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4.43 pm

David Winnick (Walsall, North): I begin by wishing the new parliamentary commissioner well—it would be wrong to do otherwise—and I hope that he will carry out his duties in the way that we would all wish. Indeed, I have no reason to believe otherwise. However, the circumstances in which Elizabeth Filkin is leaving today are, to say the least, disquieting. My speech will be critical of the fact that her contract has not been renewed. If that is a minority point of view, so be it; it is mine and I want to explain why I have reached that conclusion.

When the House debated Elizabeth Filkin's appointment on 17 November 1998, there was much praise for the way in which she had carried out her previous duties.

I have given the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) notice that I shall refer to his remarks, and I make no criticism of him. He said of Mrs. Filkin:

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Likewise, I sent a note to my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), who was then a Home Office Under-Secretary. She spoke on behalf of the Leader of the House and said of Elizabeth Filkin:

Of course, that did not necessarily mean that the arrangement would work in practice, but my argument is that Mrs. Filkin brought to the position the qualities mentioned by those two Members. She is leaving because she was too independent and too determined to be fobbed off in the investigations. That is why her contract was not renewed.

Those qualities—independence and determination—are normally thought to be admirable, not a reason for what amounts to dismissal. Although I have encountered criticism of Mrs. Filkin—not in the Chamber, but around the place—I have not heard a single Member say that she is politically biased for or against any particular party. In view of the investigation she carried out, any such accusation would be laughable.

It is strongly denied that there was any whispering campaign against Mrs. Filkin, but she clearly does not accept that, as stated in the correspondence between her and the Speaker. I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who spoke for the Liberal Democrats, that perhaps the question of who chairs the Commission should be considered. I make no criticism of the Speaker, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is difficult to quote the Speaker in debate, and one does not wish to do so because it is rather invidious. That is the situation.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) said, the House of Commons praised the work undertaken by Mrs. Filkin. Indeed, she is praised in the House of Commons Commission document. Fine words, but this question is inevitable: if she carried out her duties in such a manner, why was she not reappointed?

Mrs. Filkin wrote to the Speaker on 28 November, and it is important for her view as set out in that letter to be heard:

It is up to the House to decide with what seriousness to take the following comment—I take it very seriously. She said:

Clearly, Mrs. Filkin is not leaving because she wished to do so. Clearly, she would have been willing to carry on in the position if her contract had been renewed. As I have said, we have had no explanation.

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Why has not the present parliamentary commissioner, who will be leaving this week, been offered the position? It is said that she can apply for her own position—a rather humiliating situation, even if there was any chance that she would be accepted. Would a single hon. Member who is in the Chamber now say that, if Mrs. Filkin had gone through the humiliating procedure of applying for her own job, she would have stood a chance? No—the silence is adequate. The real criticism against Mrs. Filkin was not that she spoke to the press or that she involved herself in matters outside her remit. I do not believe that those allegations have any substance.

Mr. Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye): Is my hon. Friend aware that Mrs. Filkin was regularly quoted in the press, including statements that she made on a Saturday, for example? How does he account for her having such ready access to the press on a day when servants are normally not available?

David Winnick: If the press rang the parliamentary commissioner and she was conducting an investigation, I see no reason why she should not have said so.

Several hon. Members rose

David Winnick: I shall give way in a moment; I am replying to an intervention. Let us be clear—are we saying that, in effect, Mrs. Filkin has not been reappointed because she spoke to the press? If so, we should have had an explanation from the House of Commons Commission. Allegations about speaking to the press should be made official; let the House of Commons Commission say so, and we would then have an explanation that we could accept or reject. I do not think that we can work on the basis of what my hon. Friend has just said. I have a great deal of genuine respect for him, but I do not believe that that is a good explanation.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): Does my hon. Friend agree that we have to make a differentiation about speaking to the press? Mrs. Filkin was entitled to speak to them about the nature of her work and her office, and we should not to impute from that that she was guilty of leaks, which she was not. I hope to deal with that later.

David Winnick: I entirely agree. I do not believe that she was responsible for leaking information in any way whatever, and I am glad that my right hon. Friend has cleared that up.

Mr. Salmond: Would not the right way to bring complaints about our Standards Commissioner have been through the House of Commons Commission to the Floor of the House, where those issues could have been properly examined, debated and, I suspect, largely dismissed?

David Winnick: Indeed. I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. As I have said, it was up to the House of Commons Commission to deal with such issues. On reflection, it accepts that, in many ways, matters could have been dealt with very differently.

The critics say that Mrs. Filkin lacked a sense of balance and that she could not distinguish between serious allegations and those that were not in that category. Again, I do not believe that that was the case. She had a

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duty to investigate fully. After all, until she investigated, how could she know whether the allegations had any substance? Let us not forget that this is not the Inland Revenue; this is a political battlefield. Hon. Members on each side of the House will make accusations against the other, as political ammunition. We are in politics—that is part of democracy. Such allegations are made, and it is up to the parliamentary commissioner to investigate them, recognising the place in which she undertakes her duties. She simply cannot say that they are tit-for-tat matters; she has to decide whether they have any substance.

The impression that one gets from the critics is that Mrs. Filkin had a wish to do down the Commons and make adverse reports as often as she could. I cannot for the life of me see why she should have any such motive. Why should she wish to do down the House of Commons?

An hon. Member, whom I shall not mention by constituency or name—I could not mention him by name in any case—told me today that he had been treated very fairly by the Standards Commissioner. He was one of several hon. Members who told me that the commissioner had asked to see them after allegations had been made about them as individuals, sometimes—as in the case of the hon. Member that I mentioned—allegations that were made outside the House. Such Members said that they were very impressed. They were heard courteously, their explanation was accepted, or very nearly accepted, and the commissioner made no adverse report but gave good advice. It is unfortunate that those hon. Members have not said that in today's debate; it would perhaps have given a sense of balance to what is happening.

When the parliamentary commissioner thought that there had been an infringement of the rules relating to outside financial interests, she said so regardless of position and seniority, and certainly party. Is not that what we wanted from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? Is not that the way in which we wanted the work to be carried out?

If we are to continue with self-regulation, which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough has said should be the case, there is an argument that responsibility for appointing and renewing the contract of the parliamentary commissioner should be given to the Committee on Standards in Public Life. If that were to happen, the recommended person would be subject, or otherwise, to the confirmation of the House, and then of course the House would debate accordingly. However, self-regulation has its difficulties. We are saying, in effect, that we should appoint the parliamentary commissioner and decide whether the contract should be renewed. By following that procedure, we arrived at the present very unhappy position.

It gives me no satisfaction whatever to have been so critical, but I am, as my remarks have obviously shown. I repeat that I would have liked the parliamentary commissioner to be reappointed. It was a shabby aspect of the whole matter that she was not reappointed to her position, and Elizabeth Filkin is leaving in circumstances that do not bring much credit to the House of Commons.

Mrs. Filkin can leave with a sense of pride, because she has carried out her duties in the way that she promised when appointed. She has been impartial and conscientious. She has acted honourably at all times—that is my view and seems to be the view of the House of Commons Commission—and has undertaken her duties

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with undoubted ability. She is going—let us have no illusions on this score—simply because she has been too conscientious. That is why Elizabeth Filkin will be leaving the services of the House of Commons this week. By not renewing her contract—by allowing her to leave in such circumstances and without good reason—I believe that we have let ourselves down.

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