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4.37 pm

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): I intend to be brief, as the key points have been touched on and I wish to amplify only one or two.

I have already paid my respects to the noble Lord Nicholls for his admirable work in chairing the Committee, and I associate myself with the thanks expressed by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) to the Patronage Secretary, who was fully committed to the work of the Committee.

May I also--if it does not embarrass him--congratulate the hon. Member for South Staffordshire? We did not always agree, but we always argued constructively and amicably. Both of us recognised that the other was trying to argue in the best interests of this House, and that no party politics were involved.

Privilege was a mishmash and a mess. Much of it was out of date and irrelevant, and it was time to try to clear things up. That is why we needed the help of the noble Lord. Throughout our work, our overriding consideration was that freedom of speech in the House is inviolate and must be protected at all costs.

I welcome the comments of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. Having committed about 15 months to the work of the Committee, it is gratifying that, whatever the House may decide, the Government can go along with 37 of our 39 proposals. There is one "maybe" and another recommendation on which the Government will, I hope, check the Scotland Act 1998 before the Minister replies. They will then find what we said about Parliament's recent decision on the Scottish Parliament, and whether we said that we could not have less defence for our own privileges in this House.

I shall first consider the issue of penalties. In addressing our discussions in the Standards and Privileges Committee, I have tried to draw on my experience of the old-style Committee in the previous Parliament and of the new Committee, under the chairmanship of my righthon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). He can speak for the Committee better

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than I can, but we have been constrained in imposing penalties after we have found that an offence has been committed.

If we suspend a Member for a week, that leads to a £900 fine. We might feel that a £900 fine is enough in itself. Why should not we be able to impose such a fine and allow a Member of Parliament to continue to go about his work in the House? For more serious offences, we could impose a suspension, which of course would incorporate the fine. We do not request more draconian powers, and the House could impose limits on the level of fines. All we suggest is a change that would make it easier for the Committee to reach conclusions when dealing with individual cases, which all have different niceties and qualifying factors. The present system does not allow us to take those into account, which is why I support the proposal for fines.

Mr. Brady: Did the Committee consider the fact that a sum may have different value to different Members of Parliament, but a suspension from the House is an equal punishment for all Members?

Mr. Williams: It is also a punishment for constituents. We still have to work on the standard of living value of the fine, although perhaps we are being over-generous to Opposition Members, most of whom would probably find the fines less onerous than most Labour Members. However, it would be dangerous to apply subjective evaluations in that case.

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell), a former Attorney-General, is in his place. He will remember, as do I, the cash for questions case in the previous Parliament. I still look back on that session of the Committee with no pride. Suspension can become a political punishment. Over the past 30 years, we have had Governments with small or non-existent majorities. In such cases, suspension may become a politicised punishment. Many of my hon. Friends who have served on the Committee may disagree with me, but I look back on the cash for questions case with a degree of shame--not because of the decision that we made, but because of the incredible and unjustifiable time that we kept the hon. Members involved hanging around while the two sides of the Committee sparred before reaching a decision. The fact that the decision was being made in the run-up to an election, and might have involved suspensions, coloured the thinking. I may be doing an injustice to hon. Members, but I think that we were unfair to two of our colleagues, even though our decision about the penalty was fair.

In the same way, I think that the House should be able to look after its own affairs. I hope that the distinction does not sound trivial, but we must distinguish between the club rules that, any organisation might have, and the criminal activity that, in other circumstances, could lead to imprisonment. Members of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege work according to the tribunal criteria, under which guilt is assessed according to the balance of evidence. We do not use the far tighter criminal requirement that guilt be established beyond all reasonable doubt.

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I was involved in the Hamilton case, in which I consider that the Committee reached the correct conclusion. The Committee's ruling made it clear that the conclusion had been reached on the lesser criteria of the balance of the evidence received.

Although I pay tribute to the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, I recognise the constraints within which she has to operate. Even with the commissioner, the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege does not have the investigative capability to investigate more serious offences, such as corruption, which attract much more serious consequences.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton- under-Lyne will remember, the previous commissioner had advice from a solicitor. In evidence, that solicitor said that he was struck by the fact that the Committee's investigative capability was far below that of the police. For that reason, I had no trouble in concluding that the more serious matters, such as corruption, should go before the courts.

I do not regard membership of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege as a privilege. Judging colleagues is no fun. One makes friends among hon. Members of all parties, with whom one has to mix for several years. Given that one has to deal with people whom one has known for many years, there is a risk that one's judgment might be coloured. That is only human, although I think that the Committee is, in fact, incredibly objective. People would be made to stand down from a jury if they had the same relationship with a defendant as we have with the people who appear before us.

The Government asked for our opinion on corruption and bribery. I believe that we should make such serious offences matters for the courts. It would be a pity if that recommendation were to be sidelined, but we shall have to await confirmation of that.

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, and I apologise to the Leader of the House and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) for not being present to hear much of their speeches.

The right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) has touched on the question of bribery and corruption. I quite agree that Members of Parliament of either House should be exposed to prosecution for such offences, if there is a proper case to answer. However, does he share my recognition that the question of what is said in either House--the question of freedom of speech--raises very difficult and important issues indeed? If I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I hope to be able to describe them in more detail later.

Mr. Williams: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is correct and the House must consider those matters.

I recall that a former distinguished Member of this House--Lord Merlyn-Rees--asked throughout the Committee's 15 months of investigation: "Tell me, Mr. Chairman, as I look back over all my years in the House of Commons, why on earth would it have been

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worth anyone's while to bribe me?" There is a myth about the power exercised by the ordinary Member of Parliament.

Mr. Bill Michie: We might describe that as a trades descriptions problem.

Mr. Williams: Indeed.

I am glad that the Leader of the House has accepted our recommendation that the House should no longer be exempt from health and safety requirements and other such matters. Exemption has presented problems for officials in the House taking legal action over contracts. It has also come close to costing Members dear. When the Public Accounts Committee was chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, it examined fire risk in public buildings and the absence of fire licences in some Whitehall buildings, including, most interestingly, the part of the Home Office that then housed those responsible for licensing.

I discovered that the House had no licence, and I met the newly appointed fire officer, who told me the likely consequences. I shall not go into them in detail because they might make some Members uncomfortable about being in their offices. The officer told me that in one part of the building, if a fire blocked the single stairway, the escape route involved going out of a window on to a parapet, edging along it and climbing on to a neighbouring roof. Hon. Members may note around the building previously bricked-up doors that have since been opened to gain us a lower grade of fire licence.

The situation was absurd. People who worked here were not given the legal protection to which they were entitled. Nor was the House as safe a place as it should be in which to work or--as we virtually do--to live.

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