Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 66 - 79)




  66. Good morning. Unless you have any opening statement I will go straight into questions.
  (Mr Touhig) I would like to make a short opening statement, if I may.

  67. Please do.
  (Mr Touhig) Thank you. Can I say at the outset I want to apologise, and go on record in apologising unreservedly for my part in this affair, which has brought me before your Committee this morning. It is small consolation for me now to reflect that life is full of "what ifs" and "if onlys" and all of us know, often to our cost, that the most perfect view is always the one looking back. But looking back I know that I should have acted differently. I should not have requested a copy of the draft Report, which I indicated I had done in my letter to you last week. I bitterly regret that lapse and, once again, I express my apologies. If you will permit me I will briefly explain the context of my involvement in this matter, which I do not think there is any disagreement on. The Select Committee, not me, asked me, a non Member, to take a special interest in the work they were doing on child benefit. I would say that in the unique circumstances of this case, I became involved because I was asked to become involved by the Select Committee who wanted me to try and persuade Treasury officials to give evidence. I ask you to accept that I acted with the best intentions, I was trying to help, I was trying to bridge the gap. You, Chairman, wrote to me on 29 June posing four questions. I replied on 5 July and I understand probably Members have had these questions copied to them. If you will allow me briefly to touch on one or two points I made in responding to you. I want to draw your attention to the Third Special Report of the Social Security Select Committee on May 26. It stated: "We do not believe that in the unique circumstances of this case the leak of this particular draft Report amounted to substantial interference in the work of the Committee". I think the unique circumstances refer to the fact that I did not seek to become involved in the problems that this particular Select Committee was having with the Treasury. I did not request to become involved; they asked me to take an interest. This is recorded in appendix 6 on page 17 of their Report of May 26. I became involved because I was asked to become involved. I frankly can say sitting here before you this morning I wish they had not asked for my help. You will have noted on the same page, 17, the Chairman of the Social Security Select Committee asked all Members effectively to seek me out with the intention that I should be a channel of communication with the Treasury. You will note that the Committee asked for my intervention without dissent. I would suggest that the unanimous decision to ask a Minister's Parliamentary Private Secretary to become involved in the way that I was asked is indeed a unique occurrence and should not be construed as being a substantial interference with the work of the Committee on my part. It certainly was not my intention. Members of the Select Committee told me that the Committee's work was being impeded because Treasury officials had failed to give evidence. Some time before my involvement, as you will see on appendix 6 on page 17 of the May 26 Report, the Chairman of that Select Committee wrote to you, Chairman, in your capacity as the Chairman of the Liaison Committee expressing his concern at the Treasury's attitude and its failure to give evidence to his Committee. There was clearly a serious problem that the Select Committee and the Treasury needed to resolve. When I learned of this, I asked to see a copy of the draft Report so that I could better understand the issues and whether or not I could judge them as to whether or not I could help. An outside observer unfamiliar with the procedures of this place might think that was a perfectly reasonable thing to do but I should have recognised that it was not and I should not have asked for a copy of the draft Report which is contrary to the practices of this House. For that lapse, again I apologise unreservedly. If I can briefly again refer to that statement of the Third Report on May 26 when it said: "We do not believe that in the unique circumstances of this case the leak of this particular draft Report amounted to a substantial interference in the work of the Committee." I would suggest that the Select Committee used the words "... this particular draft Report ..." because when they met they did not even formally consider the draft. The Committee effectively set it aside, they shelved it. It became academic almost overnight and it was very quickly overtaken by events. In the unique circumstances I have already described Members again renewed their request to me to become involved. You advised me, Chairman, in the letter you wrote to me last week, which included your request for me to be present this morning, that I might be asked to name the person who gave me the copy of the draft Report. You made it clear quite properly that there could be serious consequences for me if I failed to reveal that name. I regret very much that I am not able to reveal that name. I do not say that out of wilful stubbornness or because of a lack of respect for this Committee or because of my failure to appreciate the duties and responsibilities you have set upon you by Parliament, and it is not for a desire to be on a collision course with the Committee. I want to be as helpful as I can. I appreciate you do not have an easy task, sitting in judgment as you do on the actions of fellow Members in the interests of this House. I have no wish to make it more difficult for you. At the end of the day, each of us must act according to his conscience and in all conscience I cannot reveal that name. It is not for me to reveal the name of a fellow Member of Parliament without that person's express permission. Briefly, in summary, in the unique circumstances of this case I was asked to help and to understand the issues involved I asked for a copy of the draft Report. I should not have done so. You know it was the Select Committee not me who requested my involvement. Nevertheless, Chairman, I take full responsibility for my actions and for the part I played in this matter. Thank you.

  68. Thank you. You are aware, of course, that it is a contempt of the House to refuse to answer a question put to you by this Committee?
  (Mr Touhig) Yes, you have made that clear to me, Chairman.

  69. Did you ask the leaker of this document for permission to give his or her name?
  (Mr Touhig) I did discuss it with the person involved, yes.

  70. What did that person say?
  (Mr Touhig) That person felt unable to agree.

  71. They declined?
  (Mr Touhig) Yes. The person involved felt unable to agree.

  72. They declined?
  (Mr Touhig) Yes.

  73. Did you give a copy of the Report to anybody in the Treasury: a Minister, a special advisor or an official?
  (Mr Touhig) I discussed the Report with no-one at all.

  74. You gave a copy of the Report to whom?
  (Mr Touhig) I gave a copy of the Report to no-one. I did not pass it on to anyone in that sense.

  75. When were you first approached by Members of the Social Security Committee and asked to make representations to the Treasury?
  (Mr Touhig) As I best recall I think in my reply to you last week it was 9 February when I was made aware there was a problem.

  76. I have got two more questions. Were you approached by Members of more than one political party?
  (Mr Touhig) I cannot recall that for certain. I have a feeling I was but I cannot be certain. Some of the approaches were a little bit light hearted. I cannot be certain.

  77. How were these approaches made?
  (Mr Touhig) I was stopped in the lobby, in the tea room, by colleagues, Members of the Committee who said there was a problem, that the Treasury had been extremely unhelpful and they were having difficulty putting together a Report.

  78. Have you asked a Select Committee Member for a copy of a draft Report on any other occasion?
  (Mr Touhig) No, not at all.

Mr Bell

  79. The person whose name you feel unwilling to reveal to us, and I understand the difficulty you are in, is that person aware of the difficult situation that puts you in and the consequences to yourself for failing to answer that question? Did you discuss that?
  (Mr Touhig) I assume so. I take responsibility for asking for the Report. I did not feel able to put any pressure on my colleague to do anything further. My colleague was not willing to come forward. I did not feel I could put them under any pressure.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries

© Parliamentary copyright 1999
Prepared 21 July 1999