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Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Gummer: I will in a moment, but not now.

I remind the House that Her Majesty's Opposition repeatedly pressed the Government to condemn the 10 former council members and officers to whom the auditor's provisional findings were adverse. If we had followed their advice, the House would have passed judgment on three people in respect of whom objections were not subsequently upheld.

It is not sufficient for Labour Members to defend themselves by suggesting that the auditor was not complimentary about these individuals. Labour Members have stigmatised these individuals as guilty of charges of a most serious kind--charges that the auditor's final report does not uphold. Labour Members, in their rush to judgment, have offended one of our most elementary rules, and one that lies at the heart of the English legal system. They were so concerned to press party political advantage that they did not mind whom they condemned or whether those they attacked had had a chance to put their side of the case.

Mr. Prentice: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Gummer: I shall give way in a moment--other hon. Members have been able to put their cases clearly, and I wish to do the same.

In particular, the Labour party has condemned an elected Member of the House. It has condemned him unheard for allegations from which the auditor has since resiled. No one can consider that to be treatment in the best traditions of the House--indeed, it is the sort of behaviour that Labour Members would be the first to condemn in others.

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Let me make it absolutely clear to hon. Members that, if the auditor's findings are upheld by the courts, I will not hesitate to condemn those responsible. If that condemnation were to come, it would be the more weighty and the more serious because it would be arrived at after the due process of law. Some hon. Members seem to be having difficulty understanding the legal position. Therefore, I shall refer to section 20 of the Local Government Finance Act 1982--a Tory Act.

Mr. Bruce Grocott (The Wrekin): Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Gummer: I shall give way in a moment.

The Act provides that, if it appears to the auditor that a loss has been incurred or a deficiency has been caused by the wilful misconduct of any person, he shall certify that the amount of the loss or deficiency is due from that person, and he may recover the amount of loss or deficiency that he has identified.

The same section provides that any person who is aggrieved by an auditor's decision under the section may appeal against the decision to the court. In the case of a decision to certify that an amount is due from any person, the court may confirm, vary or quash the decision, and give any certificate that the auditor could have given. Similarly, in the case of a decision not to certify that an amount is due from any person, the court may confirm or quash it and give any certificate that the auditor could have given.

It is perfectly clear that anything I say about the auditor's report could be prejudicial to appeals under section 20, and it is no good hon. Members pretending otherwise, as it happens to be true. The fact is that any prejudgment I make is a prejudgment of a case that we knew to be likely, and now know to be certain.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Member for Nottingham, East (Mr. Heppell), who was not present on the last occasion, will not want to miss what I have to say before I give way.

That means any appeals. It does not refer only to appeals that have already been announced by those against whom the auditor has found, but also to any possible appeals by the original objectors against the auditor's failure to confirm some of his interim findings. Labour Members should recognise this point, and stop trying to make party political points at this stage in the process.

Any statement about this case could be prejudicial not only to the case of Dame Shirley Porter and those who have been criticised in the report and against whom the objections have been upheld, but also to any case that might be taken against the auditor for not including those whom he had previously criticised. If I were to comment on what the auditor has said, I would prejudice the case against either side in this matter. That is why the only comment that I have made--

Mr. Grocott rose--

Mr. John Gunnell (Morley and Leeds, South) rose--

Mrs. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough) rose--

Mr. Gummer: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman--he need not worry.

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I have commented on this issue only by carefully pointing out one thing. Previously, the House was invited to criticise people because they were criticised by the auditor in his preliminary report. If the House had done so, it would have behaved in a way that subsequently, I think the Labour party would agree, would have been a mistake. That is the only thing I have said, and I believe, because I have taken legal advice, that it is not prejudicial. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Gunnell: Is the Secretary of State trying to tell us that we cannot repeat the comments that Mr. Magill, the auditor, makes about the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) because we might then find that the original objectors are taking the auditor to court on account of the fact that he has not included the hon. Gentleman among those whom he is surcharging and taking action against?

Is that what the Secretary of State is trying to tell us? Is that why he says that, although the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West is unlikely to appeal against not being included in these charges, we cannot use those quotes in which the auditor states the things that are known by that hon. Gentleman, simply because we may put the auditor, Mr. Magill, in a difficult position by so doing?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse): Order. Before the Secretary of State answers that question, I point out that interventions must be brief and to the point, and not mini-speeches.

Mr. Gummer: I think that what I said was clear: that if I, as Secretary of State, make a comment on the report, it may--indeed might well--be held to be prejudicial to the interests not only of one side, but of any other side that might want to bring a case to court. That is all I am saying. The hon. Gentleman must judge with his conscience what he should say. I am merely saying that the legal position is clear regarding comments made by me, as Secretary of State, in a matter of this kind.

Mr. Grocott rose--

Mrs. Helen Jackson rose--

Mr. Gordon Prentice rose--

Mr. Gummer: The hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) rose earlier.

Mr. Prentice: Is it not an uncontrovertible, recorded fact that section 20 of the 1982 Act allows the district auditor to make a finding of guilt, and that individuals are appealing against that finding of guilt? Will the Minister concede that the six named individuals are guilty?

Mr. Gummer: What the Minister will repeat is that, if I make a comment about this statement, that will be prejudicial in any appeal that may be made on either side. Nothing would please me better than to be able to make a series of statements about this matter, but, when one is attempting to be responsible about such matters, one must take the best advice there is. If I were seeking the best advice, the hon. Gentleman would not be among my first choices.

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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Gummer: So that Opposition Members may have something more to say, I will give them a bit more on this subject, because it is important.

First, there is the risk of prejudicing a court case that might take place from any angle, in any circumstances. Secondly, there is the issue of the use of the privileges of the House of Commons. When I answered the private notice question by my right hon. Friend the Member for City of London and Westminster, South, I made the point that we all have a serious problem when considering the nature of the privilege of Parliament.

We are able to say in the House things that cannot put us into court. We have that privilege to protect those who need the protection of the House, so that we can stand up and say things that will lead to proper and due process of law. We know that, in this circumstance, there is to be proper and due process of law. I believe that the use of the privileges of the House of Commons in those circumstances--

Mr. Mike Hall (Warrington, South): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is the Secretary of State saying that he cannot confirm that the district auditor has found the six councillors guilty of misconduct?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair. The Secretary of State is responsible for his own speech.

Mr. Gummer: The privilege of Parliament, under which we all speak, demands a degree of reticence from us that is of considerable importance if the House is to live up to its best traditions.


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