems in respect of which the House is considering whether to approve the motion.
I believe that we should not pass the motion because the House is becoming out of touch with what ordinary people want and perceive. Day after day, ordinary citizens, including my constituents, face a serious and dangerous life with the press. These people are the subject of scurrilous stories. The person involved may be a plumber in Huddersfield. It may not involve a leading politician from an aristocratic background. However, the facts are the same. When we are deciding whether to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee, we must bear in mind the impact on the rest of the country. If we are perceived to be members of a cosy little club which is going to rush off and have a special tribunal in order to try the editor of The Guardian just because someone has used a piece of House of Commons notepaper in a fax--
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South): If the hon. Gentleman believes that the behaviour of The Guardian should not be referred to the Privileges Committee, given that some of us would agree with his attitude towards scurrilous and ill-researched stories, what should be done with The Guardian ?
Mr. Sheerman: Most sensible people outside the House would have said, "Ignore it." There has been an on-going investigation into the behaviour of certain hon. Members and members of the Government in particular. My answer to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) is that the Government should act in terms of setting an example in public standards and introduce legislation which protects the ordinary citizen in this country in the way that the Government seek to protect a member of their own Government.
When an ordinary person in this country is attacked by the press and when an injustice occurs, there should be mechanisms for that ordinary citizen to obtain justice. Time after time, ordinary people are given no opportunity--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I have already drawn the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that this debate is purely about whether the matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee. The hon. Gentleman said three times that he was coming to that point, but on each occasion he has not come to it. This is the last time. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now purely refer to whether the matter should be referred to the Privileges Committee and not refer to his constituents or to any problems they may have.
Mr. Sheerman: I was coming precisely to the point of advancing the argument that if we take part in a cosy conspiracy that leads to decisions being taken in secret in the House, ordinary people who are denied justice day after day throughout the country will feel angry and frustrated with this institution. I speak as one who
Column 1585understands very well what it is like to be the subject of a scurrilous story in the press. But what is the choice for the ordinary citizen? He has the option of an expensive libel suit or of going to the Press Complaints Commission, which has no real power or standing any longer. In short, there is no justice for the ordinary citizen.
If the House decides this evening to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee in this cosy little world of Parliament, that will prove more than ever before that the House is out of touch with the citizens of this country, and that it is about time it was reformed.
Newspapers have to find their constituency every day or every week among members of the public; and Members of Parliament, besides what they do between elections, have to take part in electoral contests when people have a choice. So to argue that any of us--journalists, editors, politicians, Ministers or shadow spokesmen--is out of touch is absurd.
Before dealing with the motion I should like to say where I stand. It is not easy to make a speech that is not popular or which does not seek party advantage. One of the tasks of this Parliament is to ensure that we frustrate all attempts to control the media. Part of the freedom of the press is the freedom to be wrong. It is no true freedom if we say that the press has the freedom only to be right or to say things which it can prove in a court of law. The Guardian is to be both congratulated and criticised- -there were two examples of this yesterday. It is to be congratulated for its persistence over the years in the Carl Bridgewater case, over which the paper has challenged the courts. It is to be
condemned--although not to the same degree--for its absurd front-page story about the Minister and the part-time dentistry.
What exactly are we trying to refer to the Committee of Privileges? The point at stake is a narrow one. I must declare an interest, as having earned £200 from The Guardian and accepted a meal from its editor. The issue solely concerns the use of the House of Commons letter heading. It does not concern whether a piece of paper was stolen--we do not know whether it was. At stake is the representation as from the House of Commons. We are not discussing the signature of the private secretary either.
The issue for the House concerns whether the editor is prepared to tell the Privileges Committee, "I'm sorry, I made a mistake." There are of course plenty of other issues to debate, criticise or defend, but they are not especially important for the Committee. Some issues should be discussed inside the newspaper itself and in the media generally: how far was The Guardian being used by other people? How far was it conscious of being thus used? Did the paper--regardless of my views--pursue what it thought was a legitimate line of inquiry?
The editor of The Guardian is not in the same position as other people. In times past the paper may have sought special privileges for itself, as it did in 1974-75 over the
Column 1586capital transfer tax and the wealth tax. It may have had the advantage of £70 million falling off the back of a lorry into its trust in 1990.
Its editor's position is in effect a protected freehold. There are also arguments within the trust about the independence and character of The Guardian . All these are matters for the paper to decide. The House has two tasks, of which the first, for the Committee of Privileges, is to find an answer to the question: does the editor accept he was wrong to use the House of Commons letterhead, as he did?
Secondly, and away from the Committee, will we go on frustrating the efforts made by Members on both sides of the House to shackle the media? By all means let us get involved in arguments with the press and criticise it, but we must not use the Privileges Committee to try to control what journalists do in their legitimate role of vacuum cleaners, picking up the dirt and sifting it, sometimes making mistakes but often getting it right when they decide what to publish for the public.
Bottomley)--probably the only one of its kind that we shall hear from a Conservative Member today.
That Mr. Preston was wrong, and that The Guardian was unjustified and fell below acceptable standards in falsifying a fax transmission so that it appeared to come from a Member of this House has been frankly admitted.
I do not know what kind of admission Conservative Members expect from Mr. Preston. Do they expect him to walk naked through the snow, crying, "I'm guilty!"? We have already heard a great deal of exaggeration from Tory Members today.
Mr. Preston's act was certainly reprehensible, although in many ways the use of the House of Commons logo was less reprehensible than the use of the signature of an entirely innocent civil servant who has nothing to do with these issues.
All this is much to the discredit of The Guardian and Mr. Preston and it must colour how we decide to vote tonight. But what worries me about this debate, about the motion and about the whole issue is the fact that it has been characterised by an extraordinary outburst of self-righteousness and by subjective and political indignation of the kind that does this House no good. It brings politicians into further disrepute and it shows that at least some Members of the House are out of touch with the real indignation felt by members of the public about Members of Parliament. The public feel that some Members of this House do not seem to know the difference between the legitimate exercise of judgment, occasionally appetised by a free lunch, and burying their snouts so deep in corporate troughs that they have been able to enjoy a diet almost entirely comprising lobbyist-fed truffles.
Before we decide whether to refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges, let us look for a moment at the real effect of Mr. Preston's subterfuge. Amid the accusations of blackmail and forgery it has emerged-- putting it at its lowest--that at least some of Mr. Al