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4.58 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): To summarise what I am about to say, I agree with the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick).

I also agree with the nomination put forward for our approval by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell). The House of Commons Commission and those who helped it have made a good choice. I imagine that if they had not chosen Mr. Philip Mawer, they would have picked someone just about as good. They follow in the line of those who chose Sir Gordon Downey and Elizabeth Filkin.

No criticism can be made of the quality of the people who have been nominated to serve our country by being employed as the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

There is a question of fact about who the commissioner is actually employed by. We are told that it is the House of Commons Commission, but I have looked at the 23rd annual report of the House of Commons Commission, trying to find a reference to the Commission's responsibilities in employing the commissioner. I have not found one.

Opening the report at random—say, in the middle where the staples are—I see that the Serjeant at Arms Department uses traffic lights to denote whether targets have been met. If they were used to test the Commission's actions over the past year with regard to the present Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, the traffic light would not be smiling as it is on page 44 because performance is below target.

I do not intend to criticise any individual on the Commission, although I will get fairly close to that with the Leader of the House. In August last year, an article in the Financial Times reported:

It goes on to say that the remarks by the Leader of the House in the previous month

I do not want to ask the Leader of the House to explain how those remarks got into the newspaper. All I want to do is to use them as evidence that it was on the record and known to the House of Commons Commission by then that there was a whispering campaign against the commissioner.

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Robin Cook): The hon. Gentleman said that he was not going to ask me about that, but with his permission I will respond. I checked my diary after he raised this matter in the House some time ago. In the two weeks preceding 20 August, I was not

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in London; I was in Edinburgh. I spoke to no one from the Financial Times throughout that period and can shed no light on how those words appeared there. If he is suggesting that I communicated them to the Financial Times, I hope that he will withdraw the comment.

Peter Bottomley: I would, but I did not suggest that. The right hon. Gentleman should be slightly less sensitive.

Mr. Cook: I am being criticised; of course I am sensitive.

Peter Bottomley: The right hon. Gentleman should wait until I get around to the criticism. So far, he has responded to a question that I explicitly did not put to him. I accept what he says and have not contradicted him. He has not faced an accusation.

I was making the point that people knew about the whispering campaign. If the House of Commons Commission was fulfilling the role of employer and also, therefore, protector, of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, it needs to ask itself collectively whether any action was taken on the whispering campaigns against her before the Speaker's letter. I believe that the whispering campaign started long before that. The Commission should have taken action that would at least have become known to the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Mr. Bell: The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point about why the Commission did not intervene in the so-called whispering campaign. The Speaker wrote to Elizabeth Filkin but she was unable to supply evidence. Had the letter been sent earlier, there would have still been no evidence.

Peter Bottomley: The hon. Gentleman did better in the first part of that sentence. The Speaker, in his role as Chairman of the House of Commons Commission rather than in his role as Speaker—the distinction is not important and I am not criticising him in any way—wrote the letter in November. The Financial Times had the report in August and it only confirmed what many people already knew about the attacks on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards by those who felt vulnerable.

All I am trying to establish is that the House of Commons Commission or a member of it first asked the commissioner about a whispering campaign in November. The letter could have been better drafted. It could have said that the Commission would protect the person fulfilling the function of the commissioner, whether or not the whispering campaign and the pressure were having an effect on that person.

It is some years since I gave up my fellowship in the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, which used to be called the Institute of Personnel Management. However, my experience in personnel management is extensive. I have had ministerial and professional responsibility for it, and I know a lot about it.

What has happened to the present commissioner would, in most employments, be an open-and-shut case of unfair, constructive dismissal. I shall illustrate that with one example.

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Answers from the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood), who answers for the House of Commons Commission, say that the Commission knows that the commissioner has been working for five days a week. The Commission knows that it has been paying her for four days a week. It advertised her job at three days a week.

I turn now to the Leader of the House. On several occasions in the past two months, he has repeated the abbreviated remark, which is true, that the commissioner could apply for her job up to the moment when the applicants on the shortlist were interviewed. There is not a single recorded occasion on which the Leader of the House, speaking as a senior member of the Government and close associate of the Prime Minister, as the representative of the House or as a member of the House of Commons Commission, acknowledged in public that what he failed to say is that the commissioner could apply for her job, which she currently does for five days a week, on condition that she applied to do it for three days a week with 60 per cent. of her present work load.

Mr. Robin Cook indicated dissent.

Peter Bottomley: When the Leader of the House shakes his head, I assume that he is agreeing with me.

Mr. Cook rose

Peter Bottomley: I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he will say when, on the Floor of the House, he said that the commissioner could apply for her job, which she is doing for five days a week, but she had to apply to do it for three days a week.

Mr. Cook: I am very happy to respond by saying that what the hon. Gentleman says is simply not true. If the commissioner had applied for and got the job, she could certainly have asked to be appointed on the present basis, which is four days a week. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that if we had appointed her and she had sought to work for four days, then, just as with Mr. Mawer, she would have got four days. There is no question of her having been invited to apply on the basis of a cut in pay or hours.

Peter Bottomley: I shall not repeat it more than once, but my point is that I have not found a recorded occasion in the House in the past two months—[Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman would do better to listen. I have not found a recorded occasion in the past two months when he has stated the additional fact that he was inviting the commissioner to reapply for her job although it was advertised at three days a week. Not only was that fact not explicit; it was not mentioned at all.

We know that the commissioner was working five days a week, that the advertisement was for three days a week and that there had been a row about that reduction, but the right hon. Gentleman never mentioned that. From his reported remarks it sounded as though the commissioner could carry on as long as she applied—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Sedentary interventions do not help the debate.

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Peter Bottomley: With the Leader of the House chuntering away like that, I almost feel that I should apologise for speaking. The point has been made, and I think that he accepts it.

Mr. Cook: If the hon. Gentleman will give way, I will reply to his allegations.

Peter Bottomley: I give way to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Cook: For the avoidance of doubt, there was never any suggestion, to Mrs. Filkin or to anyone else, that if she applied for the job and was reappointed, there would be a cut in pay or a cut in hours. Had she been reappointed, she would have retained her pay and her four days a week. Although the job was advertised at three days, we have made it plain in the House on several occasions that we were willing to discuss with whoever was appointed the number of days that that person would work. Indeed, I seem to recall my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) saying precisely that in relation to Mr. Mawer.

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