Examination of Witness (Questions 20 -
WEDNESDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2001
20. That is my view.
(Mr Major)in many respects but I just have
an unease about saying to a particular constituency that, "Your
Member of Parliament may not stand up in the House of Commons
and represent your view." Who knows, that may be the week
in which he or she has a large redundancy in his or her constituency.
I just do not like it. I have not given any thought to a range
of alternative sanctions though I would have thought that the
thing a Member would least like would be a formal arraignment
at the bar of the House for misconduct.
21. Mr Major, I want to come back to the question
of lawyers on the Committee as MPs. You talked about the preference
for having a smaller Committee and that would imply a far greater
proportion of lawyers on it than we have at present. Do you not
see an argument for having a Committee of a standard size which
reflects the political balance within the House and is also big
enough to reflect the different experiences both in time and in
the outside world that Members have had before joining this Committee?
Added to that, no other Select Committee specifies any sort of
qualification, as far as I understand, for Members. So is not
this arrangement that we have at present a better one?
(Mr Major) I do not think they specify it but I rather
fancy the "usual channels" look quite carefully at who
is nominated for particular committees, so there may be no formal
specification but I think suitability for a committee is often
lurking in the back of the mind of those who are responsible for
encouraging people to be nominated for a particular Committee.
As to the size of the Committee, I do not feel very strongly about
this but it just seems to me that this is quite a large Committee.
I think the workload that exists on Members of Parliament in many
ways is growing. I think that is one reason for not having large
committees over a particular size. Why should one be stuck with
a particularly rigid size of Committee? If the Committee is delving
into the private life in many ways of a Member of Parliament,
the more discreetly that is done by a representative number of
Members the better, and I do not necessarily see why it should
be done by a large committee. I personally think it might be done
equally effectively by a smaller one. This is not one of the important
points I made. I just think on balance there are occasions, we
all know occasions, where this Committee is going to be delving
with very great detail into the activities of a Member of Parliament,
the Member of Parliament may be called upon to give evidence,
and that may be very detailed evidence in many ways, and I think
a small committee might have something to commend it in those
particular circumstances. As to the balance of the Committee,
if you have more lawyers -and you do not seem to have too many
at the moment so I do not think you are too out of kilter. I am
not sure whether you are representative of the House of Commons
as a whole in terms of the number of lawyers in the House and
the number of lawyers you have proportionately on this Committee.
Possibly not. A very distinguished lot lawyers and a lot of them
are in the House of Commons. So it is a matter of choice and you
cannot be certain who is right. I would have a slightly smaller
committee and I would ensure that it was a little more peppered
with lawyers than you are at present. I may be the only person
in the country speaking up for lawyers; I feel rather isolated.
22. I would not want Michael Foster to believe
I was criticising him in any way! On the question of trivial complaints
we only discuss a relatively small proportion of the complaints
that the Commissioner receives because there is that filtering
process that goes on there, so therefore the very trivial ones
or the ones that miss the mark completely in terms of not being
in the terms of reference of this Committee do not come to us
at all. Is there a danger, looking back, having been part of the
process of setting up this Committee, that we act as a magnet
for complaints? Do you think complaints are generated because
there is a system for registering those complaints?
(Mr Major) Quite possibly. We are caught on the horns
of a dilemma there. Either you have no independent investigative
procedure and we revert to the pre-Nolan situation, or you do
have an investigative procedure and there is the possibility that
it will act as a magnet for complaints. Yes, of course, that must
be the case; it might well do.
23. One of the things that frustrates us, although
it is something we have to live with, is the fact that not only
MPs but anyone can give a complaint to this Committee. We have
been particularly frustrated with some complaints that have come
to us sourcing from journalists who tend to give a running commentary
over the weeks for those complaints without knowing what is going
on in this Committee, based entirely on speculation and the case
which they themselves have brought. Clearly we have discussed
ways of admonishing Members for bringing trivial complaints. Do
you think there is any way we can get the fifth estate to exercise
more restraint in the way they cover the activities of the Committee?
(Mr Major) I never managed to persuade them to exercise
restraint. I failed dismally in that. Though I bow to no-one of
course in my admiration for journalism, I utterly failed in any
endeavour to persuade them to exercise constraint in any way.
This is a problem; I do not have a solution for it. I can think
of one instance of one prominent Member of this House who had
a complaint levied against him by a backbench Member who was invited
to do so by a newspaper and I dare say that is not an isolated
incident. Of course once the complaint had been made, it being
a prominent Member, it then produced a very large amount of publicity
simply because of the identity of the complainee. That plainly
is an abuse of good journalism. I do not know how you stop it;
I wish I did.
24. My final question, chair, is on the question
of what should be declared to try and get round this problem of
speeches which is clearly at the back of your mind throughout
the writing of your contribution to this Committee. There are
some people within the House who would like to see all Members'
income declared even that which is not directly related to the
membership of this House. This Committee does not share that view
but nevertheless it is a view which exists. I think there are
grey areas within the definition of what relates to income relating
to one's membership in Parliament as opposed to advocacy which
is easier to define, and clearly your own case did raise those
issues, as you said yourself. I think if we are in the position
where we have to look at the content of people's speeches as opposed
to just their earnings from them to decide whether advocacy is
going on or not, we are right to err on the side of saying that
income from speeches that do result as a result of having held
office within this House should be included. Can you accept that
following your own argument from earlier on that it would involve
looking at the content of the speeches to find out whether they
were advocacy or not or stemming from membership or not, and we
really do not want to get into that?
(Mr Major) Advocacy primarily is advocacy to Ministers
and the House of Commons on behalf of a special interest. If you
are speaking to a special interest group, you are hardly advocating
something directly to Ministers or the House of Commons, so I
think to a certain extent there is a misconception there. As far
as declaration of income is concerned, let us take two MPs, one
of them (since we are much concentrating on lawyers) is a lawyer;
the other one is not, the other one is a silver-tongued Mayor
of London, to take a purely dispassionate example. The Member
of Parliament who is a lawyer declares (of course because it is
publicly known) his parliamentary income. He does not declare
his income from his legal activities. The MP who is a silver-tongued
Mayor of London does declare his income, self-evidently for it
is known being a Member of Parliament, but if he makes three speeches
a year apparently on behalf of the same agency he must declare
what he earns from that agency, which I believe is a misinterpretation
of parliamentary resolutions but I think that was what this Committee
ruled in that particular case. Where is the difference between
the MP making three speeches at the request of a particular agency
and a lawyer taking three cases from the same clerk or the same
chambers? Where is the difference? I do not see any difference
in that. I see none at all. The fact of the matter is, if I can
examine the point of the MP with his speeches yet again, he may
have taken three speeches from the same agency that arranged them
but they were not to the same audience, they were not on the same
subject and they did not involve advocacy. Because we have slipped
down the route with regular newspaper columns into speeches, I
think we have over-interpreted what the original parliamentary
resolution said. I know this Committee took that view and I believe
this Committee was wrong to take that view, but that does not
matter. What does matter now is whether we can have a consistency
of rules. There ought to be a consistency between an MP who is
a lawyer and his activities and an MP who happens to be silver-tongued
and is in demand for speeches in his activities. The question
in both cases should be are they using their position as a Member
of Parliament to advocate (presumably to the Government and Ministers)
particular courses of events, in which case it is an abuse of
their position in the House of Commons. That is the test.
25. I think where this Committee might disagree
with that is that the silver-tongued person, whether Mayor of
London or ex-Prime Minister, is being asked to do that speech
because he is a Member of Parliament. The lawyer is being asked
to take on a case irrespective of whether he is a Member of Parliament
but perhaps we should let it lie there.
(Mr Major) I tried to deal with that point earlier.
If I am trying to undertake speeches because I am a Member of
Parliament, why are my speeches stretching long beyond my membership
of this House and why are my speeches to audiences abroad most
of whom can have no interest in any advocacy I did make in this
House (although I make none) and to audiences who do not even
know I am a Member of Parliament. There is a danger of getting
too narrow a definition. If you circumscribe Members of Parliament
too harshly, apart from any other consideration, you are going
to restrict the numbers of people who come to this House. I think
that would be a loss. I do not think we wish to do that. I think
the test should be are they abusing their position as a Member
of Parliament? Are they using their position as Member of Parliament
and abusing it? I think that should be the test that should concern
the House of Commons.
26. Thank you for your contribution, Mr Major,
it is very helpful, but I do want clarification on some of the
points you have raised. I would like to know your views on how
this Committee or the House would come up with a definition that
would, with clarity and no ambiguity, enshrine what activities
come directly from membership of the House? How on earth could
we come up with that?
(Mr Major) If you cannot how can a Member know whether
he is abusing his position or not? That is the question. If you
cannot tell the House of Commons what is an abuse of their position
how and why should a Member be held up to castigation if he does
not know? You define exactly the point at issue; if they do not
know, how can they be held up to public rebuke because they did
not believe they were misbehaving and a subsequent interpretation
post-event suggests that they were? That is what we need to avoid
because that is not only grotesquely unfair to you, if it happened
to you, but it is very damaging to the House of Commons. With
respect to you, that is the bigger issue, if you continually have
these references in the House of Commons and it is then adjudged
that a Member has misbehaved, the perception of the world outside
is that Members of Parliament are abusing their position, behaving
badly. This is not good for Governmentit does not matter
who is in officeand it is not good for the reputation of
the House of Commons. You have got to have clarity to diminish
that. I do not suppose you will ever end itI concede thatbut
you can certainly diminish it. We frame complex legislation every
day of the week; that is what we are here for, so we ought to
be able to frame rules for our own conduct.
27. Do you believe Members understand the rules
relating to the registering of interests, the Code of Conduct?
(Mr Major) You would know the answer to that better
than I do, but I think in some cases they have not. I think there
have been genuine misunderstandings as to what is registerable.
I forget who said earlier that they were complex. Actually you
said they were complex, now I come to think of it, in paragraph
2 of your consultation document which is here somewhere. I think
you say "the rules relating to the conduct of Members are
detailed and stringent"; clearly they are.
28. They certainly are but would you also agree
that there are many examples in the world outside Parliament where
ignorance of rules is not considered an adequate defence? You
are suggesting that ignorance
(Mr Major) "ignorantia juris non excusat"
is the motto you are searching for.
29. I am not a scholar of Latin.
(Mr Major) It is about the only one I know so thank
you for giving me the opportunity of using it. I would of course
use it after the press have gone! There is a lawyer present who
will correct me. I think that is the legal term for ignorance
of the law. I think that is right, but we have to set out rules
to minimise the danger of ignorance. I do not think we have at
the moment. It is possible to enshrine in straightforward resolutions
the broad conclusions this Committee has reached over the last
five years, if it is felt right to do so, so that they are perfectly
clear. For example, when a reference is first made (I should have
mentioned this point earlier) the complainant should indicate
to the Commissioner and to the Member about whom they are complaining
which Parliamentary resolution they believe they have infringed.
When the Commissioner decides to take up a case, as a matter of
course the Member of Parliament should be told which particular
resolution they have infringed and I think that should be absolutely
clear and apparent.
30. You feel this should be done right at the
(Mr Major) Members need to know what they have done.
If it is unclear what they have done then it is pretty difficult
to pursue them and pretty unfair to pursue them.
31. Of course it is not just us interpreting
the rules but the Commissioner.
(Mr Major) Of course, but if the Member complaining
cannot tell you what rule he thinks you have infringed, why is
he complaining? I am complaining about you, let us say, if I cannot
tell you what you have done wrong, I think you would be quite
right to think that I was playing a silly, partisan political
game. I think it is equally right when the Commissioner takes
up the case which says you or I have misbehaved that they say,
"We think you may have failed to acknowledge resolution whatever
it may be passed by the House on such-and-such a date." Let
there be clarity about that. I bet if you were to ask some of
the Members who have had their cases referred to you, they would
not be clear about exactly what it was they were supposed to have
done wrong and I think that could be amended relatively easily
and should be, and with advantage should be.
32. I have also said that you are concerned
about the intrusive nature of some of the investigations that
have been conducted, but on the other hand you acknowledge that
when investigations are underway quite often somebody's private
life has to be gone into in quite considerable detail.
(Mr Major) That is why I am quite keen to knock out
those that are not relevant. Forgive me for using a personal case
but I will; when my own particular case was referred to this Committee,
it was known from the outset that the then Registrar had advised
me on the entry and had agreed the entry when I submitted it,
and that was known not because I said so but because the Registrar
immediately said so himself. It was an awful long time before
my case was finally determined. I was grateful for the determination
the Committee reached but it took a long time for it to happen.
In the intervening period there was a vast weight of extremely
unpleasant publicity. The concept that having been referred to
the Committee and it being examined and therefore there was something
wrong, the presumption of innocence until being found guilty of
misconduct worked precisely in the opposite way and that is a
danger. In my case it turned out perfectly alright. It did involve
a huge amount of time and trouble for me and for the Commissioner
and no doubt for this Committee. I think we need to try and avoid
that. If a Member has been advised clearlyand the Commissioner
was generous enough in her report to this Committee to make it
clear that I had accepted the Registrar's advice in all respectsand
I think where that occurs in future, if that occurs in future,
even if it is deemed that the Registrar of the day, heaven forfend,
might have made a mistake, then I think straightaway the complaint
ought to be dismissed and the Commissioner should say, "We
think the Registrar made a mistake. Next time you submit a registration
do X, Y and Z." This Committee need not then be bothered
33. You said it took quite a long time for your
case to be determined. How long was it?
(Mr Major) Quite a few months.
34. A few months and you feel that was because
of the amount of detail that was gone into?
(Mr Major) I do not know, I am not a member of the
35. You were the one under investigation.
(Mr Major) You may have a queue and if you have a
queue and you deal with them in that respect then another Member
against whom a complaint has been registered stays at the back
of that queue until the matter is determined.
36. Can I clarify one other point you brought
up in the course of our discussions. Are you saying you feel that
the private lives of Members of Parliament should be excluded
from investigation because, of course, as I think Mr Williams
said, the rules do talk about "openness", "honesty",
(Mr Major) I would stand on the answer I gave Alan
Williams earlier that the inquiry should relate to the breach
of a parliamentary resolution, no less and no more.
37. So to take using somebody's gym as an example
you would consider that as not relating to their membership of
(Mr Major) It does not seem to me that that is a very
serious offence in any event, hardly worthy of the attention of
38. Forgetting to register an event you went
(Mr Major) I think that is a relatively trivial thing
too. In that sort of instance I think the Commissioner should
be empoweredmaybe she is I do not knowto say, "You
should have registered it. I do not think we need to bother the
Committee about this. I have spoken to the Chairman. Just register."
She is nodding so I see that she does, excellent, that is what
39. Can I just clear one thing out of the way.
Most of the requirements which would apply to you are not exactly
onerous; is that right?
(Mr Major) Can you define "onerous"?