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Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): We cannot go back to the situation before 1996, but were we to do so it would mean going back to a situation before a newspaper made the claim that a Member of Parliament was barred. That was a novel idea brought forward by the newspaper.

With respect and delicacy, there is another revision of the law that might be useful. A year or two ago, the House authorities--which I do not define--made applications or representations in a court that Members of Parliament had not known about. That difficulty is well worth avoiding in future.

Mr. Grieve: I heartily agree with my hon. Friend's second point. That struck me as an extraordinary state of affairs. I also agree that the situation is evolving. There is no point in simply looking at historical precedent. We have to accept that the way in which the newspapers and the media operate and the problems that arise may change. I also accept that the situation in 1996 was novel. I am mindful of the problems and possible injustices that the 1996 legislation has caused. I am merely saying that if we are to take a further step on the issue, it had better be a step in the right direction and not one that we subsequently have cause to regret. The Committee's suggestions might work, but the rules will have to be tightly drawn so that only in exceptional circumstances would a waiver of privilege be denied to a Member of Parliament; otherwise we shall be in very difficult territory.

I concur with the view of the Committee on subpoenas. When I read the report, I was interested in the origins of the protection of a Member of Parliament from answering a subpoena. It is not to protect the Member from embarrassment, but to allow him to perform his services to the House. However, I suspect that if the provision has been used at all, it has tended to be used for the former rather than the latter reason. I do not know why Members of Parliament should have a greater protection than that afforded to the average citizen in this country from having to attend court on a subpoena.

Of course, subpoenas are grossly abused at times. As a barrister, I have seen it being done in court. That often puts a person to inconvenience. However, the court tends to take a dim view of litigants who subpoena witnesses unnecessarily. That undoubtedly provides considerable protection for anyone who receives a subpoena, including a Member of Parliament. If we add to that the requirement to explain and justify to a judge beforehand why the subpoena is required, there is ample protection.

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If we want to go further, the solution might be to say that no Member of Parliament shall be subpoenaed or required to attend court during the sitting hours of the House. That would still allow plenty of time during the week for him to attend. In that way, nobody would be disadvantaged by being unable to attend in this Chamber, which is apparently the reason for the privilege.

I broadly welcome the report. It is useful when a Committee that puts itself so diligently to its task casts light on areas that are normally obscure. We are undoubtedly the beneficiaries, but it may well be worth reflecting a little before diving into legislation on all the recommendations.

6.15 pm

Sir Nicholas Lyell (North-East Bedfordshire): I am glad to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), whose last remarks were very wise. I endorse the majority of the report and pay tribute to those who served long and hard on the Committee, but I have one grave reservation. It comes back to the fundamental facet--privilege is in some ways an outdated word--of our membership of this place: freedom of speech. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) that freedom of speech is inviolable. Unfortunately, the report invites a dangerous attack on freedom of speech in relation to bribery and corruption.

I have no hesitation in saying that it is entirely right that Members of Parliament should be subject to the ordinary law of the land in relation to offences of bribery and corruption. If Members of Parliament allow themselves to be bribed, they should be able to be prosecuted. If they act corruptly, they should and can be prosecuted. However, that is not the issue. It is whether words spoken in the Chamber and in Committee and actions such as voting or the tabling of questions can be called in evidence, contrary to article 9 of the Bill of Rights.

Having been a Law Officer for a decade, I have given my fiat in a significant number of corruption cases. Corruption cases involving Members of Parliament are very rare and I doubt whether they would turn on what was said or done in Parliament. There is not likely to be any grave inhibition on the proper prosecution of Members of Parliament if, contrary to the recommendations in paragraph 168 of the report, the House determines--as it would be wise to do--that we should not waive our privileges in that regard.

We have the unfettered privilege of freedom of speech. In a sense, our privileges are those of the House, but more fundamentally than that they are the privileges of every citizen of this country. We have that privilege in order that the citizens of the United Kingdom--and, indeed, the world--may know that any Member of Parliament can speak his or her mind in the Chamber of the House of Commons or in Committee and can vote or ask a question without the slightest fear that what they say or do in the House may put them at risk of legal proceedings, either civil or criminal. It is not just a protection for Members of Parliament, but one of the fundamental safeguards of the liberties of every citizen. It is therefore unlikely that it will be waived, and, in so far as it is under attack in the report, albeit in the most courteous sense and with the most careful reasoning, it must be defended. Of course it

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is under attack in relation to bribery and corruption, and I have already made it clear that I have no hesitation in saying that Members of Parliament should be capable, as they are today, of being prosecuted for bribery. It is a common law offence.

In the only case in recent years, where our former colleague was rightly acquitted, Mr. Justice Buckley none the less held at an early stage that the offence of bribery applied to Members of Parliament. I have never had the slightest doubt about that, but we are having to balance one public interest against another--the public interest in our absolute right of freedom of speech against the public interest in enabling a Member of Parliament to be prosecuted. It is very important to appreciate that clearly because a prosecution can certainly proceed without reference to what is said or done in the House if it is likely to be a remotely strong case.

Let us consider for a moment the kind of cases that lead to prosecution for bribery or corruption. They tend to happen because somebody who is in a position to grant an advantage to somebody else--such as the chairman or an influential member of a planning committee--takes money quite improperly and corruptly in order to give an opinion or persuade colleagues to a ruling. That is pretty much the essence of an offence of corruption.

I have great sympathy with what was said earlier in the debate about our former colleague, the noble Lord Merlyn-Rees, who asked what he had ever said in the House that was of advantage to anybody. I do not think that he quite said that, but the humorous way in which I put it encapsulates the essence of what he had in mind. If people had to rely on what had been said in the House, I could see it being laughed about a good deal in court, in the way in which things get laughed out of court.

Paragraph 168 of the report argues that there will be very few prosecutions for corruption. It is also argued that it will be very rare that what is said or done in Parliament will have any relevance and that, therefore, the proposal is a minimal encroachment on our liberties. I beg strongly to disagree. The danger is that it is not the cases that do happen which encroach on our liberties; it is the cases that might happen. During my years as a Law Officer I saw a good deal of that.

Before turning to personal insights, we know perfectly well that the very business of politics is a matter of people seeking advantage, usually for totally proper reasons, of Government or of a Member of Parliament to try to persuade Government, and thus seeking and conferring advantage. That seeking and conferring of advantage is of the very essence of the proposed Bill. In preparing my thoughts, I wrote down some quotations.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Drawing the House's attention to paragraph 168 was really useful. My right hon. and learned Friend is right to concentrate on the minor encroachment that it covers. Does he agree that if the Government intend to act on it, they should remember that Members of Parliament accused of taking some consideration for something they do in the House have broken the advocacy rule and probably others, so it will not be a question of letting them off? They can be exposed to a full investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and, as right hon. and hon. Members, we can certainly look at what goes on in the House.

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Sir Nicholas Lyell: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. In a moment I shall make the same point in my own way.

I was searching for the very definition of corruption that is set out in the draft Bill prepared by the Law Commission which is to be found at annexe D on page 103 of the report. One has only to read that definition to see how many ingredients of the offence, without being in the least corrupt in themselves, are an essential part of political life every day. They include conferring advantages, soliciting advantages and doing something that one has a right to do in consequence of another's request, primarily in return for the conferring of an advantage. I am reminded again of the old joke where one person says that there is no such thing as gratitude in politics and somebody else replies, "Yes there is. Gratitude in politics is the confident expectation of favours in the future". Of course, that is the whole business of soliciting and conferring an advantage. It is a vital but, in some senses, a very quick jump between the perfectly honest and indeed noble activities in which we seek to engage ourselves in public life and the allegedly dishonest and corrupt abuse of those activities. Consequently, we are extremely vulnerable. Indeed, there will not be one of us who has not been accused of acting corruptly during his period here.

I was about to draw on my experience as a Law Officer. The Law Officer's Department receives reams of letters almost daily containing widespread allegations of corruption, usually of a totally footling and foolish sort, which are sincerely made by citizens who are disgruntled in one sense or another. There are reams of letters and every one of us will have received copies of them. I do not wish to trivialise this, but the ones to which one pays least attention start by being addressed to the Queen, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, then the Prime Minister and copied to ourselves as Members of Parliament.

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