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Column 1587Fayed's statements are true. Still, it is not surprising that there should at an early stage have been a degree of mutual distrust between The Guardian and Mr. Al Fayed.
What is described in the motion as a letter was not used to deceive anyone in any responsible position, inexcusable though it was. Two conclusions should be drawn from this episode. The first is that Mr. Preston did go beyond the limits of legitimate journalism; that will certainly be a factor colouring how we vote later. The second conclusion is that the evidence confirmed as a result of the subterfuge raises matters in the public interest which are important and which require further explanation from the Chief Secretary--along with other allegations made in this morning's Daily Mirror which are also of great seriousness. Uncomfortable though Conservative Members may find it, it is a fact that, despite the subterfuge, The Guardian has done the country a service.
Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North) rose --
Mr. Carlile: I am sorry; a great many Members want to speak. In my view, the House, in deciding how to vote on the motion, should accept that The Guardian should be congratulated on bringing into the public domain issues concerning the behaviour of Members of the House which are legitimate matters for public interest. Those are the issues that we must address in gauging the point on the scale of indignation where our judgment should rest at the end of the debate. It should not be forgotten by those of us who go into the Lobby that the Government have known about the action on the part of Mr. Preston since 18 May. It should not be forgotten that the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) knew about the fax on 11 May. I have a copy of his response to it and it is extremely relaxed and far from as indignant as the expressions on his behalf by right hon. and hon. Conservative Members.
When we decide how to act tonight it should not be forgotten that the way in which the issue has emerged has involved a degree of politicisation of the Cabinet Secretary, a man of integrity, which has sent shudders through First Division civil servants. Nor should it be forgotten that the Government's incandescent reaction to Mr. Preston's conduct does not lie comfortably if a test of consistency is applied. The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) is not in his place now, but I heard him fulminating about how disgraceful it was for a piece of House of Commons notepaper to be used in a forged fax. Of course, he is right. He is also certainly right that an issue of that sort should go to the Committee of Privileges. But there should be a degree of consistency, so I ask Conservative Members why a very different view was taken in 1992 when someone employed by the Serious Fraud Office forged a fax from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir. D. Steel) on House of Commons paper.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We are not considering that. [Hon. Members:-- "Oh yes, we are."] Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is experienced and learned and he knows that we are not considering on this motion evidence of activities that took place in 1992.
Mr. Carlile: In deciding how we vote tonight we are surely entitled to debate, among other things, the issue of how consistent the Government have been in their actions.
Column 1588On the occasion to which I referred, the Attorney-General--I am glad to see the right hon. and learned Gentleman in the Chamber because I gave notice that I intended to raise this issue as part of my argument--and the Government were satisfied enough for the Attorney-General to state on 7 July 1993 that that forgery was just an unfortunate practical joke committed on April Fool's day. It would appear that a different set of values were applied to an attack on my right hon. Friend in a fax which was sent to those attending a court of law, in comparison with a fax that relates to a member of the Government.
Mr. Madden: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman give way?
Mr. Carlile: I shall not give way because many hon. Members wish to speak.
A Government who fail to take disciplinary measures against an officer of the law, who sent a forged fax to persons attending a court building, and in the name of a Privy Councillor, with the clear intention to deceive, are hardly in a position to do any more than set new standards of unjustifiable sanctimoniousness in respect of the fax under dispute, which deceived nobody.
The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is mistaken about his facts. The issue is remote from the debate. I would be grateful if he clarified those facts for himself before he proceeds further with that issue.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: Tell us the facts then.
The Attorney-General: The error in his understanding is that the letter in question was produced by a police officer. The matter was looked at extremely carefully and the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) and the hon. and learned Gentleman were carefully written to. He is misleading himself about the accuracy of the background.
Mr. Carlile rose --
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. While it is perfectly fair and appropriate to refer to a number of incidents that took place when charging hon. Members to make up their minds, the hon. and learned Gentleman then developed his argument with the result that the Attorney-General quite rightly raised a point of order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is responsible for his own words, but it is my responsibility to ensure that he debates the motion. I trust that he will now return to it.
Mr. Carlile: I would like to answer the Attorney-General and would do so, but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall obey your injunction. I hope that no newspaper will ever again make use of the House of Commons logo or of a Member's name in the manner under debate. I also hope, however, that the Nolan committee, a rigorous inquiry by the Committee of Privileges and a thorough investigation by the Select Committee on Members' Interests will result in any future debates of this kind not being caused by highly questionable dealings with murky arms dealers, freebies at the Ritz and fistfuls of Harrods vouchers.
Column 1589Before we decide how to vote tonight many questions remain to be answered. The person who has already had the courage to ask many relevant questions has been the fallible Mr. Peter Preston. We should bear that in mind in deciding how we vote. I hope that after the reproof which the debate clearly implies, Mr. Preston will not only regret the sending of the fax, but will pursue issues such as: how can the Home Secretary really expect the House to believe that he was trying to ensure that Mr. Ali Al Fayed's nationality application was fairly--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman may be an experienced lawyer but those remarks are entirely out of order and beyond the scope of the debate. If he has nothing else to say, I should be grateful if he concluded because a number of hon. Members wish to speak. Does he have anything further to say?
Mr. Carlile: It is my submission to the House that if there is to be a reference to the Committee of Privileges, the sort of question to which I started to allude should not be cast away in a cursory inquiry. It is not enough for the Committee of Privileges simply to demand Mr. Preston's attendance so that he can say sorry. On balance, I shall vote for the motion because I trust the Committee of Privileges to carry out a full inquiry. I also trust it to include the actions not only of Mr. Preston, but of all those right hon. and hon. Members who have been tainted by evidence that their pockets may have dictated their judgment. I also trust the Committee to include evidence not only from those right hon. and hon. Members, but from Mr. Al Fayed and Mr. Rowland. I trust it to carry out a rigorous inquiry, free from party interest and founded, for a change, upon a genuine search for the truth.
Mr. Brian Sedgemore (Hackney, South and Shoreditch): I hesitate to say anything that may get Mr. Peter Preston off the hook, partly because he was the newspaper editor who shopped Sarah Tisdall and ensured that she went to prison and partly because, some years ago, I had occasion to look into the background of Mr. Al Fayed and I am bound to say that I came to the conclusion that he was pathologically corrupt. I will say something on behalf of Mr. Peter Preston, however, and argue why we should not refer this matter to the Committee of Privileges.
In terms of consistency, equity and fairness the public will be a bit uneasy about what the House is doing tonight. Some years ago, a question arose about the use of Downing street notepaper by Mr. Denis Thatcher. On that occasion, I do not remember some demented hyena from Thanet, North fulminating at the mouth--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am not sure if I heard the hon. Gentleman right, but if he used the term "demented hyena", I would be most grateful if he would withdraw it.
Mr. Sedgemore: I shall certainly withdraw the remark, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I did not hear the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) fulminating at the mouth and asking that Mr. Denis Thatcher be reported to the
Column 1590Privileges Committee, brought to the Bar of the House, or humiliated in some other way. We must treat the editor of The Guardian in the same way as the husbands of Prime Ministers. On the subject of notepaper, we can all fulminate somewhat pompously about the use of that paper. Like everyone else, I have to deprecate its use by anyone other than a Member of Parliament, although on at least one occasion I used a sheet of House of Commons notepaper for private and personal business. I suppose that that constitutes theft, but I am not sure. Even this morning, I received a note from the researcher of another Member of Parliament on a little sheet of House of Commons notepaper, which asked me out to lunch. I am not sure where that comes in the great pantheon of such things, but we can whip ourselves up into an unjustified frenzy.
I understand that additional factors are involved and I will come to them, but I am concerned that the public will think that the British establishment and Parliament are once again saying that the accuser should become the accused. It would not be the first time that that has happened here or in some other countries.
In the mid-1980s, I investigated a bank and Lloyd's. We were not talking about a sheet of notepaper, but of millions of pounds and of hundreds of millions. A small analogy is that at the end of the investigation, a detective chief inspector and a detective sergeant came to question me in a room in this House and suggested that I might be a conspirator in the case and that the whole investigation might have been a result of my conspiring with someone who ran abroad to destabilise the British Government. That is absurd. The accuser became the accused.
In Italy recently, Mr. Berlusconi found himself in difficulties. He was accused and what did he do? He turned on the judges and said that they were breaking the law and the constitution. There is always a tendency for people who are engaged in wrongdoing to protect themselves by attacking others.
The public may think that that is what is happening in this case. Mr. Peter Preston has launched some allegations, some of which may be true and some false, but we are being asked to turn him into the defendant and the criminal to deflect those allegations.
I am sure that Madam Speaker has been given the highest legal advice and I would not challenge anything that she said. I speak as a very modest and humble lawyer. Whatever the legal advice she has been given, once the matter is referred to the Privileges Committee, it will find itself in conflict with the law. Today, we have heard several allegations about criminal offences--mostly judicially illiterate stuff, but never mind that- -committed by Mr. Peter Preston. When the Committee launches its inquiry, even within the terms of the motion on the Order Paper, it will have to discuss whether he has committed those offences.
Neither the House nor the Privileges Committee has any right to act as a court of law in a criminal case. For the Privileges Committee or the House as a whole to set themselves up as a court of law in a criminal case is both improper and unconstitutional. That is why my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) raised a point of law. Perhaps he should have raised it as a point of debate. That seems the most powerful reason for us to decide that there is another way out.
Column 1591In that splendid voice, which is renowned throughout the world, Madam Speaker gave Mr. Peter Preston a wigging. She made it clear exactly what she thought of him. She does not like what he did and nor do most of the rest of us. Surely that is enough. We do not want to become involved in a conflict between this House and the judiciary and we do not want to make ourselves look absurd or pompous. 5.4 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith): I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) as he used many of my arguments, so my remarks can be shorter. Notwithstanding my long interest in the freedom and the responsibilities of the press, the very fact that we are dealing with the press today shows that the issue of privilege is involved. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley) carefully argued that there is a delicate balance between press freedom and the freedom of the press to investigate politicians.
My argument follows directly on from that of my colleague the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch. If we bring a newspaper editor before the Privileges Committee and possibly to the Bar of the House to be disciplined in some way for raising questions about the Government's conduct, the House will be misunderstood. People outside will not understand--although they have reason to criticise the press and be critical of the way in which it deals with individuals and groups-- primarily because they also understand that one of the roles of the press is to call to account the Executive and to some extent the legislature. For that reason, the House needs to be very careful before it disciplines the press.
Part of the function of the press is to challenge us. That does not make Peter Preston right over the fax. Clearly, he was wrong and has said so openly.
I remind Conservative Members who are minded to vote for the motion to remember that the Opposition have infinitely more experience of our party being attacked by the press. It happens all the time [ Laughter .] Yes, it happens all the time. That situation has changed in recent years, not because the press has been critical of the Tory party, but because of criticism of the present Prime Minister. I accept that that is happening in a major way, but that does not alter the fact that usually the Labour party is attacked. That should not trouble us in this debate but it warns both parties and all Members of Parliament that we would be setting a dangerous precedent by arraigning an editor.
If I wanted to be Machiavellian I might suggest that Conservative Members should think carefully about what is involved. If I became aware of a breach of privilege of the House I would have two options--bring the matter to the notice of the House or say nothing about it. I might have good reason for doing the latter, but what would happen if another Member of Parliament brought up the matter, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) did today? It would then be debated in the Privileges Committee and afterwards in the Chamber and hon. Members might want to know why the breach was not reported in the first instance--in this case, back in May. In all honesty, if the Conservative party wants to debate
Column 1592that in such a way, from a purely party political point of view I should be happy to do so. However, I do not think that it makes much sense for it to do so.
In this case, it would be a serious mistake for the House to overreact and to arraign the editor of The Guardian before a Committee of the House. It would be totally misunderstood outside, as some of my colleagues said. If anyone has doubts, he should refer to the debate in the House on 24 January 1957, when it arraigned Sir John Junor, then the editor of the Sunday Express , to appear before it. I have little time for him as I think that he was an appalling editor, but that is neither here nor there. The House called him before it because he claimed that if petrol rationing came in, Members of Parliament would vote themselves large allowances to get round it. When we look back on that case, we think that it was crazy and that we were going over the top.
Mr. Peter Bottomley: If the hon. Gentleman has an account of the words that John Junor used, perhaps he would share them with the House.
Mr. Soley: The words are not recorded in Hansard . However, if the hon. Gentleman buys today's copy of The Guardian he will find them accurately reported there. Mr. Junor was alleging that hon. Members would abuse their position by ensuring that they had additional rations.
Mr. Bottomley: Mr. Junor did say he was sorry.
I say in all seriousness that the House should not get into this ball game and arraign editors of the press. As I showed clearly through my Freedom and Responsibility of the Press Bill, many people outside the House have good reason to be angry about press irresponsibility. What happens to them is often far more serious than what happens to Members of Parliament and Ministers, who are better able to defend themselves. If we took a hard line with editors when they attacked Members of Parliament, but not when they attacked vulnerable groups or individuals outside the House, that would be utterly misunderstood, and rightly so.
It would be much better to back off now, which is why I shall vote against the motion. Although Mr. Preston was wrong to send the fax, it would be stupid and wrong of the House to arraign a member of the press. If we did, when we looked back on it in 20 years' time, as we look back now to the 1957 example, we would say, "What on earth were we doing? What on earth were we thinking about?"
I would be tempted to vote for the motion only if, included in the Committee's deliberations was the question of why hon. Members and members of the Government, who were aware of the breach of privilege in May, did not choose to report it to the House.
Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead): I declare an interest as a journalist who has very occasionally worked for The Guardian . I oppose the motion without in any way minimising the serious error of judgment of which Peter Preston is guilty. I have been the victim of not one, but two forged letters on my headed notepaper. Both of them were given to the police and thoroughly investigated, although the culprits have not yet been found. The hurt and anger caused when
Column 1593someone's headed notepaper has been used to impersonate and misrepresent, and the plausibility of a letter purported to come from a Member of Parliament, are serious matters. However, it is critical that the House keeps the matter in perspective and avoids over- reaction.
The earlier part of the debate, although not the later, was not an edifying sight. Tory Members worked themselves into a lather--this time it was against the left-wing newspaper The Guardian, but only a few months ago it was against the right-wing newspaper The Sunday Times . They have shot the messenger and disregarded the message. The hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) cried "smear". If any hon. Member knows about smears, it is him. It has not been a pretty sight. I began to question the judgment of Mr. Peter Preston long ago, even though I occasionally took work from him. As has been said, he caused a young, vulnerable woman, Sarah Tisdall, to go to prison because of his failure to protect her as his source in the Ponting case. Perhaps Mr. Fayed, a richer and much more powerful individual, required more protection than that young, vulnerable woman, but that does not strike me as being very plausible.
I believe that Mr. Preston will regret the extent to which he climbed into bed--I hope that you will forgive that phrase, Mr. Deputy Speaker--with Mr. Fayed. His name is not Al Fayed; that is one of the many misrepresentations of which he has been guilty while in this country. He is a liar and a crook. The Government's investigation of him during the takeover of Harrods made that quite clear. He was thrown out of Haiti by Papa Doc, who could not bear his stench of corruption. He blackmailed--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is straying beyond the motion. Will he return to it, please?
Mr. Galloway: I accept your stricture, Mr. Deputy Speaker. However, the fact that Mr. Preston's judgment is flawed for all to see is germane to whether we should leave the matter there as has been suggested, or compound it by referring it to the Privileges Committee. Nevertheless, I accept your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and will say no more about Mr. Fayed--other than that the editor and Members of Parliament who were in bed with him will have cause to regret it. He is a man who keeps the receipts; he is a man who keeps the tape recordings; he is a man who, as we may soon discover, even keeps the video recordings from the bedrooms of the Ritz. It is not plausible for hon. Members to work themselves into a lather about the mere misuse of a House of Commons logo. After all, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) emblazoned one on the elegant ankle of a stockinged lady on the cover of her sexy novel, which is selling like cold cakes in the remainder shops.
Column 1594I do not know whether the former Prime Minister's son, when travelling in her gravy train, ever used House of Commons notepaper, but his father certainly did.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. This is an abuse of the debate. I should be grateful if, for the second time of asking, the hon. Gentleman would return to the motion.
Mr. Galloway: You are the boss, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it seems to me that precedent and consistency are issues--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That may be so, but conjecture is not.
Mr. Galloway: In that case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall avoid conjecture.
Many people misuse our notepaper. Indeed, one hon. Member used it to send out an offer of South African wine at knocked-down prices under apartheid. It was the Member for Pretoria, South or Luton, North (Mr. Carlisle); I forget which. The fact is that many people have done similar things. It is always wrong, but it is important to keep a sense of perspective--
Mr. David Shaw: That was not forgery.
Mr. Galloway: Forgery is a criminal offence. I am not a lawyer, but I know that for something to be a crime there must be criminal intent. I do not believe that any hon. Member thinks that Peter Preston, as fallible and mistaken as he was, did what he did with criminal intent.
Mr. Galloway: It was forgery only if it was done with criminal intent.
Mr. Shaw: Peter Preston has already admitted forgery; the question is whether that is a criminal offence. As I understand it, forgery in itself is not necessarily a criminal offence--although it is a very serious matter--and that an important factor is whether there was financial gain. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that financial gain may have been the intent both of Mr. Fayed and of Mr. Preston, in terms of increasing his newspaper's circulation.
Mr. Galloway: Forgery, by definition, is a crime. If Mr. Preston is guilty of forgery, he is guilty of a crime. However, he can be guilty of forgery only if his action was based on criminal intent. Many people sign documents when they apply for jobs as our researchers and they are not always open and above board, but we do not drag them before the Privileges Committee. Perhaps we should. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dover brought a prostitute into the House under bogus--
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Hon. Members will know that I am not a lawyer either and we are not here to debate the legal definition of certain acts. We are here to debate whether, under the motion, the editor of The Guardian should appear before the Privileges Committee. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now succinctly put his reasons why that should or should not happen.
Mr. Galloway: I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for having been dragged into the gutter most often frequented by the hon. Member for Dover. The electorate will deliver its verdict on the hon. Gentleman very shortly.
Column 1595Peter Preston has been a fool; he may even have been a knave, but the public outside are more concerned about the activities and actions of Members of the House of Commons than they are about the actions of newspaper editors. If we fool ourselves about that we do ourselves and this place no credit at all. We shall merely deepen the deep cynicism and hostility that is growing in the country towards Parliament if we are seen to pursue the mediaeval route of dragging a newspaper editor to the Bar of the House, uncovered, as the regulations say, and arraigning him for an offence of bad judgment when so many Members of the House of Commons daily demonstrate bad judgment themselves.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham): I have three interests to declare. First, some 20 years ago I had the honour to be president of the National Union of Journalists. I am now a Member of Parliament but I still consider myself in part a journalist--an honourable, decent and necessary profession.
Secondly, I have taken The Guardian shilling, so I must declare some fees from that paper. However, even after several years of attempting to get my articles accepted, my fees do not yet amount to the £1,000 offered and accepted by two Conservative Members for asking questions.
Thirdly, on the issue of subterfuge, which is part of the debate, I was dismissed by the BBC some 20 years ago when, on the instruction of a producer, I faked a phone call to a phone-in programme on the BBC. I paid a heavy professional price and thus I was interested when I heard the right hon. Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), the chairman of the Conservative party, at the recent Bournemouth conference, invite Gideons, as he called them, to make fake phone calls to put in propaganda on behalf of the party.
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West): What has that got to do with the motion?
Mr. MacShane: What it has to do with it is that 20 years ago that was the standard set for subterfuge. Two or three weeks ago, that standard disappeared when a Cabinet member invited the British public to practise subterfuge on our airwaves.
The logo is germane to the debate. I am concerned about that because this weekend my children got hold of some House of Commons notepaper and were busy scribbling on it. I am not sure whether they will have to be brought before the Committee of Privileges. If they are, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will not be taking notes of what they have to say, but instead will read them one of the fairy tales with which he so often beguiles the nation.
It is difficult for Opposition Members ever to book a Dining Room in the corridor downstairs. Time and again they are all being used for Tory fund- raising dinners organised on House of Commons notepaper. Reference has been made to the wonderful book of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie). I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). We authors appreciate each other's writings. I enjoyed the hon. Lady's book and I understand why she put the House of Commons logo on its cover.
Column 1596We come then to the question of forgery. I read in The Times this morning that in the 18th century someone was executed for forging a letter. We have heard much talk of crime. I understand that the mover of the motion, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), is also referring the matter to the police. We have heard a great deal of talk that what took place was a criminal action. I cannot understand then why in May, when the Chief Secretary, the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister knew of this so-called criminal action, it was not reported to anyone. Either it was a crime then or it was not. If it was, they were grossly derelict in their duty.
The NUJ and the Press Complaints Commission have a code of conduct which covers matters such as this. The NUJ code states:
"A journalist shall obtain information, photographs and illustrations only by straightforward means. The use of other means can be justified only by over-riding considerations of the public interest. The journalist is entitled to exercise a personal conscientious objection to the use of such means."
The code of conduct of the Press Complaints Commission is along much the same lines. It would be helpful if the two could be combined and we could, to use a phrase from the Government, have a charter of journalism that could be taught in schools. It would not be a statutory code, but it would be part of a journalist's way of life. There we have the words:
"The use of other means can be justified only by over-riding considerations of the public interest."
The person who decided that dodgy stays in the Ritz were a matter of public interest was not Mr. Preston but the Prime Minister when he dismissed the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) for taking that money and staying in the Ritz. He dismissed another Minister for having a financial relationship with Mr. Fayed. It was the Prime Minister who decided that there was overriding public interest. So we come to the question of Mr. Preston. Yes, he was wrong, and every single journalist to whom I have spoken since the affair broke agrees that he was wrong. The Sarah Tisdall affair was referred to earlier. There was no question then, when Mr. Preston did the Government a favour by shopping her, of bringing him to the Bar of the House, but Mr. Preston suffered--
Mr. Dalyell: Will my hon. Friend reconsider the use of the word "shopping" in that context?
Mr. MacShane: I am sorry. Perhaps that is a question that Ms Tisdall and Mr. Preston can answer better than I can.
The obloquy that Mr. Preston suffered then came from his journalist peers, just as the unhappiness that he feels today is because many British journalists think that he has done wrong. The tone of remarks made so far in the debate is probably winning, minute by minute, the journalists and the people of Britain to Mr. Preston's side. I would regret that.
The House can make a gesture tonight, but the real problem is that the House is parlous in so many things. We live in a form of democratic, one- party state. We have a centralised Government who have replaced local and other democracies with their placemen and their wives. The press, for all its faults, is our only bulwark against the kind of centralisation of power that we are daily witnessing.
I am a new Member. As a son of two immigrants who, in years gone by, would have loved to have had parliamentary democracy, I value what the House stands for. On a
Column 1597question such as this, if it is the House versus the press, the British people, able to vote every five years for a new House, will prefer to support those who have brought the attention of the public to matters of grave concern.
I enjoyed the speech made by the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). However, his conclusion in no way followed from his argument. I shall be going into the No Lobby tonight. 5.29 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): I have no criticism of the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who is an honourable man, but I am surprised that he learnt only recently of the alleged fraud in question.
Mr. Wilshire: I lead a sheltered life.
Mr. Banks: The hon. Gentleman must lead a cloistered existence--one that does not involve reading newspapers, which is unusual for a Member of Parliament.
An atmosphere of hysteria is settling over the House, and that is destructive. Mud tends to stick to all of us, even the most innocent--of which, I hasten to add, I am not one. Therefore, it is important that these matters are speedily and publicly resolved. I am not interested in the actions of the right hon. Member for Thanet, South (Mr. Aitken) or in who paid for his weekend in Paris. I recognise that there could be implications for the rules governing the conduct of Ministers, but that is for others to decide. Much as I would like to, I cannot condone the methods by which information on the hotel bill of the right hon. Member for Thanet, South was secured, although I suppose that a public interest defence could be entered. Only time will tell whether the methods used were justifiable. It is not simply a matter of using House of Commons notepaper. That has been done by right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House. They had their wrists slapped, but they were not reported to the Committee of Privileges. There is an added dimension, in the form of a signature that purported to come from the office of the right hon. Gentleman. That is different from just using a piece of House notepaper.
We are told that time is of the essence in everything that we do, and this matter is out of time. That is why I shall not support the motion in the Lobby tonight. One keeps returning to relevant questions. When did the right hon. Member for Thanet, South first become aware of the use of House of Commons notepaper in a letter purporting to come from him? It appears that he knew around 10 May. In a letter to the editor of The Guardian , the right hon. Gentleman said that he clearly knew of that and would report it to the Government.
When the Ritz found out that it had received an illegal or fraudulent fax purporting to come from the right hon. Gentleman, it alerted him immediately. He faxed back this germane reply:
"The Guardian article has caused surprisingly little serious interest here, probably because it was one of the most boring journalistic examples of an Editor's personalised obsession ever to find its way into print in a newspaper. Moreover there is really little or nothing for
Column 1598even an ill-wisher to follow up since nobody has done anything wrong, even in the light of The Guardian's somewhat flawed and inaccurate story.
Because of the above-mentioned reaction my present plan is, as my teenage children would say, to stay cool'. However, I am taking further legal advice and so is the Government in the light of the new dimension to the story which your fax has revealed."
That fax was dated 11 May. If the right hon. Gentleman was prepared to stay cool on 11 May, why are Conservative Members getting hot about the issue on 2 November?