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4.27 pm

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): I rise as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), I am a reluctant contributor to the debate, but, given the work that the Committee has been carrying out for the past few months, some of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat- Amory) need to be either put into context or contradicted.

The Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), expressed the hope that in future politically motivated and trivial complaints would not be brought to the Committee. I do not suggest that that is true of the complaint that is the subject of our debate, but I find it a bit rich, as well as in poor taste, that the complainant should gloat about the outcome of a report for half an hour. Furthermore, in his speech today the right hon. Member for Wells went far beyond not only the Committee's report, but his original complaint.

Let me give an example. The right hon. Gentleman criticised the Committee for having given the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) a further three months to produce evidence about the cheque and whether he had received it. As has already been pointed out by two hon. Members, whether the hon. Gentleman received the cheque was not an issue for the Committee: the issuing of an invoice and the expectation of being paid was sufficient to warrant a declaration. Although the question of whether he had received the cheque was of great interest to the hon. Gentleman, the Committee did not consider it an issue and it agreed unanimously—with the support of the Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Independent members of the Committee—to allow the extra time for the hon. Gentleman to try to determine to his own satisfaction what had happened to that cheque.

The right hon. Member for Wells went on to draw parallels with the Hamilton case. Of course, in that case a large number of allegations were dismissed. Once again, the conclusion that the Committee reached four years ago—I was a Committee member then—did not depend on the receipt of the money. The expectation of receiving it was sufficient to merit a declaration.

My next point is brief and I make it for the sake of accuracy. Several times, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned a £300,000 cheque—[Interruption.] He has acknowledged his mistake; a £200,000 cheque was under discussion. However, that repeated exaggeration did not help his case.

The hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asked about the Inland Revenue. The Committee did not raise the matter with the Inland Revenue to try to establish whether the cheque had been cashed and dealt with in the usual way. Again, that was for exactly the same reason; what happened to the cheque did not matter to us. There was an issue about the invoice and expectation of receipt, so a declaration was needed. Where the cheque ended up was not the most important thing for the Committee to investigate.

I am offended by the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Wells that somehow there was a cover-up to which the Committee was party. That is certainly not—

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: I have never alleged that the Committee is in any way implicated in a cover-up; it is

31 Oct 2001 : Column 897

the Government who are in the dock. I was making the point that the Committee was denied information by the Government—specifically the DTI—which it could have used to come to a much earlier conclusion.

Mr. Levitt: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his clarification. The commissioner looked into his allegation, followed by the Committee. We felt that we had all the information that we needed to make a judgment on the allegation which, to use a word employed earlier, did not go into the byzantine connections that may, or may not, have existed between the Maxwell empire and politicians, whether individually or in general. That was not the allegation that the right hon. Gentleman submitted to the Committee; we did not carry out an investigation into it, and it was not part of our conclusion. Whatever the issues around Maxwell's pro quo for the quid, they were certainly not on our agenda for discussion.

I shall take my Committee hat off for a moment. Towards the end of his speech, the right hon. Gentleman talked about the Government's best efforts to suppress the issues. That has not been tested; it remains his allegation. The Committee had no brief to look into the matter, whether it involved arrangements between individuals or influence that anyone may have tried to exert on a political party. Indeed, throughout our investigations, we found no evidence of any suggestion of political manipulation alongside any financial transaction whatsoever.

The right hon. Gentleman has used our debate to raise an issue that goes well beyond the scope of the Committee's report which, I hope, will be accepted for what it is. I hope that people will look at the allegations that we received and the investigation that we carried out. Under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, who has already established himself and taken to his new role like a duck to water, I hope that we will be able to continue our deliberations in future. I trust that we will be able look at issues objectively when there are reasonable grounds for investigation, and that our offices and those of the commissioner will not be used for pursuing party political issues.

4.34 pm

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): That was a most unfortunate contribution from the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt), which well illustrates why a member of the Government payroll should not be sitting on the Standards and Privileges Committee. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be aware that the hon. Gentleman is a Parliamentary Private Secretary. That was clear from the tone of his speech. It is most unfortunate that a member of the payroll, clearly speaking for the Government as a PPS, should serve on that Committee.

The House owes a great debt of gratitude to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat- Amory). If it were not for him, the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson) would not have been in the House today, accepting the conclusions of the report and agreeing that he should be suspended for three weeks. That should be clearly recognised.

Mr. Alan Williams: In fairness, the right hon. Gentleman does my hon. Friend the Member for High

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Peak (Mr. Levitt) a grave injustice by saying that he is on the payroll. He is a Parliamentary Private Secretary. PPSs are not paid. He is an ordinary Back Bencher, like any other Back Bencher—[Interruption.] That is a matter of importance when we are discussing interests and the Standards and Privileges Committee. My hon. Friend is not on the payroll.

Mr. MacKay: The right hon. Gentleman was first elected to the House in 1964. That is 27 years ago. He is a distinguished and experienced Member of the House, and he knows that anyone who was a PPS in any of those years was said to be on the payroll when it came to votes and speaking in the House. The right hon. Gentleman knows that full well. He is trying to muddy the water, which is a pity. I should have thought more of him. [Interruption.]

The Leader of the House says that I am muddying the water. I will tell him who was muddying the water a moment ago. He was colluding with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to try to muddy the water by questioning the integrity of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells—[Interruption.] The Leader of the House knows full well why there was no answer. The question was out of order, as the Deputy Speaker ruled, and my right hon. Friend would not have been able to give the answer. It is rather sad that the Leader of the House, who is supposed to defend the interests of the House, seems to be colluding in a partisan way in an extremely serious case.

Make no mistake, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is one of the most serious cases of its type that the House has had to debate. We all know that the late Robert Maxwell was one of the biggest crooks and fraudsters who ever entered the House as a Member of Parliament. We also know that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West has a bit of form. This is the fourth time that he has been reported to the Committee, and the fourth time that he has been reprimanded. On this occasion, the recommendation is that he be suspended for three weeks, so this is no trivial matter.

Whereas I am not surprised that the hon. Member for Bolsover is treating the matter frivolously and checking my entry in the Register of Members' Interests—he will find nothing of significance—I should have thought that the Leader of the House would know better and would remember what his position is.

Mr. Skinner: All that happened between me and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was that I asked him for the register, as I do not have one here. I got the register from the Front Bench, read it and found out that the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) had entered his remunerated directorships, but had not put the money in. I thought that as we had agreed that the money should be entered in bands, and as the right hon. Gentleman was engaged in the business of hounding, he himself should be lily-white. It turned out that he was not. I wanted to know how much money he had made as a Back Bencher moonlighting. I ask the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay), too, how much he has made.

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