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3.54 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I am delighted that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is now Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. I very much hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will support his view that it is important to reduce the number of occasions when such matters come before the House.

I have read both the original and supplementary reports. Within the terms of reference of our inquiry and investigative system, they are undoubtedly persuasive, and I hope that the House will endorse them. However, it is fair to say that the anxiety about this case does not simply relate to the individual and his circumstances.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire rightly referred to the way in which the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges approaches its business. There are concerns in all parts of the House about the operation of our investigative system and, indeed, the practice of the Select Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

I draw the attention of the House and, in particular, that of the right hon. Gentleman, to the report produced by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege on which I think the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack), who has just left the Chamber, and certainly the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) served with me during the previous Parliament. In that document, we considered carefully a number of issues that related to the discipline of Members and the occasions when non-Members confront or affront the way in which the House operates. Those are matters of considerable importance, and not only in the context of privilege.

Now that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has taken command of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, I ask him to look at that report, in particular the section—chapter 6—that deals with disciplinary and penal powers and the part that deals with natural justice, whether that relates to our fellow citizens or to hon. Members. The section on procedural fairness contains matters of concern that have not been dealt with by the Select Committee or any other House authorities as far as I am aware. It is certainly raised in the annexe to the present report by the hon. Gentleman whose conduct is under examination. The procedures that have been followed are at least open to some question. I hope that referring to the work of the Joint Committee will mean that those issues of fairness can be dealt with properly.

I should have mentioned that the right hon. Member for Dewsbury (Ann Taylor), who was then Leader of the House, was also involved in the exercise. I think that she

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shares the experience of 18 months of studying these issues with great care and with the assistance of a number of legal authorities in the other place and much other legal expertise surrounding us.

I do not object to the conclusion or the recommendation of the present report, but it would be remiss of the House if we did not take this opportunity to record that there is some anxiety in the House and outside it about the way we discipline ourselves in these matters. I share the aspiration of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, the Chairman of the Committee, that progress should be made in restoring the reputation of the House. In that respect, I too share his ambition that we should at least reduce if not remove the need to come back to the House with reports of this sort.

3.58 pm

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): I had not intended to speak, but I have been scribbling as I have been listening. I thank the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), for his overgenerous remarks to me, which are much appreciated.

I must point out that throughout the previous Parliament every report that the Select Committee produced was unanimous. That is important as it demonstrates the way in which the House is determined to resolve any internal problems, in spite of what the press said about the Labour majority—under the rules of the House every Committee must reflect the numbers on the Floor of the House.

The present shadow Leader of the House, the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth), was one member of the Select Committee, as was Martin Bell, our former colleague. The present Chairman, when he was shadow Leader of the House, said that if the Conservative Whips could not keep his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst under control, he found it hard to imagine how the Committee could do so. It was a great achievement to get through those four years without a single non-consensual report. I hope that that trend will continue under the present Chairman.

What triggered my speech was the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), the Father of the House. He referred to the byzantine Maxwell empire. That is an irrelevance. However byzantine the empire was, the invoice did not come from Maxwell: it was to Maxwell, and with it was a declaration of expectation. Where there is expectation, there is the danger of a conflict of interest. If there is an expectation of a benefit, it must be declared; that is clearly stated in the rules. As the Chairman of the Select Committee rightly said, the situation was exacerbated by the fact that, as far back as 1998, the hon. Member for Coventry, North–West (Mr. Robinson), sadly, denied to Sir Gordon Downey that there was any expectation.

May I put a point to the Leader of the House? He knows well that during the last Parliament the Committee on Standards and Privileges tried to address some of the nonsense in the code of conduct. The code had been drawn up in a hurry; it was too detailed and extremely difficult for Members to understand. It is certainly difficult for Members to remember all the facets of the code, so we urgently need a debate so that Members have

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a clear idea early in this Parliament what is expected of them. May we have a debate on the report proposing changes to the current system issued by the former Committee?

Like the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), I also draw attention to the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, chaired so well by Lord Nicholls and of which I and many colleagues were members. Although Ministers have accepted that report, it has never been debated; apart from its initial reception, it has not been significantly addressed. The report contains important issues that need to be addressed in the context of the new human rights entitlement for everyone, including Members of Parliament.

4.2 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): These debates on disciplinary matters and the misdemeanours of hon. Members are somewhat doleful occasions—they are certainly not a time for celebration or glee. I bear no animosity towards the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), although I was the complainant who launched not only this inquiry but several previous ones. This is the fourth time that the hon. Gentleman has been reprimanded by the Committee on Standards and Privileges.

My aim throughout has been to try to uphold and enforce the rules of the House—rules that the Labour party, especially in opposition, was anxious to strengthen and make stricter. During the past four years, the Labour Government have themselves become entangled in a number of disciplinary matters. I agree with the observations of right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) about possible reforms and improvements to the disciplinary process. The rules on registration have become unnecessarily and even unworkably tight in several respects; they invite many trivial, vexatious and technical complaints that do little to raise the status or reputation of the House. That is perhaps a matter for debate on another occasion.

The matters covered in the Select Committee's report are certainly not technical or trivial; they are serious allegations and I am sure that the House was pleased to accept the apology of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West. Personally, I should also like an apology from the Labour and Government media manipulation units, which constantly rubbished my early efforts to get to the bottom of this complex matter, and in particular to expose the relationship between the late Robert Maxwell and the Labour party.

I am glad to say that the first report of the Standards and Privileges Committee of 2001–02, particularly when read in conjunction with the seventh report of the previous Session, published on 3 May, sheds considerable light on one aspect of that very complex web of undeclared payments between the Robert Maxwell empire and new Labour. To that extent, I feel vindicated.

As we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the report is based on an investigation by Mrs. Filkin, the present Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It is a comprehensive and a fair report. The standard of proof required, at least by the Committee, goes some way beyond what has been required in the past. If I compare

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the way in which Neil Hamilton was treated by Sir Gordon Downey, who was really satisfied with a balance of probabilities rule of evidence, with the standards required by the present Committee, I find that the rules of evidence have been tightened, and rightly so.

In addition, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was given an additional three months to try to find an innocent explanation for the £200,000 payment. I actually believe that that had more to do with the impending election, and the Government's desire to get the matter pushed beyond the election date, than anything else. That was a mistake; if we had dealt with the matter in the summer, we could now be entering a new Parliament with a clean slate. As it is, this whole matter of what the public media call sleaze is already contaminating this Parliament, and that will do nothing for our reputation in the House—although that has never been much of a concern to the Government.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire outlined, this is the second investigation into the subject. The first was conducted by Sir Gordon Downey, the previous commissioner, in 1998. We can now see that that earlier investigation was somewhat superficial, and certainly incomplete. As regards the disputed £300,000 payment from the Maxwell companies to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West, that was in the audited accounts of the company concerned, and Sir Gordon found some additional evidence by way of inter-company invoices for the same amount.

However, at that time the hon. Gentleman was given the benefit of the doubt by the commissioner and by the Standards and Privileges Committee because no invoice was discovered. There was no piece of paper on which the hon. Gentleman had sought or demanded the £300,000, nor were the cash books recording the payment found. That was because the companies concerned—the Maxwell companies—had collapsed and were in administration and the books of records were held by Arthur Andersen, the administrators. The Committee at that time, for reasons that I do not fully understand, decided not to investigate those records, and when I made a request to do the work I was actually barred from looking at those records, also for reasons that I do not fully understand.

The crucial fact, which really should worry the House, is that those documents and that invoice were found the following year in an investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry, conducting its own inquiry. The real scandal of this whole episode is that that information has been covered up; I use that phrase accurately and in the knowledge of what I am alleging.

At the time, the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), was Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. That DTI inquiry, which was started early in 1999, was undertaken in response to four letters that I had written the year before about the business affairs of that part of the Robert Maxwell empire. I pointed out glaring breaches of company law, pension fund irregularities, undeclared payments to directors and so on.

I specifically and in writing asked the DTI to undertake an inquiry under section 432 of the Companies Acts and to do so by means of an external, independent inquiry,

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with full publication of the results, precisely because there would otherwise be a clear conflict of interest—one Department would investigate the affairs of a serving Labour Minister. The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West was then the Paymaster General at the Treasury and therefore intimately involved in taxation and expenditure matters, as I was when I was Paymaster General some time before.

To avoid any suspicion that the Labour party was investigating its own affairs and might be tempted to cover up the matter, I asked for an investigation under a specific section of the Companies Acts, but the Secretary of State replied saying, among other things, that he

There is a certain irony in those words in the light of what happened afterwards, but I took that phrase to mean that he acceded to my request. I was wrong, as I shall shortly describe, but the important thing is that that inquiry found everything—in other words, it found all the evidence and documents that the Committee had not found.

The invoice was discovered by the investigators in the DTI, as well as the cashbook entries and so on, but no action was taken. Instead, on the day that the House rose for the Christmas recess at the end of 1999, the Secretary of State answered a planted parliamentary question, asked by a Labour Member, saying that no action would be taken. I was not even given the courtesy of being sent a copy of that reply; I discovered it during the Christmas recess. In other words, the DTI knew that that was the missing evidence, and it sat on it. Of course, the evidence was very embarrassing because it showed the Maxwell links to the Labour party and the misdemeanours of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West, who had just resigned as a Minister.

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