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Mr. Bercow: I fear that my hon. Friend was finding the arguments of the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) a little trying, but would she agree that it would be a matter of the utmost seriousness if the practice of journalistic freedom were to endanger people's lives--for example, the lives of witnesses to a criminal trial? Should we not deprecate such conduct?

Mrs. Laing: I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes a good point. I hope that we can continue this important discussion on another occasion.

It was also a pleasure to listen to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). I can understand his unease about having a lawyer as Chairman of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege. I am a lawyer--or was once--although I was never as distinguished as Lord Nicholls of Birkenhead. However, I remind the right hon. Gentleman that peers remain parliamentarians, even after last night's sad events.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Paddy Tipping) indicated dissent.

Mrs. Laing: The Minister appears to question my use of the word "sad". Our history was changed in another place last night, and I believe that that was a sad sight. My point is merely that noble Lords are parliamentarians even when they are lawyers too, like many hon. Members.

Mr. Bill Michie: Don't call me a lawyer.

Mrs. Laing: I would not dream of insulting the hon. Gentleman in that way.

It was fascinating to hear the account of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne of the birth of the controversial Pepper v. Hart decision. I understand his reservations about the effect of that decision, but surely the process of interpretation by the courts is similar to the process of interpretation of the law in Committee. The Committee has a duty to look in great detail at the law

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while it is being made. That is the duty of all of us who are legislators. The court has a duty to examine the precise words of the law as they are to be applied. However, the same standards should apply, as the meaning and complexity of the words do not change.

I agree that Finance Bills are often extremely complex. If the Pepper v. Hart judgment encourages Ministers to be more careful and precise in their answers to questions in Committee, surely that is a good thing.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I have two brief points to make about Pepper v. Hart. First, it has had the good effect of causing Ministers to be careful in explaining the purport of a Bill, and certainly the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) did a magnificent job at the time of the case in 1976.

Secondly, it shows proper openness towards our debates. It is entirely right that the world at large should be able to read what is said and done in Parliament, and that the courts should be able to draw comfort from that, and assistance where that is available. However, courts have to be careful in the sense that it is often difficult to construe by a Minister's particular words--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's intervention is far too long.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: I shall cut myself short.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. and learned Gentleman has finished.

Mrs. Laing: It is always a pleasure to give way to my right hon. and learned Friend, as he understands these matters extremely well. Perhaps I can return to this matter in a moment, and he can finish his point if I give way to him again.

Another point occurred to me as I listened to the description from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne about what happened in the Committee that gave rise to the Pepper v. Hart judgment. Surely the courts will consider the weight or significance of any fact, witness or evidence put before them. I venture to suggest that the explanations given by some Ministers--for example, by the right hon. Gentleman or by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell)--would carry more weight or significance than the explanations given by others whose grasp of detail may not be so sure. As ever, it is up to the courts to decide whether the evidence given under the Pepper v. Hart rule is good evidence, or not.

Sir Nicholas Lyell: Does my hon. Friend agree that Pepper v. Hart is benign because it enables a clearer interpretation of statutes by Parliament, although it should be used with caution? Does she also agree that it is benign because it offers no threat to proceedings in the House, in

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comparison with my previous point about what is said and done in the House being used against an hon. Member in subsequent civil or criminal proceedings?

Mrs. Laing: Yes, I agree. I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend has had the chance to finish making his point.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) introduced an element of political correctness. He does not like the use of the word "privilege". I must disagree strongly with him. To speak in Parliament is a privilege that we exercise on behalf of the electorate. There is nothing politically incorrect about the word.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that Parliament must be free from interference. In the 17th century, that interference came from the Crown, and that is why the Bill of Rights of 1689 was necessary. Other influences today may attempt to interfere with Parliament. One of the clearest examples from today's debate is the potential for conflict between Parliament and the judiciary, and the effects on our legislative and democratic processes of the development of judicial review. I dare to suggest that certain senior judicial appointments should in future be considered by Parliament. Some judges should not merely be appointed, but be subject to scrutiny beforehand. That would be an important safeguard of the separation of powers, one of the most important conventions of our constitution and safeguards of our freedom.

Mr. Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Laing: I am told that I have taken rather a long time, so I ask my hon. Friend to forgive me for not giving way. Hon. Members are anxious to conclude the debate, and reasonably so.

A future committee might be appointed to consider scrutiny of judicial appointments. If freedom of speech for Members extends to the Chamber, should it not also extend to certain written correspondence between Members and Ministers?

Mr. Bercow: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mrs. Laing: Of course I will.

Mr. Bercow: I am exceptionally grateful to my hon. Friend. It is dangerous of me to disobey the instructions of the Whips, but I do so in extremis. Does my hon. Friend agree that parliamentary scrutiny of future judicial appointments would be less necessary were it not for an exponential increase in judicial review and the recent passage of the Human Rights Act 1998?

Mrs. Laing: I agree entirely. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I am sorry that he was not here earlier to make a full speech. Judicial appointments are extremely important and entirely relevant to the points before us.

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It seems logical that if the words spoken in the House and questions answered by Ministers in the House are privileged, correspondence between Members and Ministers on matters before the House should also be privileged.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: To some extent.

Mrs. Laing: That is fair enough. As the Joint Committee clearly enjoyed deliberating on the report before us, it may wish to consider the points that I have raised. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Michie) suggested earlier--he has disappeared from his place, but I can see him--that he very much enjoyed the Committee's proceedings. We have enjoyed hearing his account of them. However, these matters are not merely matters of enjoyment, but matters of the historic development of our democracy.

As ever, it was a pleasure to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who has already apologised for being unable to be here now. He, like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire, is a learned Member, whether or not he is entitled formally to the accolade. He makes extremely good points from his position as a practising lawyer. I understand his anxiety about the waiver of privilege proposed in the report, and about the consequent possible introduction of a party political aspect to these matters. However, I sincerely hope that he is wrong, and that those fears are unfounded. The House should continue to put the working of democracy and the dignity of the House above party politics.

The same applies to some of the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Workington. I hope that his concerns will also prove unfounded, but it would be bad for the House and for democracy if he and my hon. Friend were not wrong to believe that the proceedings of the House and matters of judgment of privilege will become party political footballs. I hope that both hon. Members are wrong.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire concluded with distinction that when we are considering amendment of such a fundamental piece of the democratic structure as the Bill of Rights--one of the foundations of our democracy and of the many democracies around the world that are based on ours--we must not become carried away. We must realise that the rights that had to be protected in 1689 were considerably different from those of 1999. It is a question of balance. The most important part of the Committee's report is on page 2 of the executive summary, which states:

[Interruption.] No, it appears that whoever is missing cannot be found at all.

Change is a question of balance. In commending the report, we are giving up a little--

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