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Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Gummer: I shall be happy to give way, but I want to finish my thought. I am sure that the House is following me with great care. The reason--[Hon. Members: "Waffling."] If hon. Members think that I am waffling when talking about privilege, they have lost their usual reputation for caring about privilege.

We are able to use privilege as a defence on behalf of those who would otherwise not be able to prosecute their case or to maintain their innocence. In this instance, there is to be a court hearing, as a result of which we shall know the innocence or guilt of the persons concerned. Those who say that they know already about innocence or guilt are prejudging the decision of the court when the appeal takes place.

Mr. Robert N. Wareing (Liverpool, West Derby): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I hope that it is a genuine point of order.

Mr. Wareing: There are some who might feel that the Secretary of State is implying that we cannot reasonably comment on the district auditor's report because the matter is sub judice. If it were sub judice, Mr. Deputy Speaker, surely you would not have allowed the debate to have taken place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: It may be helpful if I advise the House that, after careful consideration, Madam Speaker is

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satisfied that the sub judice rule of the House, which is drawn much narrower than the terms of the rule commonly used, does not apply in this instance. The rule makes it clear that it comes into effect when a matter first comes before a civil court. That is

    "from the time that the case has been set down for trial or otherwise brought before the court."

I understand that, in this instance, an appeal has been lodged, but the issue has not yet been set down for trial. In these circumstances, the House rule does not apply at this stage.

Mr. Gummer: So the situation is clear, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The issue is not sub judice at this moment, but it will become sub judice the moment that the case is set down for hearing.

The Secretary of State's position is simple. He is asked by all precedents not to say anything in the meantime that is prejudicial to the case when it comes before the court. I do not believe that it is in the best traditions of the House to depart from precedents. It does not seem sensible either for a Secretary of State to prejudice a case during a short period when he would not be allowed, by the rules of the House, to prejudice it once a date is set down for hearing. To do so would put me in an intolerable moral position, and not one in which I am prepared to be put.

Mr. Grocott: The Secretary of State says strongly that it would be wrong to make any comments on anything until a final conclusion is reached. He says also that we are in grave danger of infringing or abusing the historic traditions of the House. Am I to take it that the right hon. Gentleman condemns unreservedly the Prime Minister's decision to condemn Monklands councillors, using the privilege of the House in advance of the completion of an inquiry?

Mr. Gummer: The quotation did not give much strength to that argument. I say clearly to the hon. Gentleman that, if the Secretary of State for the Environment were to pass comment on the Westminster case, I am advised that, without question, it would be prejudicial to any case that came before the courts. I would therefore be acting contrary to my duty to the House, and as a Minister, if I were to comment. I have no intention of doing so.

There is a third element that we must take seriously before we deal with the rest of the matters that are before us.

Mr. David Nicholson: I concur entirely with what my right hon. Friend has been saying so far. However, are there not two conclusions to be drawn from the Opposition's desire to raise these matters at this stage? First, there is probably a case to examine the prejudices in the local government finance system that supports Westminster but has supported also Lambeth, Southwark and other inner London boroughs. More particularly, should not the House be extraordinarily reluctant to return to local government the powers and resources to build council houses wherever it wishes? Those powers were sometimes part of a gerrymandering political and electoral system.

Mr. Gummer: It would not be sensible or proper for me to comment on those matters. It is true, however, that the issue before us is not confined to whether we prejudice

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a case for either side. If it comes before the courts--and certainly it will come before them as a result of the actions of one side--it is not only a matter of the proper use of privilege: there is a third consideration. It is not unreasonable to judge people by the way in which they treat others in circumstances where those others have still to take a case to court. It would be much more sensible, and would give much more weight to judgment, if we were to wait until judgment had been made.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Gummer: I shall bring my remarks to an end on this matter, because I want the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras to listen to them. I believe that the weight of the hon. Gentleman's condemnation would be much greater if he waited until that condemnation were, if it were, upheld by a court of law. No court of law has yet heard the case. It would be better for us all--

Ms Hilary Armstrong (North-West Durham): Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Gummer: Of course.

Ms Armstrong: I wonder whether the Secretary of State will take himself back to the Widdicombe report. The report contained a recommendation that the Government introduce a system of appeals into the process of audit. I shall read a couple of lines from paragraph 6.9 of the Government's response to the report. The Government are commenting on the recommendation to include the power of appeal within procedures. The passage is:

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is making a very long intervention.

Mr. Gummer: The Government made that decision, and presented a clause to the House that included the right of those who were so announced to go to court on appeal. That is precisely what we are talking about. That which the hon. Lady says makes no difference.

Ms Margaret Hodge (Barking) rose--

Mr. Gummer: I shall not give way, because I want to get on. I have some interesting things to say about Islington. I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will be interested in them.

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It seems that we would all be much better employed ensuring that the due process of law can be carried through, that it is not prejudiced and that we do not use the privilege of this place to prejudge a court case for party political reasons.

Ms Hodge: Will the Secretary of State give way?

Mr. Gummer: No. I shall give way to the hon. Lady later in my speech, when she will have more reason to intervene.

Mr. Tracey: In general terms, can my right hon. Friend inform the House whether a district auditor is bound by legal precedent, and whether the precedent of any other decisions by district auditors should in any way affect the one involved in the current hearing?

Mr. Gummer: I am not a lawyer, so I take advice on such matters. As I understand it, the auditor acts as an auditor and not as a lawyer. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] The Opposition have given themselves away. They find it odd for me to say that the auditor acts as auditor, but throughout the discussion of these matters, they have been talking as if the auditor were acting as a judge or a legal figure. I am suggesting that he acts as auditor, and that it is for the judge before whom the case will be heard to act as a judge.

Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe): Will the Secretary of State give way?

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

Mr. Gummer: I shall not give way to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts). The hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras gave way hardly at all. It would be more sensible to follow the case, as I have suggested.

The position is very clear. It would be wrong for any of us to prejudge the case, not because we are partial to one side or the other, but precisely because both sides could be prejudiced by anything that we might say.

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