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Column 733at the end of October--although we made provision for the Committee to hear evidence in private if there was good and compelling reason for it to do so.
Personally, I do not think it best for the deliberations of a Select Committee to take place in public. I support the view expressed a few moments ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick): I think that the position is very similar to that involving juries, and I do not think that it would be helpful to the workings of Committees to make their deliberations public.
Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby): Will my hon. Friend make an exception? Let us suppose that a vote was taken during a deliberative Committee meeting. Could I tell my constituents that during a meeting of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, when we discussed the Pergau issue, I voted in favour of Lady Thatcher and Charles Powell being brought before the Committee? Does my hon. Friend agree that, if a partisan vote takes place in a Committee, it should be published?
Mrs. Taylor: I think my hon. Friend will know that votes taken on such Committees are made public--although not necessarily immediately; that may be his point. Certainly the deliberations of such Committees are not made public, and I feel that that might inhibit valuable discussion.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield said that tonight's vote should be a matter for the House, not a question of party affiliation. I think that his comments about the way in which his colleagues have already voted on the question of his remaining a member of the Committee show that Opposition Members on the Committee did not treat this as a partisan matter, and I believe that they will not do so this evening. Opposition Members view this as a genuinely free vote, and I hope that Conservative Members will approach it in the same way--although I must say that there has been some disappointment about the unanimity of their voting on all issues relating to the Committee of Privileges in recent months. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield pointed out that the House was not obliged to accept a report from the Committee of Privileges. That is true, as were other technical comments that he made, but I take issue with one of his remarks: he said that if the House supported the motion, no reports dealing with deliberations should ever be published. Whatever the outcome of tonight's vote, the House can always make that decision at any subsequent date, and can always recommend to any Select Committee-- including the Committee of Privileges--that such deliberations should be made public in future. My right hon. Friend has drawn a distinction between the conventions of the House and the interests of those who elect us. I do not think that there always has to be such a distinction. My right hon. Friend had not exhausted all the possible ways to get part of what he wanted out of the Committee of Privileges--the part of our resolution moved on 31 October relating to the examination of evidence in public. I still believe that that is the most important objective. I know that my right hon. Friend, who has raised some serious issues, wants to ensure that the public interest is defended, but, although I sympathise
Column 734with his intention, I cannot support his tactics. He has not explored all the possibilities for getting what is in the public interest.
It would be overridingly in the public interest to have the relevant parts of the Privileges Committee sitting in public. I am afraid that my right hon. Friend's actions have not helped to achieve that objective. The Privileges Committee has not reached a final decision and I still hope that it will be able to consider the widespread anxiety outside the House about the allegations, the issues raised in the debate on 31 October and the possibility of taking at least some evidence in public in order to restore public confidence in the Privileges Committee and in the House.
parliamentarian. This is one of his eccentricities. He is in this place because he was democratically elected with a majority of 6,414 by the electors in his constituency. He accepted that it was right that the views of a majority of them should prevail and send him to this place, just as each of us has been sent here by a majority of our electors.
The right hon. Gentleman arrives in this place by a democratic process but then behaves as an autocrat--all but he must abide by the majority decision. He is part of a Committee that the House democratically agreed under its rules should deliberate in private. The right hon. Gentleman accepts democracy when it suits him but rejects it when it suits him. That is the road to anarchy, Mr. Bill Michie rose --
Sir David Mitchell: I shall not be long; the hon. Gentleman will have the opportunity to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I said, that is the road to anarchy. If we vote tonight--and it looks as if we shall--on whether to remove the right hon. Gentleman from the Committee, I shall vote in favour but with great regret because I think that the Committee would have been all the better for having the benefit of his advice. However, he cannot come to the Committee having been elected as a democrat and then not abide by the democratic process.
Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney): I greatly regret the withdrawal or loss of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) from the Select Committee on Privileges, not least because he enlivens its proceedings and, more important, brings to its deliberations his intelligence and his talents and great experience as a parliamentarian. The Committee will be the poorer for his loss.
The central point, however, is a simple one: there is a division, still unresolved, among members of the Committee as to whether we should take evidence in public. It is no secret that that that is the view taken by members of my party. We have very strong views about that. Making committee deliberations public is a minority view. I think that my right hon. Friend, who normally approaches matters with great clarity, confused the two issues in his speech. We all know that it is common
Column 735practice for Select Committees to hear evidence in public, but I know of no Select Committee--let alone the Privileges Committee-- which deliberates in public.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Nolan Committee in order to bolster his case, but he has not done that. I am a member of the Nolan Committee and I hope that most of the Committee's evidence will be heard in public-- I am sure that is what Lord Nolan would wish--but there has been no suggestion that the Committee should deliberate in public and, so far as I know, we have no intention of so doing. Although analogies are very difficult in this area, I think that the courts and the trial process offer at least a rough guide. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said, evidence is taken from witnesses in public, and that is as it should be, but when the jury retires there is no report of the discussion that takes place. Common sense dictates that certain issues should be discussed with others privately in the hope of having a very frank exchange and reaching agreement.
In conclusion, to mix up the two issues is to do the House a disservice. The issue of whether witnesses should be heard in public is quite separate from the issue of whether Committees' deliberations should be reported as they proceed--let alone that members of the Privileges Committee should be entitled to make a running commentary on the proceedings as they develop.
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton): I am particularly sorry that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), who I think is the oldest serving Privy Councillor in the House, should find himself in dispute with a Committee on which he has served for 12 years. He has never found it necessary to make this point before now.
The right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) suggested how the vote on the matter should proceed, and I think that all hon. Members agree with her. Everyone wants it to proceed as quickly as possible--not least the people concerned, who have obviously had a very unpleasant time while the matter has been hanging over their heads.
The right hon. Member for Chesterfield tried to raise emotions about the matter by comparing it with Hansard or Mrs. Pankhurst. That is somewhat ridiculous, to put it mildly. There is a difference between the way in which Select Committees work and the way in which matters on the Floor of the House operate. On the Floor of the House there is an obvious political divide which is seen time and again in the Division Lobbies.
I have served on Select Committees and I have been Chairman of the Procedure Committee for the past 12 years. It is amazing how much members of a Select Committee work together to try to produce a completely unanimous report, because they know that such a report will have a specific effect. There is a great difference between the political operation of proceedings on the Floor of the House and the operation of Select Committees upstairs.
Mr. Bill Michie: Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why, when we debated and voted on whether parts of the Select Committee's investigation should be made public, on a tied vote, the Committee Chairman gave status quo as a reason for voting to keep the investigation private? As as I understand it, there is no status quo for a Select
Column 736Committee. There is certainly no politics involved. To this day, it has never been explained to me why the Chairman took that view.
Sir Peter Emery: I believe that I speak with some little authority on this. On the whole--I do not say without exception--the Chairman of a Committee will vote in one of two ways. He will vote either to have the matter heard again or to stay with the way in which the matter has proceeded until that moment. I cannot tell what was in the mind of the Chairman--the hon. Gentleman must ask him and not me--but those are the two matters that a Chairman would normally take into account.
I need not go over the difference between the taking of evidence and a Committee's deliberations. That has already been thoroughly debated. There are, however, times when all the evidence should not be taken in public, especially if, as may well have been the case in this Committee, one wants to cross-question a witness at some length. It seems, therefore, much more sensible not to have half the evidence come out when there is still as much cross-examination again to take place at a later sitting. That problem is real and must be considered. It must be understood, however, that the Committee can decide: the House should not be the decider of that matter-- it should be left to the Committee, the people considering the situation, to decide.
That point leads me to one of the most deliberately misleading points in the speech by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. He has suggested that there is a degree of secrecy and he seems to feel that something is going to be covered up. In my judgment, that is not the way in which the Committee of Privileges has worked in the past. In previous reports from the Committee of Privileges, the evidence has been published and the cross- questioning has been published. The public have been able to see exactly what has gone on in the evidence-taking.
Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman has used the word "see". The relevant word is "read", not "see". We are talking about "reading" as well as about "seeing" and "hearing".
Sir Peter Emery: I am willing to be taken to task on that matter. I am saying that members of the public can see in the writings and the publications exactly what has taken place. There is no secrecy or no cover- up in that. That is the major point. There is no way in which the House will stop a debate on the report. It will come to the House and will be debated fully. I have no doubt that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield will speak again in that debate. He will have that right and nobody will stop him from doing so.
The Select Committee on Procedure has looked at the matter in a slightly different way. It has considered not the deliberate leaking of information by a member of a Committee, but the unofficial leaking of matters considered by the Committee and the deliberations of a Committee. Paragraph 225 of the report, "The Workings of the Select Committee System," from the 1989-90 Session says:
"publication causes even more immediate harm, in that it can affect the way in which the Committee subsequently deals with the Report. Sometimes that is exactly the intended effect--motivated perhaps by a desire to marshal support for, or more likely against, an individual recommendation or set of conclusions. On other occasions the aim of a leak may be to ensure that a particular extract from a draft
Column 737Report . . . will leave the desired political impression on the public consciousness, an impression which may not be erased when the Report is eventually published formally."
Paragraph 226 of the report states:
"leaks . . . are subversive of the Select Committee system as a whole and are therefore, quite apart from being wrong in principle, extremely short- sighted."
What worries me is that, if the right hon. Member for Chesterfield won the vote tonight, the working of every Select Committee would be affected. The secrecy of deliberation is all-important. Anyone who has served on a departmental Select Committee knows the arguments that take place between members, often across party lines, before the recommendations are made. If those arguments took place in public, it would massively alter the way in which members argued their case during the Committee's deliberations.
Sir John Gorst: If what my right hon. Friend describes were to take place, the result would be that most Select Committees would reach their conclusions by means of private deliberations in the corridors outside the Committees.
There is an overwhelming case to support what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House suggested. It would be wrong to allow an individual to alter the procedures for the workings of Select Committees. Those procedures have stood the test of time and there is no way in which secrecy could be maintained. The public will know exactly what has happened and they will know the recommendations. It is essential that we pass the motion, for the defence of Select Committee proceedings.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): There will be a vote and I shall be voting against the motion, but I accept that the Committee faced a difficult decision. I accept that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) realised the difficulties; hence their reason for voting with the rest of the Committee.
The Committee was faced with a difficult decision because it would have been difficult to proceed if one member--my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn)--because of his integrity, as the Leader of the House stated, decided to do as he promised in the House. In those circumstances, the Committee clearly could not proceed and I understand the reasons.
I understand the reasons, so why do I intend to vote against the motion? The explanation is simple and clear. Evidence to the Committee should be in public and the deliberations should be in private. I am strongly of that view--no less strongly than my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield.
The allegations made against some hon. Members are serious. Hon. Members on both sides of the House think that the standing of the House is in question and that is a matter of great concern. Outside, people feel that there is sleaze and that Members of Parliament are on the make--not just some Members, but virtually all of us. It is
Column 738important for the public to understand that that is not so. If some hon. Members have behaved in a way that they should not have, it does not mean that the rest of the House of Commons should be viewed in the same light, but we do not know if that is so, as it is up to the Committee to decide and report to the House.
I cannot for the life of me understand why the evidence should be heard in private. The right hon. Member for Honiton (Sir Peter Emery) asked why some hon. Members said that the Committee's deliberations will be secret, as the reports will be published. Of course they will--that is not in dispute-- but, in the main, people outside this place will not see those reports. They will be seen only by parliamentarians, the press and those who take the closest possible interest in public affairs. Our constituents will not go to the public library or write to the Vote Office to ask to see the report. If the evidence is taken in public, it will be reported and filmed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) pointed out. People will see it on the television screen and judge accordingly. That is why it is important.
Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough): I fondly, and perhaps naively, think that we are interested in justice and truth. In the hon. Gentleman's argument, is there not a danger that we will lose sight of that justice and truth?
In allowing the publication of evidence as it is given, one will inhibit the finding of truth and justice because newspapers will report tendentiously and partially. In a court--where evidence can be given in open court--the judge can control the errant journalist who misreports the court. The Committee will not have such powers, and surely there is a danger--
Mr. Winnick: Clearly the Committee cannot be conducted as if it were a court. The argument that the hon. Gentleman is putting forward is that no evidence at all should be taken by Committees, and that is totally unacceptable.
It is necessary to vote against the motion because my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield has made a stand. I shall support him tonight because I believe that the restrictions on the proceedings being televised or reported are wrong, and they can no longer be defended. The main argument in favour of the motion is basically that the Privileges Committee has always acted in this way. Of course it has, but the time has come for a change. It is important for the standing of the House. The public are no longer willing to accept the view that all of this must be in private and that, in due course, a report will be published.
I accept entirely--hence my earlier intervention--that the deliberations must be in private, and this is where I disagree with my right hon. Friend. It would be a denial of justice if the deliberations were held in public. But as far as the main work of the Committee in taking evidence is concerned, it is necessary that it be in public. If the action that my right hon. Friend has taken has in some way persuaded the majority of the Committee that the evidence should be taken in public, he will have done very useful work--not only for the Committee but for the House as whole. That is the reason why I shall be voting against the motion.
Column 73911.41 pm
Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West): I shall be very brief. When I was appointed to the Committee on Privileges, I really did count it to be a privilege. When I went to that Committee for the first time and saw the other members, I felt that I was amongst those Members of the House who would speak for the House as a whole, and not for their party. Above all, I felt that they would not speak for their own personal interests and ambitions. What horrifies me is that the Committee has now been delayed by nearly three months as a result of what has happened.
That may be acceptable to members of the Committee, but the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor) said that it was quite disgraceful that that should be so, and that we should have got down to the heart of the matter. Of course we should have, and that is what we all really want to do. The actions of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) have made that quite impossible for the Committee. I deplore that, and we must put this affair behind us and get on with the task that we were given, which was to pass judgment--I say this and I mean it--as individual members of the Committee; not as members of the Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative parties. The sooner we do so, the better it will be for the House and for the view that the country takes of the House.
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill): The hon. Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) put his views very well on behalf of the members of the Committee who would have liked to see the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) remain a member of the Committee on Privileges.
It must be put on the record that the majority of Opposition Members voted for the meetings of the Committee to be held in public, but we were not aware at the time the first debate took place that the goalposts would be moved, and that we would then have a debate about the deliberative sessions also being held in public. That was a subsequent matter which was laid before the Committee. No matter how we had voted on the original motion, I do not believe that there would have been unanimity at that time, and we would not have therefore avoided the debate this evening. We are in a extraordinary position, because, despite having had a vote in the Committee of Privileges and a vote on the Floor of the House, some hon. Members are still demurring from the decision reached on those occasions. Hon. Members must ultimately ask themselves whether something is so intrinsically evil that they cannot continue as members of the Committee. Despite the fact that I would like to see the evidence of that Committee taken in public, I do not believe that the issue merits the stance taken by the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. I suspect that it is a case of fighting the wrong battle in the last ditch. The right hon. Gentleman has led us along on an engaging argument, as he has done so often in the past, with which most can agree for 90 per cent. of the way, only to find that the final 10 per cent. is so far beyond that which was originally argued that it loses the support of the majority of those who might otherwise wish to support him.
I regret that we are in that position as a result of the publication of the right hon. Gentleman's version of Hansard, "Bennsard", which he says follows on from the
Column 740tradition of Cobbett and Hansard . In many ways, his publication follows the tradition of people such as Bakunin, because it has more to do with anarchy than democracy and abiding by majority decisions. The right hon. Gentleman is trying to insist on his own way, rather than abiding by a decision of the House.
The other issue before us is simple: the reputation of the House. As long ago as July, we were charged by the House with responsibility to decide on the issue of cash payments for questions. That matter has dragged on. We are agreed that that matter has brought the reputation of Parliament into disrepute and that it needs to be resolved quickly. In many ways, the scent has gone cold. Other issues must now be resolved: for example, the House has already referred the case of Mr. Peter Preston and the articles published by The Guardian to the Committee.
How can the Committee make progress if it has to spend all its time in a quagmire of debates on procedural questions and wrangling about the motion before the House? It is time wasting self-indulgence. It does nothing to enhance the reputation of the House and that is why I shall support the motion in the name of the Leader of the House. 11.46 pm
Sir Giles Shaw (Pudsey): I support the decision that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House took in casting his vote in the Committee in favour of the status quo. That follows precedent. It has been the tradition of all the Committees that that involving privileges is one which must be held in private.
It is absurd not only that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) should have succeeded in delaying the Committee's proceedings for so long, but that he should have made his stand on the publication of his own view, not of the evidence before the Committee, but of the deliberations of the Committee. That was surely the one aspect of those two aspects that commanded no support in the Committee.
It is crucial that we undertake the prime purpose required of us by Madam Speaker to investigate the allegations against hon. Members. The idea that such an investigation should be held in public and before the television lights, as the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) would have us believe, is nothing more or less than soundbite judgment. I refuse to believe that that idea should be given any consideration in the laws of natural justice. We should not move towards a judicial procedure being hijacked in that fashion. As for proceedings in the House, it is essential that the proper precedents are followed and the proper actions taken. The sooner we do that, the better.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): I opposed the original motion. If I recall it correctly, I voted against those on my Front Bench, because I believed that the Privileges Committee was riddled with commercial interests.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) will forgive me for what I am about to say, but I think that what he is doing is wrong. I have told him that privately and I think that he understands the position that I take.
Column 741I want to dwell on the issue of speaking freely. I have spent 12 years on the Public Accounts Committee, nine years on the Select Committee on Members' Interests and seven years on the Select Committee on Procedure. I have seen minds changed inside those Committees. I can remember hearing the Brown inquiry and the Mates inquiry, when people visibly changed their conclusions. They would never have done that had the cameras or the press been present in those Committees. They would never have reviewed their position. I can remember a Procedure Committee meeting in 1990. I am not breaching privilege by saying that we were discussing a select committee for Northern Ireland. I do not want to reveal what happened on that occasion, but the Chairman of the Committee will remember the discussion. We could never have had that discussion if the Committee had met in public. I believe that what we did was in the public interest.
Over the years, I have sat on the Public Accounts Committee, when we have taken evidence. On one or two occasions I asked witnesses, "Would you be prepared to speak more freely if the public were not admitted to this Committee?" and have received an affirmative response. The truth is that people will not always speak freely if they know that what they say will be published.
I take the example of Mr. Ian Greer, giving evidence on lobbying to the Select Committee on Members' Interests. I can remember, without going into detail, a specific issue that Mr. Greer believed would be commercially sensitive. I shall not reveal what it was. I believe that we took the right decision in not publishing that information. It being one and a half hours after the commencement of the proceedings on the motion, Madam Deputy Speaker-- put the Question, pursuant to Order [9 December].
The House divided: Ayes 181, Noes 52.
Division No. 19] [23.50 pm
Column 741Ainsworth, Peter (East Surrey)
Aitken, Rt Hon Jonathan
Alison, Rt Hon Michael (Selby)
Allason, Rupert (Torbay)
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset North)
Beresford, Sir Paul
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Bottomley, Peter (Eltham)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Virginia
Bright, Sir Graham
Browning, Mrs. Angela
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Carlile, Alexander (Montgomry)