Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Dalyell: Was there not at least a moral obligation on the part of the Leader of the House to give his parliamentary colleagues in all parts of the House some explanation for that delay? Apart from anything else, that would have been good parliamentary manners. Normally, the parliamentary manners of the Leader of the House are impeccable. On this occasion, he owed it to us, as a matter of debt, to provide an explanation. There may be one, but we have not heard it.

Mr. Banks: I entirely agree. Appropriate answers might colour our judgment on how to vote later. The hon. Member for Spelthorne, by his own admission, did not know anything about it before, so he cannot answer questions arising out of his own motion. That is an absurd way to conduct tonight's business.

As to the time factor, in a letter to the editor of The Guardian dated 18 May, the Cabinet Secretary clearly said that he also knew about the use of House notepaper and the fraudulent use of name purporting to represent the right hon. Member for Thanet, South. It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister himself did not possess knowledge of the alleged forgery in May.

Why was no fuss made in May about serious matters that we are asked to consider on 2 November? Why were the House authorities not alerted to those serious matters in May? Why were you, Madam Speaker, not told about them in May, when you might have decided to refer them to the Privileges Committee? You, Madam Speaker, were kept in the dark from May until November, which shows great disrespect to you and to your office.

Mr. Madden: Does my hon. Friend agree that we are also entitled to know whether the Attorney-General gave any advice? Was the matter referred at any time to the Director of Public Prosecutions or to the House authorities? It is wrong that the Leader of the House or somebody else representing the Government did not give the House the information that it has been seeking for the past three hours.

Mr. Banks: I agree entirely. As you tell us, Madam Speaker, time is of the essence when contacting your office in respect of a private notice question. We must demonstrate that we were unable to come to you with knowledge at the time that we first knew about it. We are often ruled out because of time. The motion should have been ruled out for the same reason. Conservative Members, and particularly the principals concerned, had ample time to raise the matter with you. Of course one accepts your ruling, Madam Speaker, but it seems to me that the motion should not have been accepted in the first place. If the right hon. Member for Thanet, South felt aggrieved and if the matter was so serious, why was no action taken at the earliest possible date? We must return to the question again and again. If we cannot defeat the motion, the Privileges Committee must consider the issue. I suggest that when it does, it throws the complaint out.

Column 1599

The alleged fraud surfaced publicly only last weekend, in The Sunday Telegraph . That is a fine choice of newspaper. One knows why the information was put in that loyal Tory newspaper. If Mr. Preston did something wrong, he did it more than six months ago. All the principal characters in this saga knew about it. It was not a matter, as the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) said, of considering whether the matter should be referred to the Press Complaints Commission. All the principal characters had a duty to bring the matter before the House and to complain here--not to shove it on to the PCC. If such action were appropriate then, now that Mr. Preston has resigned from the PCC perhaps the motion should be withdrawn and the matter referred to the commission now. Conservative Members cannot have it both ways.

Sir David Mitchell (Hampshire, North-West): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Press Complaints Commission will sit in secret and that we shall never have a full account of its proceedings?

Mr. Banks: I am sure that among all those trustworthy journalists, one would be prepared to leak what happens on the commission. We are witnessing an organised exercise in synthetic anger, devised to divert attention. What value can we place on today's outrage when it has spent six months in preparation? It is synthetic outrage. The last question that I want to address is to someone who is not present in the Chamber--the principal character, the right hon. Member for Thanet, South. Did he want the matter to be referred to the Committee of Privileges? He had ample opportunity to do so. He is not present to answer that question. Did the right hon. Gentleman ask the hon. Member for Spelthorne to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee? If the aggrieved party decided not to refer the matter to the Committee himself, the hon. Member for Spelthorne should not have done so.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman asked me a simple question--

Madam Speaker: Order. Was the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) giving way?

Mr. Banks: Yes, Madam Speaker.

Mr. Wilshire: The hon. Gentleman asked me a simple question, to which the answer is no.

Mr. Banks: Well, I must say in conclusion, then, that it is very noble of the hon. Member for Spelthorne to work up so much anger on behalf of the right hon. Member for Thanet, South when his right hon. Friend knew about it on 11 May and said that his position was to "stay cool". I suggest that that is good advice and the House should follow it tonight.

5.39 pm

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South): I declare an interest because, as a number of hon. Members have pointed out, I do a bit of freelance writing, although I feel bound to observe that, as The Guardian pays so badly, my work very seldom appears in that newspaper. I also, perhaps, have slightly more experience of the matter than many hon. Members, because earlier this year I was referred to the Committee of Privileges, as Madam Speaker will remember, on the same question of the use of the House of Commons logo.

Column 1600

It seems to me that there are a number of problems, some of which have been sensibly highlighted by the speeches that we have heard, about the whole idea of referring to the Committee of Privileges. Hon. Members suggested that that will be seen as if the House of Commons is acting trivially. Of course, that is a difficulty. One of the reasons for my distinctive behaviour earlier this year was that I took the view then--indeed, I take it now--that the reputation of the House is determined not by a squiggle on a piece of paper, but by the behaviour of all its Members and Officers.

Nevertheless, it is well to put on record, as I have been criticised for it twice so far in speeches by Opposition Members, that following the representations that were made to me, including your own, Madam Speaker, I asked my publisher to take the logo off and to modify it, and Opposition Members who trouble to buy a copy of the paperback edition, which is now available at £8.99-- [Laughter.] --will find that the logo has been altered.

Another difficulty with the Committee of Privileges, and a much more serious one, is that hon. Members may be seen to be protecting themselves, and reference to the Committee is seen in that way. In many ways, that does not invalidate the motion. A difficulty will be created, however, if hon. Members will not serve on that Committee. It would make far more sense if hon. Members who said that they are concerned that Members are seen by the public to be protecting themselves were clamouring instead to serve on the Committee of Privileges and, indeed, were voting for the motion. That is rather more the attitude of Front-Bench Opposition Members, who, I understand, plan to vote for the motion. It is a long-standing practice in the House that there is no party difference on references to the Committee of Privileges. It is a shame if some hon. Members prejudge its activities by refusing to serve on it.

A different problem, which, correctly, has been raised, is whether the Committee of Privileges is a serious enough body to bring home to The Guardian and other press representatives their duty to behave responsibly. That is why I put a question earlier to a Labour Member, who was so agitated about the press and had such strong reasons for feeling concern at the way in which it sometimes operates against many of us and many other people in public and private life. He said that he was going to abstain or vote against the motion. I asked him what he would do if the press behaved so badly and if there are so many criticisms correctly to be made, if he did not vote for the Committee of Privileges in this case. His answer was, "Ignore it." That is not good enough. We cannot ignore it, so we should vote for the motion.

Much inconsistency has also been flying around tonight. One of the reasons why I came to listen to the whole debate and eventually sought permission to speak was that we have heard speech after speech from Opposition Members deploring subterfuge and bad behaviour, and praising high standards. I must tell them that that applies to the press as well, and that the behaviour of hon. Members and members of the press is not mutually exclusive. We are all expected by our constituents and our readers outside to behave according to the highest possible standards. If it applies to the press as well, it should be appropriate to vote for the motion and take one small step, possibly, to try to re-establish the reputation of what in the past has been a great newspaper.

Column 1601

The real privilege in the House is the right to speak freely. In fact, it is the only privilege that is really worth having. It has been somewhat abused today by much of what has been said, and some of the views that have been flying around have rightly been pulled up by yourself, Madam Speaker, and your deputy. But that privilege has existed in the House for centuries. That is the source of the prohibition on general publication that we had in the House until 1972. Hansard publishes only with the permission of the House. It is necessary for us to be able to speak in this place without fear. That is a privilege that I have used sparingly from time to time, and I am glad that I have had that opportunity. Scrutiny by the press is one thing, but subterfuge is another, and that is the issue at the heart of The Guardian 's bad behaviour. That is why it is right that it should be considered by a Committee of the House. That is why I shall vote for the motion.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: I am not seeking to frustrate hon. Members who have been here throughout the debate and who still seem to want to speak, but I ask them for a little voluntary restraint, as we have been debating the motion for two hours.

5.45 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): As the House would like to draw to a conclusion and proceed to a Division, I shall make only three succinct points.

I am the only hon. Member in the House--my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) did not have to do it--who has actually had to stand where that white line is on the Floor of the Chamber and face a full House of Commons, as a result of the Privileges Committee. Whatever anybody says, I do not believe other than that people would find it an awesome and rather terrifying experience. I can assure hon. Members that, having had to be in that position, I know that it is not something that is lightly undertaken. That is not only my view as a Member of the House of Commons. It was also the view of John Junor. I know because I talked to him about it. As an outsider, he, too, found it an awesome experience. Therefore, what we are proposing for Peter Preston is an extremely serious matter, and we cannot pretend otherwise. Some people may laugh it off, but it is no laughing matter to be brought before the legislature of one's country.

That leads me to the first question. Are we sure that we have got it in proportion? Many other people have done other--shall we say "controversial" --things, who, perhaps, might have greater deserts than being brought to the Bar of the House. So on proportionality I have doubts.

Secondly, I have further doubts, because there are conflicting matters. All right, there is the issue of misbehaviour over House of Commons notepaper, and forgery. There is one point on which I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor)--I do not think that the matter is straightforward. Nothing to do with the Privileges Committee, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) knows, is straightforward.

Column 1602

The matter of protection of sources is a very important issue. It was most succinctly put in an excellent book, well written, called "Officially Secret". This is what the author said:

"In my reply to General Alexander, dated 20 January, my first priority was to assure a helpful contact that I would obey one of the fundamental rules of journalistic ethics and would not reveal him as my source. I therefore wrote in my reply: As for your having shown me a copy I will maintain a grave-like silence about this. Indeed in the very unlikely event of anyone asking me I will know nothing whatever of the existence of your copy.'

My second priority",

says the author,

"was to protect my own subsequent contacts over the Scott Report delivery to the Telegraph. In order to keep all knowledge of Curtis Brown Limited, Hugh Fraser and Yorkshire Television out of reach of the possible investigations, I ended my letter to the General on an ingenuous note, giving the impression that I had no idea how Hugh Fraser got his copy of the document, and finished with the words: If I hear any Fleet Street or Biafra lobby gossip on the Scott leak I will let you know. I am most grateful to you for writing as you did about all this, and can assure you that my lips are very firmly sealed--Yours ever, Jonathan."

"Jonathan" was Jonathan Aitken, and it was an extremely good book. He put the point about sources as eloquently as I have ever seen a point about the protection of sources put.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): Surely the point is that the protector of sources is meant to have been Mr. Fayed himself, who was deceiving his own employees. That is what is now being put around. I, for one, do not understand how the editor of The Guardian can have been required to deceive Mr. Fayed's employees with Mr. Fayed's collusion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can explain that.

Mr. Dalyell: I admit that my answer to that question wil be tangential. This is a grey area.

For 11 days I sat in the Old Bailey during the trial of Clive Ponting. Reference--ill conceived, in my view--has been made to Sarah Tisdall by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane). The position was more complicated than he suggested. There but for the grace of God went I, in relation to Ponting: fortunately, I kept it as a proceeding in Parliament. But what should people do in such circumstances? Some might argue that the Ponting trial, and what Massiter and Tisdall did, were in the public interest; that too is controversial. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) made a legitimate, fair and pertinent intervention, but, as I have said, this is a grey area.

You asked me to be brief, Madam Speaker, but may I have one last go at the Leader of the House while the House is quiet? I feel that this question is very important. I genuinely do not understand the position.

It is said that the Government knew about the matter in the middle of May, when it was the subject of considerable discussion among members of the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) referred to the letters, but he and I know--as will anyone else who reads them--that it was not just a case of Ministers dropping off odd letters; there was intense discussion in the Government.

At the beginning of the debate, the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) interrupted my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury to ask, "What on earth

Column 1603

is the relevance of time?" Let me say to the Leader of the House--gently, I hope--that that is exactly what bothers us. The reason why we went on about time at the very beginning is our unworthy suspicion--we may be told that it is misplaced, but we feel it nevertheless--that the Government thought, "Ah: in extremis, we now have knowledge of the forged letter." That knowledge, thought the Government, would keep The Guardian quiet, and would stop it asking all sorts of questions about other matters. The Government would have something on The Guardian , and could exert pressure on it. "Blackmail" is an unparliamentary word, and I will not use it.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): The hon. Gentleman just has.

Mr. Dalyell: No, I will not use it. The tone of my speech is serious, not yah-boo.

Let me, as courteously as I can, invite the Leader of the House to give his parliamentary colleagues of all parties some explanation of why we are presented with such urgency in November, when the facts were known in May. I think that he owes it to us.

5.54 pm

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): I promise to be exceedingly brief. Let me say in passing that I hope never to suffer the experience undergone by my old and hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in 1968, when he appeared at the Bar of the House.

As what I might modestly call a lesser light in this place, I am anxious to make a point. I entered the Chamber today with an open mind. In my view, Mr. Preston has behaved in a dishonourable and foolish way; I remember being deeply dismayed by his actions all those years ago when he failed to protect a young girl whom he should have protected, although he might have suffered in prison for any length of time. He behaved dishonourably then; recently, he behaved in an equally dishonourable way.

Nevertheless, the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) has not convinced me. I came here with the thought that I might abstain, but I intend to vote against the motion, because I feel that Conservative Members have left unanswered questions relating to what can be described only as a most unseemly affair. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow was right to ask the Leader of the House the reason for the unaccountable delay between mid-May and early November. There can be no excuse for such a delay, and-- although I have no sympathy for Mr. Preston--I believe that some kind of cover-up is going on.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Godman: I will, but my hon. Friend must be brief, because I have promised to speak briefly.

Mr. Bermingham: Does my hon. Friend agree that a further cause for concern is the conduct of the debate during the past 45 minutes, when I have been listening to it? We have seen the conviction of a person before that

Column 1604

person has even been tried; and he is to be tried by a Committee that is politically motivated. That cannot be open and fair judgment, in any event.

Dr. Godman: My hon. Friend has put it in a nutshell: this man is having to endure a political trial, and I think that the House has behaved badly--or it will behave badly if it approves the motion. Mr. Preston has suffered a tongue-lashing from you, Madam Speaker, and you are a formidable lady in every respect. He deserved it--

Madam Speaker: The hon. Member flatters me.

Dr. Godman: I assure you that I am no flatterer, Madam Speaker. I, too, have felt the sharp edge of your tongue, for far less serious acts. [Hon. Members:-- "Get on with it."] I am getting on with it. I am saying--as one of the lesser lights of this place--that it will do itself a disservice if it votes for the motion. I believe that this man has been found guilty without a chance to defend himself. Perhaps a written letter of apology to you, Madam Speaker, would suffice.

Mr. David Shaw: He has admitted it.

Dr. Godman: He has admitted it, in another place. As my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) pointed out, this is a political trial, and I urge my hon. Friends to vote against the motion.

5.58 pm

Mr. Wilshire: Hon. Members have pressed me to clarify two brief points. First, I was asked when I knew about the matter: the answer is last Sunday. Secondly, I was asked whether I was in touch with my constituents' feelings. I have heard from six today: four were in favour and two against, which suggests to me that I have got it about right.

I learnt something today from the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway), and I am rather glad that I have never stayed at the Ritz hotel in Paris. Other than that, it simply remains for me to say that, when stripped of all the rhetoric, the facts are clear and simple. There was an abuse of the House; it is documented, and has been admitted. When stripped of all the point-scoring, there is a large measure of agreement across the Floor of the House, and I therefore invite my hon. Friends to agree with me and Opposition Members to agree with the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor). Question put:--

The House divided: Ayes 313, Noes 38.

Division No. 339] [6.00 pm


Column 1604

Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)

Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)

Alexander, Richard

Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)

Allason, Rupert (Torbay)

Alton, David

Ancram, Michael

Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)

Arbuthnot, James

Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)

Ashby, David

Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy

Atkins, Robert

Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)

Column 1604

Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)

Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)

Baldry, Tony

Banks, Matthew (Southport)

Banks, Robert (Harrogate)

Barron, Kevin

Bates, Michael

Bellingham, Henry

Bendall, Vivian

Biffen, Rt Hon John

Blair, Tony

Blunkett, David

Body, Sir Richard

Bonsor, Sir Nicholas

Column 1605

Booth, Hartley

Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)

Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia

Bowden, Sir Andrew

Boyson, Rt Hon Sir Rhodes

Brandreth, Gyles

Brazier, Julian

Bright, Sir Graham

Brooke, Rt Hon Peter

Brown, Gordon (Dunfermline E)

Browning, Mrs. Angela

Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)

Burns, Simon

Burt, Alistair

Butler, Peter

Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)

Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)

Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)

Carlisle, John (Luton North)

Carlisle, Sir Kenneth (Lincoln)

Carrington, Matthew

Cash, William

Channon, Rt Hon Paul

Chapman, Sydney

Chidgey, David

Churchill, Mr

Clappison, James

Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Ru'clif)

Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey

Colvin, Michael

Congdon, David

Conway, Derek

Cook, Frank (Stockton N)

Coombs, Anthony (Wyre For'st)

Coombs, Simon (Swindon)

Cope, Rt Hon Sir John

Cormack, Patrick

Couchman, James

Cox, Tom

Cran, James

Currie, Mrs Edwina (S D'by'ire)

Curry, David (Skipton & Ripon)

Davies, Quentin (Stamford)

Day, Stephen

Deva, Nirj Joseph

Dicks, Terry

Dixon, Don

Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Dover, Den

Duncan, Alan

Dunn, Bob

Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth

Durant, Sir Anthony

Dykes, Hugh

Eggar, Tim

Elletson, Harold

Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter

Evans, Jonathan (Brecon)

Evans, Nigel (Ribble Valley)

Evans, Roger (Monmouth)

Evennett, David

Fabricant, Michael

Fishburn, Dudley

Forman, Nigel

Forth, Eric

Foster, Don (Bath)

Foster, Rt Hon Derek

Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman

Fox, Dr Liam (Woodspring)

Fox, Sir Marcus (Shipley)

French, Douglas

Fry, Sir Peter

Gale, Roger

Gallie, Phil

Gardiner, Sir George

Next Section

  Home Page