Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Salmond: Is atheism widespread in the Church of England these days?

Mr. Sedgemore: If I went down that line, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would pull me up, but there was a well known Bishop of Durham who was pretty close to being an atheist.

As regards Elizabeth Filkin, I accept what my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) said. A few weeks ago, I paid a heartfelt, personal tribute to Elizabeth Filkin in an article in Tribune. I shall not go through it because I know that every hon. Member reads my articles in Tribune, but I genuinely believe that she was badly treated by Members of Parliament, and on occasions badly treated by the Committee to which she gave such devoted service and, dare I say it, by the House of Commons Commission itself.

My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough said that Elizabeth Filkin would not give any evidence, but one would have to live in a time capsule in this place not to know that there was a whispering campaign, which on most occasions developed in front of me into a shouting campaign. All I can say is that, if the hon. Member for Middlesbrough or any member of the House of Commons Commission really believes that there was not a whispering campaign, they would not do so if they had read my article in Tribune, unless they are wholly incapable of understanding the ordinary and natural meaning of simple English words.

Furthermore—I am rather loth to say this, but given some of the stuff that we have heard, I will do so—a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee once described Elizabeth Filkin to me as "mad". Some time later—I remember the day, as will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because it was the last time that Oxford university played Cambridge university at rugby, and the only redeeming feature of that dreadful match was that Oxford university won—I rushed back here to do my House of Commons duties and a member of that Committee told me that Elizabeth Filkin had left not only a job at the Inland Revenue but a job at the London Docklands development corporation under a cloud. When I asked for more information, I was just told that "they"—

13 Feb 2002 : Column 248

the impersonal, unknown and unnamed "they"—were saying it. If that is how a member of the Committee can behave, I apologise to Elizabeth Filkin. I also apologise to her because, until I wrote my article in Tribune three weeks ago, I had not said much on the matter. I am sorry that we—and I—have let Elizabeth down.

5.51 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) is a marvellous self-publicist. I hardly dare speak because I must declare an interest as a member of the General Synod of the Church of England and as an Anglican who is not an atheist. The hon. Gentleman was having fun in his inimitable way, and I shall not follow him down some of the paths to which he pointed. However, I shall make sure that I get hold of his article in Tribune—doubtless he will send me a copy, which he will autograph, I hope—and I shall read it with great interest over the weekend. Whether I shall read it with much profit is another matter.

I want to take part briefly in this debate, but not because I want to talk about Elizabeth Filkin, whom I did not have the pleasure of knowing. I do not want to say anything detrimental about her; in fact, I am not able to say much about her at all. I am sure that she sought to discharge her duties with assiduity. As for the future, however, we must consider the way in which we appoint our commissioners. There is a lot to be said for appointing a commissioner for one term—perhaps a longer term than the present one—which would not be renewable. That would allow the commissioner to behave without fear or favour in any way.

It would probably be wise, in the light of the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), to consider the issue of publicity. Perhaps every commissioner should either make a self-denying ordinance or have imposed on him or her some sort of restriction on speaking to the press about any matter. Officers of the House do not speak to the press as a matter of course and tradition. There is much to be said for that tradition. The Clerk of the House does not give comments to the press whatever advice he may give to the Speaker or anyone else.

What I really want to say stems from my membership of the General Synod. The House would make an exceptionally wise choice if it were to appoint Mr. Philip Mawer and endorse the recommendation made in a speech that was not at all as described by the rumbustious hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch—the hon. Gentleman who represents Hackney marshes. I have known Philip Mawer for a long time. I knew him when he was a civil servant, although not well, and I know that he was highly regarded in the roles that he played in the civil service. I have seen him at first hand in the General Synod, and I believe that he has clarity of thought and an analytical mind. I know that he has gentle and self-deprecating good humour. A sense of humour is terribly important in a job like the one that we are considering.

I also know that Philip Mawer has the ability to be impartial. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who is the Second Church Estates Commissioner, talked about Church politics. I do not want to say too much about them, but I must point out to the

13 Feb 2002 : Column 249

hon. Gentleman who represents Hackney marshes that, if one can cope with Church politics, one can cope with the politics here. Church politics are at least as unscrupulous and devious as anything seen in the House of Commons.

Mr. McNamara: Speak for your own Church.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am talking about the established Church of England of which I am exceptionally proud to be a member. I do not seek to cast aspersions in the direction of Rome.

We must bring a certain humour to our debates. If one can cope, as Philip Mawer has coped, with the General Synod of the Church of England, one can cope with the House of Commons. His work has been remarkable because he has not forfeited the respect of any of the factions or groups—those on the Catholic or evangelical wings, the traditionalists or modernists—but has enhanced his reputation by the way in which he has dealt with them. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough knows that as well as I do, and I am sure that he would agree entirely with me on that point.

In the time that Mr. Mawer has been at the General Synod, he has been an exceptional public servant of outstanding quality. We are extremely fortunate that he wished to apply for the post and we owe our congratulations to all those—I played no part in this myself—who decided to choose Philip Mawer from what was a distinguished field. He has it within him to be a great servant of the House. I wish him well, and I hope that the House will endorse the recommendation before us.

5.57 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) said that the events of recent months had not done the reputation of the House much good. I agree with him. We have not covered ourselves in glory.

My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick), the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and others have mentioned the qualities of the retiring commissioner. I have spent a short time on the Standards and Privileges Committee and there can be no doubting her dedication and hard work. The machinery of the independent commissioner reporting to the Committee was very much an innovation when it was established in 1995 and it still seems to be unique among Parliaments in the world. However, as the House of Commons Commission report makes clear, Elizabeth Filkin's work has validated the position of commissioner.

The commissioner's role is a difficult one to carry out. The position was not recommended by the Nolan report, which suggested a separate investigator and adjudicator. When Lord Neill wrote to the Chairman of the Committee a couple of years ago, he said:

By combining the two roles, we have imposed a heavy burden on the two commissioners who have held the post and we shall impose such a burden on the new appointee. There are various reasons why the concept of an investigating judge has been abandoned in continental countries, but the fact that such judges combine the two roles is one of them.

13 Feb 2002 : Column 250

I want to look forward. I congratulate Mr. Mawer on his appointment. My hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell) outlined Mr. Mawer's qualities and my hon. Friend's remarks were endorsed by the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). I am sure that Mr. Mawer will be a splendid appointment.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) referred to the commissioner's remit, but I want to deal with that point in a slightly different way. I wish to refer to the procedures to which the commissioner should adhere.

The first stage, of course, is the receipt of a complaint. There is no need for me to tell the House that the process is used by political opponents outside to air grievances, and by journalists searching for a story. In a previous debate, I implored hon. Members—including Labour Members—not to use the process simply for political advantage. I associate myself completely with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), and with the intervention made by the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton, on that point. Short-term political benefit can be gained by using the process, but the corrosive effects on the standing of the House are too great a danger in the long run.

Last year, the Standards and Privileges Committee's fifth report contained the assertion that it was a basic courtesy that any hon. Member making a complaint to the commissioner about another hon. Member should send a letter to the hon. Member concerned. Unfortunately, that is still not being done. If it were, it might be some deterrent to hon. Members who want to advance complaints against other hon. Members.

Even if we could choke off political expediency in this place, people outside would still use the process as a pretext to attack hon. Members. Mr. Mawer, the new commissioner, will need to adopt a robust approach to that. He will need to dispose quickly of complaints that are trivial, and of allegations that clearly do not require investigation.

The guide to the rules sets out clearly the rudiments of the process. Complaints must not be anonymous, they must be supported by evidence, and they will not normally be taken up if they are founded simply on a story in the media. If there is evidence, the commissioner has to ask the hon. Member involved to respond, and conduct a preliminary investigation. If there is no prima facie case to answer, that should be the end of the matter.

The present commissioner, Mrs. Filkin, has fleshed out those procedural points in a helpful document attached to the Committee's ninth report. Trivial complaints, or complaints that appear to have nothing to them, must be dealt with quickly and robustly. That calls for strength of character and judgment. From what has been said, it seems that Mr. Mawer has both qualities.

In its sixth report on standards in public life, the Neill committee endorsed an approach that resulted in the commissioner robustly dismissing malicious and frivolous complaints. In addition, it went on to suggest that, when an ill founded complaint receives publicity, the commissioner, with the consent of the hon. Member involved, should publicise his judgment. There is great merit in that suggestion, and I hope that the House will be able to debate the matter at some stage.

13 Feb 2002 : Column 251

Once an inquiry begins and the thresholds are met, the commissioner must adhere to certain basic principles. They are derived from common law, and are given added force by article 6 of the European convention. Conveniently, they are also set out in the 1999 report from the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege under Lord Nicholls.

I shall isolate three of those principles. They are that there must be a prompt and clear statement of the precise allegations against the hon. Member, that there must be an adequate opportunity to take advice, and that there must be an opportunity to be heard.

The first principle is perhaps the most important. There is a great danger that an investigation can go off the rails. It is always possible for an investigator to follow a multitude of lines, to range widely over an hon. Member's affairs, and to stray into matters involving third parties for which an hon. Member has no responsibility—all in the hope that something will turn up. The length of any consequent inquiry can be unfair to the hon. Member concerned, as a cloud remains over his or her head for months.

There is therefore a need for focus, to isolate the important and to discard the trivial. The allegation must then be formulated, and put to the hon. Member involved. In most cases, the aim must be to come quickly to a conclusion. There can be no justification for keeping from the hon. Member the nature of the allegation. There is rarely a justification for keeping from the hon. Member involved the evidence on which an allegation is based.

I come now to the standard of proof that the commissioner, Mr. Mawer, must apply. I do not think that there is any controversy about that now. The Nicholls committee said that the standard was the balance of probabilities, but that a higher standard of proof might be appropriate in serious cases. The first commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, adopted that approach, although he did not use legal terminology. The approach has now been endorsed by the Committee itself. Cogent evidence is needed to support an allegation. Where reputation is involved, especially cogent evidence is needed in the balance.

I shall say a few words about third parties. People associated with hon. Members will be affected by the commissioner's work. Spouses of MPs, for example, know that MPs have to register some of their property interests. Moreover, the commissioner will sometimes need to interview third parties in the course of an inquiry to obtain information. In the end, however, only hon. Members are answerable to the House, and only they are subject to the mandatory jurisdiction of the commissioner.

The corollary of that is that the commissioner has to be sensitive to the position of third parties. For example, spouses may have their own careers. If they are doctors, lawyers, journalists, business people or whatever, they will have duties towards other people. Such duties could include duties of confidentiality, which would mean that they could not assist the commissioner. It is MPs who have duties to this House, not other people. It seems to me that it will be very rare for the commissioner to make adverse comments—let alone reach adverse findings—about third parties in his reports.

13 Feb 2002 : Column 252

In some cases, of course, where documentary evidence is not available, the commissioner may have to rely on oral evidence, which may come from third parties. If the commissioner accepted that evidence, no adverse comment would be made. However, if the commissioner did not accept the evidence of third parties, he could avoid making adverse comments in most cases and simply accept the persuasive evidence.

I believe that it is unnecessary in almost all cases to comment adversely on third parties. After all, the commissioner's report to the Committee on Standards and Privileges is protected by parliamentary privilege. That should not be a cloak for adverse comments on third parties in most cases.

Next Section

IndexHome Page