Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Mr Major, you are very welcome. In your very useful letter you kindly said that you would be prepared to give oral evidence and we have taken you up on that offer. I believe that you would like to make an opening statement which we would welcome and to amplify points raised in your letter.
  (Mr Major) Thank you, Chairman. I shall not speak at length because I suspect that the Committee may have questions about the written evidence that I have submitted. I just want to make a couple of general comments before we move on to the detail. I do not want to make a lengthy opening statement incorporating the detail. I welcome the consultation document. It is timely and it is a good idea to review the system now that it has been operating for a while. I also add that, as the Committee will be aware, I propose to leave Parliament, I suspect at a date in the next few weeks. I do not intend to go to the House of Lords. I make that point simply to indicate that neither in this place or in the other place do I have an axe to grind about the system, except one. I have a wish to ensure that a fair system of regulation is put in place for subsequent parliaments, building on what we have learned over the past few years. We have come a long way, but we can include and refine what we have. I hope that that will emerge from the consultation document. I have a second interest in that I suppose in one rather abstruse sense, I am the founder of this Committee. I established the Nolan Committee some time ago and Nolan spawned Neill which spawned this Committee. So I have a fatherly interest in your deliberations and in the success of the way in which the Committee operates. Perhaps I can recap on why I did that. In essence, I wished to ensure that a system was in place that would safeguard the reputation of Parliament against charges whether founded or unfounded. If founded they should be dealt with; if unfounded they should be dismissed. I thought at the time that an extremely unhealthy situation existed. There were charges of the most extraordinary kind that were beginning to seep into the political atmosphere on a regular basis, many of which were baseless and all of which, whether justified or baseless, were damaging to the reputation of the House of Commons. That is why, against my instincts of some years ago, I put in place something that I had been thinking about for some time by asking Lord Nolan to sit with his committee and examine what we may do. That was set up to safeguard the reputation of Parliament. However, I am concerned that the system that we have set up to safeguard the reputation of Parliament and which exists for that purpose can be abused, in a fashion, that does harm to the reputation of Parliament rather than safeguarding it. That is a real concern that I have and many on this Committee may share that view. I believe that we can deal with it in this consultation document. I do not believe it will be a surprise to this Committee to know that every time the register appears, examining registration entries is now a spectator sport. Everyone knows of instances where registration entries have been abused for political and other reasons after the register has been published. In addition to justifiable references on serious issues, your Committee has had to deal with a significant number of frivolous references; we have had great public speculation. In the case of some Members, we have had grotesquely unfair speculation that has hurt them, their families and their constituencies as well as the reputation of Parliament and we have put the Commissioner in the position in which she has to make investigations—often invasive—of a sort that with the right reforms to the procedures could be dismissed speedily at a very early stage. Some of the trivial breaches that we have seen have been simple errors or misunderstandings by the Member concerned and they have been held up to public gaze. Anyone who has seen the broad publicity about that will realise that it is presented to the world as though the Member concerned was maliciously attempting to conceal information. The fact is that Members of Parliament can make mistakes like anybody else and, from time to time, do so. My concern is not so much with the impact that that has on the Member concerned, but with the collective impact that that has on the institution of Parliament itself. The way in which we have established the system and the way in which the system operates at present tends to increase public suspicion of Parliament rather than to lay to rest the belief that Parliament is not behaving properly. I believe that it is and we need to make it clear that it is. I accept without qualification—as I should, for I set it up—that we need a system to safeguard Parliament. That remains necessary. I am absolutely sure of that. However, I believe that we can now refine it on the basis of a few years' experience. We need to find a way of ensuring that we safeguard the reputation of Parliament without it having the perverse effect of damaging Parliament. That is why this consultation, and the decisions that I hope that this Committee reach on it, can play a big role. What do we need? In broad terms I think that we need two things. We need clarification of the rules so that they are unambiguously clear to every Member of Parliament. At the moment I do not believe that they are. Some of the definition that has emerged from parliamentary resolutions and from subsequent reports are open to more than one interpretation. I think that, on experience, we should make them sufficiently clear so that a different interpretation is highly unlikely. Secondly, I think it is time for some reforms to the procedures. We need procedures and we need examinations, but we need to reform them. I have submitted some ideas in writing to the Committee. I did not intend to elaborate on them now, because it may be better if I respond to your questions. Perhaps I can say one more thing. When I said that some of the definitions are unclear and capable of more than one interpretation, a key definition is "in their capacity as a Member of Parliament" and that has appeared repeatedly. It is capable of more than one interpretation. Members need to know exactly what is covered by that. The House of Commons' resolutions need to set out what is covered by that. Then there is the question of Members "offering advice about parliamentary matters". We need to be absolutely clear, clearer than I and most Members are, about exactly what is incorporated within that definition. Those are two of the areas where we need to look carefully. There are a number of others. I have broadly set them out in my letter. If your Committee agrees, it may be best if I let you ask questions and I shall elaborate on them as a result of those questions.

  2. Thank you very much, Mr Major. We are grateful to you. When I took on this job I hoped to see that the general perception of Members of Parliament would be rather better by the end of this Parliament than at the end of the previous Parliament. We have become bogged down in a great amount of detail. That is one reason why we have put the matter out for consultation. I want to refer to the arrangements for getting the registration of the agreements for the provision of services. You have suggested that Members registering speeches should declare that they do not offer consultancy services or parliamentary advocacy. If there were that provision, that would separate out such matters. Would you like to expand upon that?
  (Mr Major) This is a key point. This may take a moment and may prompt some follow-up questions. The original rules, as I recall, required Members at the time to submit copies of agreements to provide services "in their capacity as a Member of Parliament". The target that was set—it was the right target—was so-called consultancies, which I think were being abused by Members of Parliament. Members were lobbying on behalf of special interests and using Parliament not always in the way that it was intended. I think those consultancies were a legitimate target. Personally, I think that it is perfectly satisfactory for Members of Parliament to lobby and on many occasions that is their function, but it ought to be clear to the House as a whole upon whose behalf they are lobbying. I think registrations is right and I think consultancies as a target was absolutely right. Then the rules were changed in mid-1996—I think July 1996. Again I quote, "The new arrangement with employment agreements to be put in writing will apply principally to any arrangement whereby a Member may offer advice about parliamentary matters". I think that made it unambiguously clear that the target was consultancies and I welcome that. However, the wording itself is not as clear as it should be because it is open to different interpretations. I refer to the two points that I mentioned a moment ago: what does "in their capacity as a Member of Parliament" entail, what does it really mean, and what does "may offer advice about parliamentary matters" actually mean? When you examine that beyond the superficial it is not at all clear. At a later stage this Committee extended the need for written agreements to newspaper columns and to television programmes. Although plainly there may have been advocacy of one sort or another, there was no lobbying of Ministers. Subsequently, speeches were added, the point that you have made in the report about Ken Livingstone. In many cases, speeches do not relate to the speaker's capacity as a Member of Parliament and they do not offer advice about parliamentary matters. Let me illustrate this by citing my own case. I make a great number of speeches—some at home and the majority abroad—but they do not involve advocacy of any sort. They tend to be about international, economic, political and foreign policy events and mostly I speak overseas. In relation to my capacity as an MP, firstly, most audiences in the United States do not know that I am still in Parliament. They assume that our system works pretty much the same as theirs. When a President of the United States leaves office he is not a member of the Senate or any of their legislature and they are rather surprised when they find out that a former Prime Minister is still a Member of the House of Commons. Secondly, in relation to my capacity as an MP, so little is that in fact the case—I do not wish to give details as that would not be relevant—that I have a large number of speeches scheduled for long after the end date of this Parliament, even if it were not to end in the next couple of months. In any real terms, that hardly relates to my capacity as an MP. Equally relevant is the fact that I have never been asked, in this country, in the United States or anywhere else in the world, as a result of a speech, to undertake any parliamentary action. And nor would I. I am puzzled as to how such speeches can be considered a parliamentary service because I do not think that they are. I do not think that they can be considered to be lobbying as they self-evidently are not, and they do not relate to my present capacity as an MP, although the interest is there, in part, because of my past position as a Prime Minister, but certainly it does not in any sense relate to my present responsibilities as a Member of Parliament. I do not suggest that ex-Prime Ministers are entirely typical, but a lot of ex-Ministers can find themselves in the same position. As this Committee knows, that is so and it will be after future changes of government as well. One reason that I suspect that this Committee decided to include speeches in the way that it did—you may or may not comment on whether this is accurate, but I have reason to believe that it is—is that Members of the Committee and perhaps the Committee as a whole, thought that the registration of such speeches was in some cases a device for masking a consultation agreement. If that is so, I understand why the Committee reached the decision on speeches that it did. But I do not believe that generally that is the case. If the decision is taken for that reason, many people not remotely involved in consultation are being caught by a regulation aimed at people who are, in practice, submitting a dishonest entry to the register. That is why I made the suggestion to which you have referred. I think that Members registering speeches should be asked to make a specific and clear-cut declaration, firstly, that they do not offer consultation services as a result of such a speech and, secondly, that they will not be offering any parliamentary advocacy of any kind as a result of such a speech. If that is the case, I believe that that would obviate the difficulty that I have faced, that the Commissioner has faced and that you have faced, of seeking employment agreements where there is not really an employment arrangement between Members making a speech and an audience receiving a one-off speech. If we made that distinction I believe that we could remove the need for the so-called "employment agreements". I appreciate that they are not strictly intended to be employment agreements but that would remove it. If the worry is that people are apparently being paid for speeches when in reality they were being paid for consultation, I think the specific proposal that I would suggest would meet the point. If the Member then is found to be conducting consultation, after having made a specific statement to the contrary, this Committee would know what action to take when that became apparent. I am sorry that that was such a lengthy answer.

  3. That is very clear. Colleagues may wish to pursue that further. I turn now to the suggestion that you make in your letter that Members should have access to legal advice. Some Members have incurred considerable expenses. I can think of one or two cases where very large levels of expenses have been incurred in trying to deal with some of the accusations made against them. What suggestions do you have for dealing with that?
  (Mr Major) You touch on the reason why I made the suggestion. At present, if a complaint is made, unless it is so frivolous as to be immediately dismissable, the Commissioner and this Committee have little choice but to investigate it. That takes up a lot of time. Once an investigation is put in hand there is often a feeling among the general public that as the House of Commons has launched an investigation there must, therefore, be something in it. It is the old "no smoke without fire" argument. A great deal of unsavoury publicity, often within the constituency concerned arises that is often used by the political opponents of the Member concerned. I make no party distinction. It does not matter whether the person complained about is Labour, Liberal Democrat or Tory, their opponents will tend to use it in the constituency. Not only is their reputation at stake, but as it often takes a long time to conduct these investigations, their parliamentary seat may be at stake, with the sort of publicity that is generated in the constituency over a lengthy period of time. That concerns me and because that is the case many Members have had to resort to legal advice because they believe that their reputation is at stake and because they believe that their seat may be at stake. That is particularly true of Members in marginal seats. Not all Members of Parliament can afford that. I can think of one who has run up a five figure bill, as of some time ago.

  4. There are a number of those.
  (Mr Major) I am sure there are a number. Therefore, if such a matter is being investigated by the House of Commons we ought to have retained legal advice to which a Member who is the subject of a complaint may turn and may receive assistance in presenting his or her case to this Committee. Perhaps they should make a contribution towards the cost. Some of us are fortunate enough to be able to pay the full cost but others are not and because some cannot I do not think that they should be put at a disadvantage. Legal advice is available to this Committee which investigates on behalf of the House of Commons against a Member; I believe it would be equitable to provide a similar opportunity for the Member concerned to get legal advice in protecting his position.

  5. On the matter of frivolous or vexatious complaints, you quite rightly mentioned that the Commissioner should have power to dismiss such a complaint, as in many cases she does. I have a point on the definition. Could a failure to register be a trivial complaint? Should a reminder be issued that they have failed to do that or should it be investigated more fully?
  (Mr Major) I suggest something very straightforward. As a matter of courtesy, I find it rather offensive that one Member of this House will refer the entry of another Member of this House to the Committee and to the Commissioner without informing the Member concerned that they have done so. I actually think that that is discourteous. As a matter of parliamentary practice, I think that this Committee should recommend that any Member making a reference about a colleague in the House should, as a matter of courtesy, inform that colleague and give that colleague an opportunity to speak to them and to persuade them that the reference was unnecessary. I make that general point as a possible recommendation for the Committee to look at. Secondly, if a complaint is registered, in the first instance, I think the Commissioner should inform the Member privately that such a complaint has been made, offer the Member the opportunity to meet the Commissioner and if it looks as though it is something worth following up—we can all think of examples of senior politicians not registering a flight when they have gone abroad to speak, the use of a gym or whatever—the Commissioner should informally say, "I think it is better that this is registered". Then an amended entry can be taken with no investigation whatever. The whole thing can be closed down without the Committee, with no panoply and no delay and hopefully no undesirable publicity. I think it is very undesirable when Members make references about colleagues and run straight to the media because that exposes them, quite disgracefully, to comment before they have had any chance to defend themselves at all. Therefore, it would be useful if this Committee indicated to Members of Parliament that until such time as the Commissioner has decided that there is something worth investigating, they would regard, with disapproval, the activities of any Member who informed the press. You cannot stop them doing it, but that may be a sanction if it was felt that this Committee decided that that was bad practice. With relatively small issues, if the Commissioner thinks that they can be speedily dealt with, perhaps in consultation with the Chairman, rather than bothering the Committee as a whole, that would be fine. I think the Committee as a whole should be bothered with more serious issues that arise, sadly, from time to time and not with relatively trivial ones, where it seems likely that the Member has just made a stupid error or has misunderstood the rules. If that is the case, let it be dealt with speedily, not just in the interests of the Member, but also in the interests of the House of Commons.

Mr Foster

  6. Perhaps I can take you back to the beginning of your written representation where you talk about the composition of this Committee. You refer to the need for more legal expertise. Perhaps I can declare an interest as the only lawyer on the Committee. Can you suggest what you have in mind? Do you have particular Members in mind? Do you think that seniority is important? In relation to the make-up of the Committee, what would improve it? At what point do you believe that legal advice should be sought when we get into our deliberations?
  (Mr Major) On the latter point, on when should legal advice be sought, that would depend on the nature of the complaint. I think legal advice would probably be sought the moment that the Commissioner has decided that something is not frivolous and requires an investigation. If it is a matter that can be solved face-to-face with the Commissioner who says, "Yes, you have made a bit of a mess of this, you should have registered it", and the Member says, "Sorry, it was unintentional, I will make a registration immediately", you do not need legal advice. On the other hand, if there is a dispute and a Member says, "I do not believe that I have failed to register properly", or it is a serious matter and the Commissioner begins an investigation, at that stage it is probably right to turn to legal advice. On the composition of the Committee, I had in mind the old adage that someone is innocent until proven guilty and I wanted more people on the Committee with legal backgrounds prepared to examine the actual definitions of the parliamentary resolutions. There have been one or two occasions where the interpretation of the resolution went wider than was the common perception among Members of Parliament. That is why I want it to be unambiguously clear. I had in mind that point when I said that there should be more legal expertise among the Members of the Committee. I suppose that the other question is whether the Committee needs to be so large. That is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the House. I do not advocate that it should be just be in the old style of four senior Privy Counsellors. I think that the Membership of the House is more widespread and broader than that. However, I believe that there should be a tilt towards people with legal experience who would look, firstly, at the interpretation of the rules very carefully and, secondly, perhaps in their professional life they would have had more experience than I, for example, would have had, of how people get themselves into scrapes inadvertently.

  7. That is clear, thank you. Turning to the nature of the advice that you believe that an independent adviser should give, would that be simply on the interpretation of the rules as to whether it fitted within a breach of the rules or would you envisage the legal adviser having a more comprehensive role?
  (Mr Major) No. In the experience that I have had and from Members to whom I have spoken, I believe it would be to determine whether the legal advice to the Member concurs with the view that they have breached the rules. I think that they should get legal advice as to what the rules may say. If the rules are so unambiguously set out in the House of Commons resolutions that they are unmistakably clear, which is the ideal, then legal advice may not be necessary, but at the moment we are not in that position. Given the variety of events that can occur, we cannot be certain that we would always be in that position. I would not envisage that legal advice would often be needed, but in some complex cases, the kind of cases that the Chairman mentioned where Members of Parliament may have run up very large costs to protect their reputations, I think that they should have the right to turn independently in the House of Commons for legal advice as to what the rules may mean and whether, in the advice of their adviser, they have breached the rules. If they have, they had better hold up their hands straightaway and not go through the lengthy procedure that may take this Committee a long time and which may have unhappy results.

  8. On the other side of that advice, namely the advice that the Committee may seek, would you see a legal adviser being on the Committee or would the legal adviser simply advise the Commissioner?
  (Mr Major) That is a matter for the Committee. The Commissioner can turn to the Clerk of the House. No doubt the Commissioner can seek other legal advice if she feels that she needs it. That is a matter for the Committee. My representations concern the Member of Parliament who may have to appear before the Committee charged with misconduct.

  The Committee suspended from 4.42 pm to 4.52 pm for a division in the House.

Mr Bell

  9. Mr Major, I have one question on the difficult issue of speech making and contracts. I understand how vexatious you have found it. Obviously you were not being asked to give speeches because you are an MP. How would that apply to, say, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer or a former junior Minister, or Backbenchers of different degrees of eminence? The difficulty is that all MPs have to be treated alike. I can see that the public—the ultimate verdict will be with the public—will forgive us if we are too rigorous and even nit-picking, but if we are not and make special exemptions for special people they will not forgive us at all.
  (Mr Major) By no means was I asking—nor would I—for special exemption for the small club of ex-Prime Ministers. I was making the point that the speeches that I make do not relate to my capacity as an MP and do not involve advocacy. That would apply to the vast majority of people who make speeches who were either in this Government and have left it or who were in the previous government and have left it. If they were making speeches on how to make one's way in Parliament, I can see the point. If they are making perfectly dispassionate speeches on other related matters because they happen to be a public figure, I do not see why they should be caught within the rules in the fashion that it seems likely that they may be post-Livingstone. I simply do not think that that is correct because they do not infringe any of the parliamentary resolutions that I quoted to you earlier. That is true of other Members as well as ex-Prime Ministers.

  10. Do you think that the category of speech-making should be excluded altogether?
  (Mr Major) I think that it is perfectly legitimate, if the House of Commons wishes, for people to indicate that they are making speeches. I have no objection to that. I have no objection to them indicating what is the subject of the speech. I do not see why it is necessary, but I have no objection to indicating whether the fees are over £500. What I think is wrong is having to submit an employment agreement when no employment arrangement, in my view, conceivably arises. In relation to the speeches that one makes, the only arrangement that is made is an agency agreement. There is an agency agreement if you have someone finding the speeches for you or acting on your behalf, as I do. The only arrangement entered into is for the speech-maker, whether an ex-Prime Minister or anyone else, to turn up and to deliver a speech to a particular audience on a particular subject. There is no other arrangement made. I do not see how that involves anything that ought to concern the House of Commons. If they wish to be informed of it so that they can make their own judgment that is fine. Patently, no "employment agreement" arises. The problem has arisen in regard to agencies arranging speeches. That was the consideration that you had in the case of Ken Livingstone some time ago. That was an agency agreement. I have people in America to whom I refer requests for my speeches and they make the travel arrangements and arrange other speeches for me as well. That is the arrangement. I employ the agency; they do not employ me. My contract is not with them, but with the people who wish me to make the speech, the Daughters of the Revolution in West Texas or whoever it may be. That does not seem to me to be a registrable matter.

Mr Bruce

  11. Mr Major, you said that you felt that we ought to make available legal advice through a panel of lawyers. If we go down that road, do you not think that we shall move away from the idea of self-regulation?
  (Mr Major) We have a choice. I have some sympathy with that view. We can do two things. I can tell you which I would prefer. The first is that we can simplify the rules to such an extent that they are so unambiguously clear that the matter of lawyers does not arise at all. That is obviously the first prize. If we are to do that, that unambiguous clarity needs to be enshrined in parliamentary resolution so that one knows precisely what is meant by the sort of terms that I quoted to you. That is infinitely the best idea for precisely the reason that you set out. If we continue along the way we have gone for the past five years or so, where the rules are revised and become steadily more complicated and, therefore, investigations become increasingly more complicated, in the interests of equity to Members who face charges, but who may be entirely innocent of those charges, we have no alternative but to offer them proper assistance in defending their reputation. I would infinitely prefer that that was not necessary. I advocate that only as a second resort; my first piece of advocacy would undoubtedly be to make the rules sufficiently simple so that the involvement of lawyers is not required. I do not know how many lawyers there are sitting around the table. Earlier I suggested that perhaps there are not enough, so I had better say nothing nasty about lawyers. I believe it is better if lawyers are not involved. I believe that that is infinitely the best outcome exactly for the reason that you have put to me.

  12. There was a debate about this in the House in relation to the Teresa Gorman case. She had raised this concern. One problem is that a Member knowing that legal advice is available could deliberately complicate the response in order to set up a long, drawn-out legal process. I entirely accept the obligation on the Committee is to operate in such a way that makes it difficult to justify that. You expressed concern about how some complaints were dealt with and the fact that people could abuse the Committee by using the press. The fact that a complaint is lodged means that there is a story attached. Is there any way in which we could deal with that? You suggested a procedure that Members should follow. The difficulty is that if the procedure of notifying a Member is not followed, effectively the complaint would fall, at least from that source. I do not know how it would be enforceable. Is there any way in which we can deal with that?
  (Mr Major) I think you can make a presumption of that. The danger that may exist—if I can think my way through that thought—is that if you had a Member who was guilty of something and he rushes off to the press to leak it before anyone has looked at the matter, and there is then no investigation, he would avoid it. That is a bit machiavellian, but it is possible that in a House of 659 Members there may be the odd Machiavelli. Perhaps there should be a presumption that there would be a rebuke for a Member who leaked such a matter. One can never be certain who did such a thing but often one can be sure because they are quoted subsequently in the newspaper article saying, "I referred this matter because", and so on, and if this Committee were to rebuke them for doing that, I believe they would cease to do it. Instead of the Member at fault being rebuked, if they found themselves hauled before the Committee and asked to explain why they were speaking to the press upon a matter that the Commissioner had not yet decided was worthy of investigation, they may be less inclined to do it. You may have a point there.

Mr Williams

  13. Thank you for your points of view on these matters. Perhaps I can address two fundamental points. You are aware that this Committee is, in a way, entrapped by the code that the House of Commons imposed upon it. We can tinker at the edges, but the rules to which we have to work, whether we like them or not, are the rules that the House has laid down. Until the House has a will to change them, we are bound by the rules that the House has given us. We start from that point. In the Nolan phase, considering the atmosphere at the time, we are left with an inheritance from Nolan that frankly is a misinterpretation of the role of the Committee. This is a personal view, but it is strongly held, that the rules, as we have them at the moment, lay down that Members of Parliament must be honest and open. We hope that Members of Parliament are honest and open. The question is, what is the scope of this Committee in relation to whether they are honest and open? Is it purely in so far as their activities as Members of Parliament are concerned, and in relation to how their official duties are affected, or do you see it in the wider role, which means that we are keepers of the public conscience on matters of morality and general conduct? I shall try to draw a parallel rather than refer to a specific case. If I went along to rent a car and said that I had never had an accident, when in fact I had, and that fact became public, would the interpretation that some people are putting on "open and honest" mean that that is something that would be referred to this Committee? To my mind that is ludicrous. That is a matter for the law in relation to the individual and in relation to the people with whom he has a contract. That is fundamental because it explains the width of many of the inquiries that we have had. At my behest we took that back to Nolan because I felt that having looked at the first draft and the final draft of the report that he meant the first, but it became the second. Back came the advice that it was the wider interpretation that was intended. I think that that is a wrong interpretation of the role of the Committee of Standards and Privileges and its duty to the House. If an individual has marital problems or contractual problems outside, they must be dealt with in the appropriate manner rather than referring them to this Committee. On which side would you come down in relation to this argument? Should we be the general keeper of the public conscience or should we be an in-house committee ensuring that the Members abide by the rules of the House?
  (Mr Major) I think that this Committee should be the arbiter of the rules set out by this House. I do not see how the Committee can justifiably go beyond that. It will get itself into a terrible mess if it goes beyond that. You referred to morality. I do not know what aspect of morality you had in mind, but I can see some pretty unusual cases coming before you if you go wider than just the rules set out by the House. I hope that there are some resolutions that the House is not inclined to frame. It would be very difficult to enforce them. As far as you being bound by the code is concerned, of course that is right. This Committee, which is a powerful committee and which has had more experience than anybody else in the House, can express dissatisfaction with the rules as they are at present. I hope that you will. I think that with experience the rules that have been promulgated by the House are inadequate and in some cases downright misleading. Members of Parliament have been misled and as a result you have had cases referred to you that ought not to have been referred to you and no good has been done either to the Member concerned or to the House of Commons as a whole as a result. I hope that the primary thing that will come out of your consultation will be not the ending of the system of safeguarding the reputation of Parliament by having an independent investigation—I agree with that—but I hope that we shall see a revision of the rules so that they are clearer than they have been hitherto and that the scope for misunderstanding and downright malice is correspondingly reduced. That is what I hope will come out of it. I entirely agree with your interpretation of what the rules are. You must interpret only those regulations and resolutions set out before the House of Commons and abide by them.

  14. I am delighted to find us in complete agreement on that. Unfortunately, the rules as laid down do not take that view. I will not bother to go into the detail. The other problem is that Nolan was set up, quite rightly—I think you made a wise decision in saying that someone other than Members of Parliament should decide what the rules should be—but no one takes into account the fact that Nolan is fallible, Nolan included. Our problem as a committee is that so soon after it, we have to be very careful that we tinker at the edges rather than trying anything fundamental because that will look as though Members of this House are trying to set aside Nolan. Addressing the problems that increasingly we are identifying is a serious problem for us.
  (Mr Major) My only regret about Nolan is that I wish that I had followed my instincts and set up something like Nolan several years before I did. I wish I had done so, but I did not and in the event I thought that the swirling tide of the ludicrous allegations, peppered occasionally with true allegations, made it necessary in the interests of Parliament to do it. Unless pressed, I shall not go into the details, but if pressed I certainly shall. I rather regret that I did not do it earlier. Of course Nolan—I mean the Committee and not Lord Nolan personally—Neill, this Committee, the House of Commons and all of us concur. As far as tinkering at the edges is concerned, I think it would be perfectly proper, at the end of each parliament when there has been a parliament's experience of how the rules operate, for this Committee to examine fundamentally what changes need to be made and make recommendations to that effect. Whichever government may follow the subsequent general election should look at those rules and lay down fresh resolutions before the House. Things change. The problem that originally caused all this difficulty was consultancies. At some stage there may be a different problem that we have not foreseen. I do not worry about people saying, "We are tearing up old rules". I think we should look afresh, in each parliament, and ideally set rules for a parliament. If those rules are enshrined in more comprehensive resolutions than before, I do not think that we shall run into some of the difficulties that we have had with interpretation in the past, and they should be reviewed again at the end of the parliament in the light of deficiencies found in those rules and amended for the subsequent parliament. I would like to see it work in that way. That may have its own fallibilities, but I think it would be clear and certain. Certainty, if we are to have equity and justice, we need clarity in the rules.

  15. Ambiguous law is bad law, as I think we would all agree. The duty is clearly on this Committee that where we find ambiguities we should try to address them. There is another problem with the Nolan format. Please do not think that I am knocking the Nolan Committee as such because it did a marvellous job at that time in convincing the public that we were trying to put our house in order. However, what has emerged is a set of rules of unbelievable complexity. It is difficult for even a long-serving Member to be absolutely sure of the details of the rules; it must be virtually impossible for a brand new Member. We have a practical problem here. Like yourself, we have started giving more detailed definition to some of our findings. If you are not careful, clarity in itself can add to complexity. We have the most complex system. We have documents that we send around. In fairness to the Commissioner, she has tried to prepare simplified versions, but it is difficult for Members to remember all the rules all the time. How do we reconcile the need to have rules that the public will agree ensure proper control in the House of Commons and at the same time avoid leaving out areas that need control?

  (Mr Major) I think we have to sit back for a moment and ask ourselves what is the objective of the rules? What is the purpose of having the rules? I suggest that that is most straightforward. The purpose of having such rules is to prevent a Member of Parliament abusing his position as a Member of Parliament in one form or another. That is perfectly straightforward. One needs to look at the way in which people have abused their position as a Member of Parliament. I believe that the way in which some of the consultancies worked was an abuse. I was quite shocked at all that I discovered about the way the consultancies were operating. You need to go back—I was about to say you need to go back to basics, but perhaps that is not the best illustration. Perhaps I may add that the "back to basics" that I set out in a conference speech some years ago bore no relationship to what people subsequently thought "back to basics" meant. It was certainly not about sex. That is absolutely clear. I did not expressly exclude it because it never occurred to me to include it. But it was not about sex. Perhaps I can make the point that as a standard work of reference, sex was not discovered by Conservatives in the previous Parliament, nor was it wholly their prerogative. I think the purpose of the rules is to set out abuses of parliamentary behaviour and to caution MPs that they may not do certain things and if they do they must answer for the consequences. If we go back to that basic matter, it becomes a little easier. The danger arises when there is individual case law, which is the way in which we have always operated, from Nolan onwards. Bits get added on and bits added on fit one particular case, but often it is a poor template for other cases. Yet, without consistency the Committee is then hooked upon its first judgment. That is something about which we need to be very careful. That is the second reason why I think that the rules should be set for a parliament and reviewed at the end of the parliament in the light of deficiencies that have become apparent during the course of this Committee's investigations in the term of any one parliament. 16. Referring to the point that you have made about legal representation on the Committee, most of us recognise that it is important that one has legal representation. At the risk of upsetting him, it has been very valuable having Michael Foster on the Committee because he is the one lawyer on the Committee. When I was on the predecessor committee at the time of the "cash for questions" matter, we had the Attorney General and the shadow attorney general attending in an advisory role. I felt that it was an advantage to have them in attendance. The Attorney General's role is recognised as being a non-political role and having the shadow attorney general present as well was helpful. This may be an unfair question to put to you on the spur of the moment, but do you think that it would be advantageous to revert to that system, to have a senior law officer and a senior shadow law officer involved in the proceedings so that they can take an objective legal view of what is going on?
  (Mr Major) That may be quite a burden for them. I do not know how many hours in a parliamentary session this Committee would sit, but I suspect that it would be quite a number. Certainly under the present system I think it would be quite a lot. Perhaps I could revise your suggestion. On complex issues I do not see any reason why the Commissioner or the Chairman should not have the right to seek private advice from the Attorney General or the shadow attorney general if they wish, but I would be a little wary of trying to suggest that they should join the Committee on each occasion. I believe that that would be quite a burden. I am glad that you agree that it is useful to have lawyers.

  17. It hurt, but I recognise that.
  (Mr Major) I am sorry it hurt. They have a degree of dispassionate experience in the kind of matters that this Committee must inevitably look at which will be useful to the Committee, particularly when you often look at matters that may have happened some time before. You mentioned "cash for questions". It is not a widely recognised point, but the substantive "cash for questions" problem actually occurred in the 1980s. It became public in the 1990s, but it actually related to the 1980s. Were this Committee to examine that kind of issue, it would be examining something that happened many years before.

  18. You referred to the pain for us, and doubly so for the Commissioner, of the frivolous complaints. We have seen, as I think it is recognised, tit-for-tat references where some people set themselves up as experts on referring cases to the Commissioner which then produce a response. We considered frivolous complaints and whether they should become a disciplinary issue. We ran up against the fundamental right, which is so basic to the operations of the House of Commons—understandably we were reluctant to damage it—the fundamental right of every Member of Parliament to free speech in his activities as a Member of Parliament. Can you see a way of cutting the knot so that one can do something effective to deter frivolous references without damaging the fundamental freedom that we all protect?
  (Mr Major) Members of Parliament are free spirits. If I had been able, in my own time, to stop people doing stupid things undoubtedly I would have done so. It is not always possible to do that. It is even possible for a clot to be elected as a Member of Parliament, so he may then behave in a "clottish" fashion. You cannot predetermine that people will not do things. The only suggestion I can make is that if you get frivolous representations, the Committee, in its report, should make it clear that they are frivolous. That would be quite a deterrent. No doubt if a Member of Parliament were told by this Committee that he had behaved like a two-year old in making a frivolous or stupidly partisan complaint, and if that happened once or twice, with the attendant publicity in his constituency, he would be warned off. Since those frivolous complaints put other Members' reputations at risk, I would have no hesitation in suggesting that if the Commissioner so advises that it is frivolous, that this Committee should make that absolutely clear in any report that it issues or directly from the Chairman to the Member concerned. I do not have a better suggestion than that. Saying publicly that they have behaved like a clot is the only sanction that credibly we are likely to have to hand.

  19. On sanctions, our armoury of sanctions is somewhat limited. We can reprimand, we can require an apology and we can suspend. I confess to being among a very small minority on the Committee in what I suggest. It seems to me logical that as suspension means that constituents are deprived of the parliamentary services of a Member of Parliament for say, two, three or four weeks, that we should embrace a system of fines as an intermediate way and that suspension should be seen as a very severe punishment. When a Member is suspended he loses his salary for that period anyway so a fine is built into the system. Therefore I do not see any intellectual argument against having a fine capability (free-standing as well as implicit) in the final stage which is the suspension with loss of pay. What would you feel about us having a fine system?
  (Mr Major) I may be in an even bigger minority than you, though not being a member of the Committee I will not know this. I do not agree with suspensions from the House of Commons, even if a Member of Parliament has behaved badly, they are there to represent their constituents, they are sent there by their constituents not by us. I do not as a matter of principle like to see a Member of Parliament who has been properly elected suspended from his responsibilities whatever he or she may have done. If you wish to look at a wider range of sanctions and someone has behaved quite appallingly, then I would have thought an arraignment at the bar of the House would be better than suspension. I think that would make the point just as well, but I do not like suspension because I think we are taking away from a constituency the right to be represented. That may be more theoretical than real—

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