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Mr. Alan Williams: May I explain our thinking? It is not correct to suggest that the Joint Committee was not aware of that point, because we considered the existing position in detail. However, we felt that the suspension of a Member also punished his constituents, who would be deprived of his or her services in the House. On other occasions, suspension may not be relevant. We have a limited range of penalties available to us. As the current Chairman and other members--myself included--of the Joint Committee will, I hope, tell my right hon. Friend, we find it difficult to find appropriate gradations for the penalties. We are trying to be fairer, not more draconian.

Mrs. Beckett: I entirely accept my right hon. Friend's point. I apologise, because I did not think that the Committee had considered the matter so recently that it would be, as I said, fresh in its members' minds. I understand that there are a variety of circumstances; no doubt other Members may touch on this issue during the debate.

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I take my right hon. Friend's point that there is a distinction between the financial penalty to Members and their opportunity to serve their constituents. However, I find it a little hard to envisage the circumstances in which the House might wish to fine a Member without considering the option of suspension. I flag up that point, because the Committee has done a thorough job of clearing away powers that are thought to be no longer necessary. Although I accept that the Joint Committee considered this issue at some length, the question is whether the power is needed. That is a matter for the House to consider.

The second issue that I wish to flag up is the recommendation in paragraph 267, which suggests that the breach of an embargo on the publication of a Committee report should be treated as a contempt. Again, we have seen Standards and Privileges Committee reports directed precisely at such matters in the recent past, and I am sure that such an approach will have a strong deterrent effect. I am not entirely sure that much more can be achieved by seeking further to punish those who publish leaks. Indeed, I would be a little nervous of venturing into this territory, but, again, it is a matter that may be raised in the debate.

Mr. Alan Williams: I am sorry to intervene again, but I would like to clarify the matter. We spent 15 months considering the issues, so my memory may be at fault. However, the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) may recollect what happened. I believe that this particular provision was imported from the Scotland Act 1998.

Mrs. Beckett: I freely confess to my right hon. Friend that not every word of the Scotland Act is etched on my memory. [Hon. Members: "Shame."] It is a shameful thing to admit, but I thought that I had better do so.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): It is not a sackable offence.

Mrs. Beckett: That is just as well. However, my right hon. Friend may be right. If he is, that will emerge in the course of this or other discussions.

One of the main reasons for setting up the Joint Committee was for Parliament to produce a response to proposals by the Home Office for a new law dealing with corruption. The issue there was how the rare cases--they are rare indeed--of bribery involving Members of Parliament or peers should be dealt with because of the unsatisfactory state of the current law. The Joint Committee recommended--the Government entirely agree--that Members of Parliament and peers should be treated in the same way as other citizens and should be subject to a new corruption statute. The Law Commission has produced a draft Bill on the matter and the Government will obviously look to introduce it when legislative time permits.

The Joint Committee acknowledged--it is right and important that it did--the difficulties that are faced by people involved in public life and the fact that they are more vulnerable to mistaken or malicious allegation. It was against the background of that recognition that

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the Joint Committee nevertheless recommended that Members be brought within the scope of the statute law on bribery. That has to be the correct judgment.

I welcome, however, the further safeguard that the Joint Committee recommended that consent for prosecutions under the new legislation should require the consent of the Attorney-General. The Government accept that recommendation. Obviously, we all expect and hope that such cases will be few and far between. Indeed, let us hope that, in the years to come, that is another aspect of our safeguards and provisions which will wither away and will no longer be needed. When corruption legislation can be introduced, we anticipate that it will contain such a safeguard.

The report recommends that we have a parliamentary privileges Act. Some of the recommendations made could be implemented in other legislation or, indeed, not necessarily in primary legislation but by resolutions of the House or by administrative action. However, it seems to the Government that the bulk of the reforms proposed could not be put in place fully without a new Bill.

Equally, however, such a Bill has to compete with other priorities for legislative time, and I cannot at this stage promise the House early action. Obviously, the Government will consider how such legislation might be introduced. Perhaps this is just such an issue on which a draft Bill might well be prepared. It is exactly the sort of matter that might well benefit from pre-legislative scrutiny.

This is a further good example of recognising the importance to the smooth working of Parliament of ensuring that our fundamental rules on rights and duties, as well as other aspects of our work, are kept up to date to meet modern needs. The Joint Committee has given us a thorough and incisive report. This is the first opportunity for the House to express its views. Although I have given a preliminary indication of the Government's reaction to the report and what it proposes, I obviously undertake that we will take into account what is said in this debate before work continues to implement it.

4.2 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I thank the President of the Council and Leader of the House for what she said and for the tone of her remarks. I also thank her for finding this opportunity to debate this important report before the end of the Session and for responding positively to the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege.

It would be very wrong not to pay a tribute at the outset to the right hon. Lady's predecessor, the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), who is now the Patronage Secretary. The Joint Committee was set up on her initiative. She was a most diligent attender at our meetings and she played a full part in our discussions not as Leader of the House, or subsequently as Patronage Secretary, but as a parliamentarian. Everyone who was present on the Committee appreciated that.

As the President of the Council and Leader of the House said, the Joint Committee first met on 20 November 1997. We had about 33 formal meetings and various informal meetings. We met for the last time on 23 February. To take up a point made in an intervention by the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), all of us on the Joint Committee, without

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exception, felt that we were fortunate to serve under the chairmanship of Lord Nicholls, who chaired our deliberations with good humour.

It would be dishonest to pretend that there was not, on occasion, a degree of creative tension between the parliamentarians and the Law Lords, but, nevertheless, it was a constructive tension and we came up with a report to which we were all glad to sign our names. It would be wrong not to thank Lord Nicholls, not only for the manner in which he chaired the Joint Committee, but for the enormous amount of time that he put into it, both at meetings and between meetings.

As the Leader of the House said, this is, first and last, a parliamentary matter. When the House finally comes to decide on the Committee's recommendations, it will do so on the basis of free votes. I am sure that the right hon. Lady would agree with that. It was therefore right that party politics should play no part in the Committee's deliberations, and they certainly did not. I should be surprised if they did in this debate.

Although I am speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, I was also a member of the Committee, I have a personal interest in the implementation of the report, and I hope that a report that was agreed to unanimously by a Committee of both Houses will commend itself to the majority of colleagues in this House.

The Leader of the House implied a positive response. It would have been rather embarrassing for the current Patronage Secretary had she said otherwise. I am delighted that the Leader of the House said what she said, and I welcome in particular her suggestion that we should have a draft Bill. If any subject lends itself to consideration in that way, it is this one. Her reservations seemed to be mainly on points of detail. I understand that, and I shall deal with some of them.

It is good to have a positive response from the Government, especially as so many of the changes require legislation. Other changes do not, and I shall touch on some of them.

The right hon. Lady said that the subject aroused interest far beyond this Parliament. Apart from our 14 sessions of oral evidence, when we had some Commonwealth witnesses, we received a great deal of written material, much of it from Commonwealth Parliaments, mainly in Australia. Their wealth of experience was valuable to us as we came to formulate our recommendations, because a number of those Parliaments have a system similar to our own. The Australian Federal Parliament has already enacted a modern Parliamentary Privileges Act, which we considered, and two Australian states--Western Australia and Queensland--still derive their privileges directly from the privileges of this Parliament.

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