Column 722recall that the Committee had to adjourn rather prematurely because it had no authority to sit doing the summer recess.
At that meeting, I argued the point that I am now making--that the Committee should take evidence in public and deliberate in public. But the Committee decided to defer a decision on the matter until after the recess. On 18 October, the Committee met again, and the matter of holding evidence in public was put before the Committee. On the Chairman's casting vote-- about which I make no complaint, as it was his casting vote--the Committee decided not to hear evidence in public.
On 31 October, in the light of the Committee's decision, the Opposition moved that that decision be reversed. During the course of that debate, I made the statement, which the Leader of the House quoted tonight, that I intended to publish a report of the Committee's proceedings. I do not believe in the leaking and briefing that characterises this place, where a quiet word is had in the Corridor. If you want to say it, publish it--that is the principle on which I have tried to operate.
I acted openly and honestly. I said that I would publish a report; I circulated a note to that effect to members of the Committee, as the right hon. Gentleman will remember. I was asked at a meeting of the Committee whether I intended to publish such a report. I said that I did, and I did it. I gave it to the Speaker; I gave it to the Clerk--I brought the very first copy to him--and I put it in the Library. It is still in the Library for anyone who wants to read it. No member of the Committee complained about the accuracy of what I had written. One Government Member actually complimented me on having produced a "fair and balanced" report, which was the best that I could do.
On 2 November, Madam Speaker, without being triggered by a special question, announced that she thought that the matter was so important that the Committee should report on it. That is the basis of the report now before the House. On 21 November, the Committee met and recommended that I be removed from the Committee. That is the basis of the motion before us.
The real issue is not about me in any sense; it is about whether deliberations on this issue should be held in private. I should like to rehearse the arguments for secrecy so that hon. Members realise that I have addressed them with some seriousness.
The first argument is that the Committee of Privileges has always deliberated in secret, as have other Select Committees. The question before us is whether the Committee of Privileges should deliberate in secret in this case--I hope to show the reasons against such secrecy. The second argument in favour of secrecy is that it would be unfair to witnesses for the Committee to be held in public. Many witnesses, however, would want to heard in public--perhaps the Committee would not want to hear them, but I will not go into that now.
The third argument is that public hearings would make a media circus of the proceedings. For heaven's sake, what have we had but a media circus on this matter from the very beginning? The fourth argument is that public hearings might lead to a breach of natural justice. I heard one hon. Member describe the editor of The Guardian as a "whore out of hell" under the protection of privilege. If natural justice is breached, it can be breached in the House as well.
Column 723The fifth argument in favour of secrecy is that the evidence would be published later, so what does it matter? Under present practice, however, the deliberations of the Committee will never be reported. The sixth argument, the most extraordinary one of all, was put by the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who said that members of the Committee would not feel free to speak their minds if they knew that they were to be reported. The House has debated the matter twice, on 13 July and 31 October, and I never saw any sign of hon. Members being inhibited from commenting. In this case, there cannot be a difference between the Privileges Committee and the House.
People think that it is the evidence presented to the Committee of Privileges which is interesting; for my part, it is not. What is interesting is how senior Members of the House approach the problem before them. From the point of view of the public, it is an understanding of the workings of the Committee which I have always found so interesting and which makes me rather sorry that I may not remain as a member of that Committee.
I do not accept any of the arguments for secrecy. Reports are often made about discussions of other Committees, even Cabinet committees--what was Bernard Ingham doing for years but briefing people on what had happened? Indeed, some Labour party committees of which I have been a member have very occasionally leaked. I cannot really accept that the need for secrecy is a valid argument. Why should the Committee of Privileges be so uniquely protected? I believe that the issue before us is of unique importance, and it is uniquely important that the public should know what individual members of the Committee say about issues before it, as well as hearing their conclusion.
The Nolan committee, which the Prime Minister announced, will cover much of the same ground as the Committee of Privileges, including the secondary part of our inquiries. I understand that it will be holding public hearings, and I hope to give evidence to it.
I come now to the cases before the Committee. The media had been, and have been, publishing reports that suggested that there may have been bribery, corruption, fraud, blackmail and forgery involving Members, directly or indirectly. I do not know whether those allegations are true, but one thing is certain; those charges have gravely damaged the democratic process, and I shall tell the House why. Some of our constituents may now be wondering whether, when they elect Members of Parliament to represent them, some of the Members that they have elected--only a tiny minority, but some of them- -may have been using their position not to represent their constituents but to peddle their influence for money.
That is what makes it a uniquely important question. Were such a suspicion to become widespread--I very much hope that it would not--it could completely undermine the basis of trust between the electors and Members of Parliament. I think, and I say to the House, that it must face the fact that there is legitimate concern on that score--a concern that is deepened by the apparent determination of the House not to allow its deliberations to be known.
I shall now discuss another aspect of the matter. That is that there is in this case a straight conflict of loyalty between our duty as Members of Parliament to those
Column 724people who elected us, and our obligations to follow the conventions of the House. Parliament cannot survive if it is a closed little club to which all Members of Parliament are supposed to transfer their allegiance as soon as they come here, because it is a fact that our first responsibility must be to those people who sent us here. I think that, if we subordinated that responsibility to ancient conventions of the House, we should be betraying the trust put in us by those who elected us.
If I were to accept the conventions that the House apparently wishes to impose again tonight, consider what I would be doing. If someone wrote to me from Chesterfield and asked, "What is being said on the Committee about these cases?" I would say, "I cannot tell you." Even if they said to me, "What are you saying on the Committee? Tell me", I could not tell them, because the restrictions cover my own reporting of my own comments in the Committee.
How can I possibly accept such a restriction? The right-- [Laughter] I am sorry, but that is the view. Hon. Members can laugh; they often do laugh, and I shall come to some examples of the punishment that they have imposed on people who have tried to argue that case in earlier centuries.
It would be a wholly unacceptable limitation, not on my rights--I have no rights in the matter--but on the rights of those who elected me, to know what is being done in their name. With all the talk about free--
Sir John Gorst (Hendon, North) rose --
With all the talk about open government and freedom of information and league tables, is the House of Commons Privileges Committee to say that it will not move? I think that the House had better take seriously the arguments that I am putting forward, because they are serious arguments and I believe that they are very widely shared by a lot of people, judging by the enormous amount of mail that I have had on the matter, from many people who have said, "We have never agreed with anything that you have ever said before in your life, but on this question, we believe that you are right."
Sir John Gorst: What is the difference between the example that the right hon. Gentleman has given and, for example, a constituent of the Prime Minister asking him to reveal what took place in Cabinet? It might be argued that, after all, he elected the Prime Minister; why should not the Prime Minister have the same obligation to him as the right hon. Gentleman claims for his constituents?
Mr. Benn: All Prime Ministers employ hundreds of press officers to tell their constituents what a marvellous job they are doing. [Hon. Members:-- "Oh."] Well, one has to accept the fact. However, there is a total difference between the two cases. If one is here as a Member of Parliament representing one's constituency on a House of Commons matter, one's duty is to them. If one is the Head of a Government, one has to justify what one's Government have done. I think that the hon. Gentleman has made an error.
I now come, if I may, to the attitude to the cases that are before the Committee. First, there are different ways to consider how the matter should be approached. The first way is trial by media. Stories of sleaze and scandal
Column 725may help to sell newspapers and boost circulation, and I suspect that that is why they have had such extensive coverage, but that is no basis for tackling the matter.
Secondly, there could be trial by Members of Parliament. There is another view, which I think may have influenced some of my colleagues--it even came out in part in the speech of the Leader of the House--that the House of Commons should somehow proceed as quickly as possible to deal with the matter. I think that some Opposition Members think that what I have done is to delay their opportunity to expose some Government Members for political advantage.
I do not take that view. As I shall show, the matter should not be handled by the Committee of Privileges at all. I believe that what is at issue is the reputation of the House of Commons as a whole. The most serious criticism of all that can be levelled in relation to this subject is against the House for setting such low standards and for failing to maintain them, raise them or do anything about the problem.
On the subject of individual Members, as I told the Leader of the House, I am not a muck raker by instinct. I am not so interested in what hon. Members have or have not done, but I am interested in how the House of Commons could have allowed a situation to develop in which it is apparently possible for such things to be done within the standards that we have accepted.
I shall tell the House what I believe the Committee should do, as I might not be there to argue the case when the report is made. First, the House should decide that service in the House of Commons is a public service, and that the use of parliamentary influence in return for payment should itself be treated as a breach of privilege. Secondly, the principles that underlie the rules applying to Ministers--which apply to the Leader of the House and which applied to me for 11 years--should, with suitable amendments, be applicable to every Member of Parliament. One of those principles is that there should be no conflict between the private interests of Members and their public duty.
Mr. Benn: Madam Deputy Speaker, not only am I not going wide of the order, but I am giving reasons why I should not be removed from the Committee of Privileges by saying what I believe the Committee should do in the circumstances. That is why I should like to serve on the Committee, and that is what I would say were I on it.
Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North): I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and I am glad to see that he is wearing his Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve tie. I am listening carefully to what he is saying--as, I am sure, are all hon. Members, because we all care as deeply as he does about the way we conduct our proceedings.
Column 726First, is the right hon. Gentleman saying that if, in future, an hon. Member writes regular columns for a newspaper and uses material to which he has had access because he is a Member of the House, that would be excluded? Secondly, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that some Conservative Members, myself included, wrote to the Speaker to ask for the matter to be referred to the Committee of Privileges because of the behaviour of the newspaper person who came here? If so, has the right hon. Gentleman taken that on board in his considerations?
Mr. Benn: Peddling one's position as a Member of Parliament to buy political influence for a private employer is totally different from the case that the hon. Gentleman makes. If the hon. Gentleman takes that view, it is permissible--all my papers have been given to the British library in any case-- [Interruption.] If that is his argument, I do not think that it merits any serious consideration-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Benn: Thirdly, the powers to investigate hon. Members who breach the rules should be transferred to a court, as happens with contested election petitions. The House may know that, in the 19th century, when an election was contested or bribery was alleged, an election committee, like the Committee of Privileges, would meet. But that election committee always voted with the majority party in the House, and the House wisely decided to transfer the power to judges in an election court. Two judges sat without a jury and reported to the House, which acted on their report. The matter under discussion should be dealt with in the same way.
Legislation should be introduced to enforce the rules by extending the list of offices that lead to disqualification--from Government contractors to those who peddle their influence for money. That should be dealt with by statute. It should be illegal for any outside organisation to pay Members to exercise their influence in the way that has been alleged. If I paid an elector to vote for me, I would be guilty of bribery and would be unseated from this House. I see no difference--
Mr. Devlin: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Seriously, this is not in order. The motion relates to whether the right hon. Gentleman should be discharged from the Committee. I am sure that we are all fascinated by what the right hon. Gentleman has to say about how Parliament should be run, but surely that is a proper subject for a newspaper article, not for this debate?
Madam Deputy Speaker: Before the right hon. Gentleman continues-- [Interruption.] I do not expect hon. Members to intervene when I--or any other hon. Member--am speaking. The right hon. Gentleman has certainly been deploying his case in some detail. I hope
Column 727now that he will stick rather more closely to the terms of the motion, also bearing in mind the fact that this is a short debate, and that others will wish to speak in it.
Mr. Skinner: Further to the point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. My right hon. Friend is putting a case in defence of remaining on the Committee. In the process, he is being threatened by Tory Members, and seemingly by you, with the idea that, if he does not shut up, he will be gagged. That says something about this place, that does.
Madam Deputy Speaker: By long-standing practice, our speeches should be relevant in this place. While it is perfectly permissible to sketch in some background, it is a different matter when the background becomes the foreground.
Mr. Benn: I do not want to fall out with you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I am explaining how the contribution that I wish to make to the Privileges Committee justifies my remaining on that Committee. I shall finish with the recommendation that I shall make to the Nolan committee, if it will hear me, even if I am thrown off the Committee of Privileges. In addition to the Register of Members' Interests, I believe that every parliamentary candidate should register his interests, and returning officers should send those interests out to every elector with the polling cards, so that people can know these things before they vote.
If the motion to remove me is agreed to, I shall still be able to submit the same points to the Nolan committee, and I shall also be allowed to speak once the Privileges Committee report is finally published.
It is for the House to decide what to do about the actions that I have taken. If it decides to remove me, I shall make no complaint. I ask for no special favours. If I am guilty of anything, I am guilty of the same offence that has been repeated century after century when people have tried to bring the activities of Parliament to public attention. In the 17th century, Members who circulated their own speeches made in Parliament were punished. Dr. Johnson never came to the House: he bribed officials to help him write his parliamentary reports. Cobbett and Hansard were put in prison.
The truth is--I know it is painful for the House to recognise--that most of the improvements to our democracy have been made by people on principle breaking the rules. I hope that the House will be persuaded to change--
Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston): All this was surely just as true when the right hon. Gentleman first joined the Privileges Committee. The rules on secrecy were exactly the same then, so why has it taken him all these years to make this stand?
Column 728this date. The hon. Lady spoke about breaking the rules. She would not have the vote if the Pankhursts had not chained themselves to the railings.
The House often has to face the fact that unfair rules are contested. My experience of the political process is that the last people to get the message are those in the House of Commons itself. The message is fully understood. The hon. Lady would not have the vote but for the suffragettes. In a modest and non-controversial way, I am pushing the conventions.
Mr. Bill Michie (Sheffield, Heeley): I had not intended to intervene in the debate, although I shall support my right hon. Friend. I am a little worried about the line that he is taking of a one-man campaign against the abuse of this place and the ineffectiveness of the Committee. I remind the House that other people on the Select Committee feel just as strongly, and take the line that the proceedings should be in public. I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend for taking that line, as long as he makes it quite clear that he is not the only one on the Committee who holds a principle and has a judgment on how this place and the Committee should be run.
Mr. Benn: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for voting for me, but they are not trying to remove him from the Committee. I have to defend myself because mine is the only name on the Order Paper. My hon. Friend wanted to resign from the Committee, but I was opposed to that because I believe that one should stay on and fight one's corner. That is the difference between us, and it is an appropriate point.
Constitutional reform is moving to the top of the political agenda, and the House might inch cautiously towards a reform of its own procedures. If the House decides to retreat again behind the traditional practice of deliberating in secret, it will be a great mistake and will damage the House.
Hon. Members will have to decide on a free vote. I say openly to the House that I would not feel able to continue to be a member of the Privileges Committee if it was to be a condition of my membership that the practice of secrecy was to be maintained and I could not tell my constituents what I was saying in the Committee.
Dr. Robert Spink (Castle Point) rose --
Dr. Spink: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made accusations of crimes and corruption such as fraud and blackmail which be believes have taken place. If he believes that and does not come to the Committee with an open mind, would he be a proper person to sit on the Committee?
Column 729For all the reasons that I have given, I ask hon. Members to reject the motion, and invite the Committee of Privileges to think again about a matter that may be rather more serious for our electors than the House itself seems ready to accept.
Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing): On 2 November Madam Speaker stressed that the behaviour of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) had implications that were of great importance for Select Committees generally. Therefore, I should like to speak on that matter, because as Chairman of the Liaison Committee I entirely agree with Madam Speaker and feel bound to say that the view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman has many dangers.
Much of what the right hon. Gentleman said was not to the point, which is simply whether Select Committees deliberate in public and in particular whether the actions of one member should be allowed to override the decision of the Committee and the rules of the House. He put forward various reasons why he thought that should be so. In many ways this is a sad occasion, because the right hon. Gentleman has done great service to the House. I can think of no one who, in listening to some of his speeches, has given me more delight. He has a keen mind. However, I feel bound to say that on this occasion he is fundamentally and profoundly wrong.
It is important that hon. Members should be allowed to deliberate in private, for the simple reason that they may change their minds. They may be persuaded by the arguments. When the right hon. Gentleman goes into a Committee it is virtually inconceivable that during the course of the deliberations he may change his mind.
The real point that I want to make is that it is through deliberations in private that Committees reach a consensus. The reality is that over recent years we have introduced a system of departmentally related Select Committee which have been a great improvement in getting the Government called to account. One of the strengths of those Committees has been the fact that they have produced unanimous reports. We all know that a Committee's report is far more likely to have influence and to call the Government to account if it is unanimous than if it splits along party lines. It is a difficult process. Hon. Members have to listen to all the arguments in the light of the evidence they have taken, very often in public, and then weigh the arguments and persuade each other of the right outcome.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that a number of hon. Members, including me, who believe, and voted accordingly, that the Committee should be open to the press and public, nevertheless accept--and here I disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)--that its deliberations should be in private, and for very much the reasons stated by the right hon. Gentleman?
Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there are those of us who strongly believe, no less so than my right hon. Friend, that the proceedings should be in public, but equally strongly believe that to have the deliberations and the reaching of conclusions in public would be like a jury
Column 730reaching its decision in public? I hope that the right hon. Gentleman understands the distinction between the two views.
Sir Terence Higgins: The hon. Gentleman and I are reaching a consensus, and one which I hope is widespread throughout the House--so much so that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield is alone in the position he holds.
Committees must reach a consensus and it would be difficult to do so in public, not least because very often the view, the process and the consensus are not what the Government want. We do not really want the Whips listening to every word said during the deliberations.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: The right hon. Gentleman said that he would not necessarily like the Whips to listen. May I put to him a problem in the Select Committee on Members' Interests? A Whip has now been appointed to that Committee. Its very credibility is completely undermined. Will he oppose that appointment?
Much of what the right hon. Member for Chesterfield said related to and was a repetition of what was said in the debate on whether the Privileges Committee should take evidence in public. It did not relate to whether the Committee should deliberate in public. The right hon. Gentleman takes a partisan view about everything.
Sir Terence Higgins: I shall tell the hon. Gentleman what is wrong with that: this House does not carry out its duty as effectively and efficiently as it should if all its work is done on a party political basis. It is not true to say that there are no issues on which we can reach a consensus, and everything must be done on a party political basis. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) both take that view, but I do not share it. The House does not carry out its democratic duties as efficiently if it decides that everything must be done on a straight--I feel bound to use the word "hack"- -party political line. The operation of Committees has been much more effective as a result of reaching a consensus. The rules of the House have been refined over many years, so there is much to be said for them. At the same time, if there is to be a change, the House must debate it and reach a conclusion on it. But the right hon. Gentleman sought effectively to hold the Committee and the House to ransom. Whatever else the House and the Committee might want to decide, the right hon. Gentleman thinks that his views should prevail. That is not a modest approach to the issue. Once the House has considered the matter, as it should, it will conclude that the arguments for continuing to deliberate in private are extremely strong--in my view, they are overwhelming.
Column 731Those who truly have the House's interests at heart will not take the view expressed by the right hon. Gentleman this evening. It is right that the House should vote in favour of the motion and he should be removed from the Committee, sad though I find it, because few people have made such a notable contribution to the House. 11.6 pm
I much regret the fact that the House must debate this motion and that the Privileges Committee has found it necessary to refer the matter to the House. I regret the fact that the position of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) has become the focus of attention, rather than the normal workings of the Privileges Committee and the serious allegations into which it should have been inquiring before now. Everybody should regret the delay that has taken place between July and this issue now coming to light, given that the Committee has not yet had an occasion on which to examine the substantive issue. Had the House accepted the motion which we tabled on 31 October, this would not have arisen and it would not have been necessary to debate the motion moved by the Lord President.
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill): I welcome what the hon. Lady has said so far. We are in danger of fighting the last battle in the wrong ditch. Much of what has been said this evening has ensured that the scent has gone cold in terms of the original allegations about which the House should be concerned.
The hon. Lady says that we could have united on the Labour party motion, on which I agreed with her and for which I voted at the time. Did not that distinguish between evidence sessions and deliberative sessions? That is the point before the House tonight, but we are now being invited to open up the whole proceedings, including the deliberative sessions, on which there is no unanimity.
Mrs. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is right, and I remind the House that the motion that we tabled suggested that the Committee of Privileges should exercise its power under Standing Order No. 108, so that when examining witnesses it would sit in public except for clear and compelling reasons. Our motion did not ask for the Committee's deliberations to be in public--although in fairness to my right hon. Friend, he made his personal position clear in the debate on that motion.
If the House had accepted that motion, the Committee would have been able to reach agreement and my right hon. Friend would not have been moved to issue the document that he did, following the first sitting of the Committee.
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West): The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made it clear throughout the Committee's deliberations that he would not accept anything short of its deliberations being made public--and the right hon. Gentleman has followed that independent line. Who is to say that he would not have gone down that road even if the House had accepted the motion?
Column 732the whole House is at a disadvantage because of the ruling that we cannot be party to all the Committee's decisions and discussions. If the House had accepted the motion on 31 October, the atmosphere in which the Committee operated would have been different and less divisive, and it would not have become a partisan issue.
I share the regret expressed by the right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) that there was united opposition to the motion on the Government Benches. We tabled the motion in the hope of securing recognition of the validity of our argument, not to divide parties. We tried to be reasonable, and if that motion had been passed and evidence was taken in public, the whole issue might not have arisen.
The totality of opposition among Government Members to the 31 October motion made this a partisan issue, and that has not proved beneficial to the subsequent work of the Committee of Privileges or to subsequent debates on the Floor of the House.
It is unfortunate that the basic allegations that are the subject of the Committee's inquiries and public concern about them have been pushed to one side and that my right hon. Friend has become the focus of attention.
Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking): The allegations have been pushed to one side only because the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) insisted on being the focus of attention. If he had kept quiet, we could have got on perfectly well.
My right hon. Friend's conduct and decisions were undertaken without consulting my right hon. and hon. Friends, but I respect my right hon. Friend. As others have said, he has strong feelings and a strong feel for parliamentary traditions. He also understands well that it is sometimes necessary to kick at those traditions to bring about change. The question before the House is whether my right hon. Friend's unilateral action justified delaying the Committee's inquiries, which was the consequence of his action.
It is difficult to determine the Committee's position because its members are not allowed to leak its discussions. I understand, however, that the Committee of Privileges has not yet finalised its decisions on how to proceed with the examination of witnesses, nor has it excluded the possibility of hearing witnesses in public. If that is indeed the case, my right hon. Friend's actions have been pre-emptive, in that he has not exhausted all the opportunities to ensure that the Committee meets in public for at least part of the time.
As for the debate about whether the Committee's deliberations as well as its taking of evidence should be public, I should make my position clear. I believe that evidence of the kind that the Committee of Privileges will need to take should, whenever possible, be taken in public. That was the essence of the motion that we tabled