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6.36 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I, too, congratulate the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of our Committee, who has been extremely skilful in difficult circumstances. I also congratulate my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston), who made most of the points that I wanted to make, but far more eloquently and succinctly than I could. As a result, I shall not keep the House until 10 o'clock, or even later—a motion would allow us to continue beyond that hour—but I must make a number of points.

First, there is a misapprehension in the House and, I believe, in the media, over the way in which the system works. The commissioner's report goes to the Committee, but it is the Committee's report that matters to the House. Hon. Members can obviously read the commissioner's report and then decide whether they think the Committee's report is proper, accurate and fair, but we discuss our report and our decision. That ought to be borne in mind.

People do not understand the process properly, and I must disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster). I do not believe that natural justice was in some way overthrown in the case to which he referred—not at all. In fact, my opinion remains that the commissioner and the Committee bent over backwards to ensure that our hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz) had every opportunity to present his case, produce his solicitors and have opinions from learned counsel. The Shakespearean tragedy of all this is that the person who hanged himself today is my hon. Friend, by virtue of his conduct.

As has been rightly said, of 11 charges, eight were not upheld, two were minor and one represented a slap on the wrist. However, my hon. Friend's attitude, partly to the

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commissioner, but mostly regarding alleged telephone calls, caused his downfall. I urge colleagues to read the whole report very carefully, if they have time. If they do not, they should read the section on Mapesbury Communications—a company established for the benefit of our colleague of which his mother-in-law and then his mother were secretary. The sole director was his wife. Moneys were used to buy a car for his mother, as company secretary.

Our hon. Friend said that he knew nothing of the workings of that company, and the Committee said, with all charity, that that was a little odd. However, we upheld what the commissioner said because all the evidence on which we could have pursued that matter further had mysteriously disappeared. The charge could not be upheld for lack of evidence, not because there was no trail to follow, as has perhaps been suggested. The trail went cold for lack of evidence.

On the telephone calls, I refer colleagues to the appendix, which contains the full text of the letter from the chief inspector of Leicestershire police. The report contains only part of that letter, which states the serious charges that the police considered they might bring against my hon. Friend. They then decided that he was seeking to undermine our system and therefore that it should be left to us to decide what should happen to him. The charges were very serious indeed.

Although I agree with what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North said about third parties, the Committee was scrupulous with regard to third parties in that report. We dealt only with our colleague, not with other individuals about whom we might have formed opinions that we decided not to express. We were dealing with our colleague, not with the third parties. Sometimes, colleagues can drag in third parties in all sorts of ways and their reputations have to be defended—we had to defend some third parties in our report. This is a serious matter. It was most unpleasant sitting in judgment on a colleague.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) said that he felt the commissioner had been badly treated by the Committee. I have served on the Committee in only this Parliament, and I must say that there were differences of opinion, but there was respect for the commissioner and an understanding of her position in arguing points and reaching decisions. Different conclusions were reached without blazing rows or anything of that nature, and we carefully explained why we disagreed. That is precisely how we reached decisions.

David Winnick: From my hon. Friend's experience of serving on the Committee—limited though it is—does he think that our hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) is in any way correct to suggest that the parliamentary commissioner should lose her job because she has been over-zealous? In his experience, has the parliamentary commissioner done anything that a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards should not have done?

Mr. McNamara: I shall come to that in a moment. I shall refer to the allegation that the parliamentary commissioner was badly treated by the Committee, and I shall deal with my attitude towards Mrs. Filkin. I found

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her to be intellectually hard and very careful in her use of words. She bent over backwards to be fair and to give the benefit of the doubt when she could. In fact, the Committee felt that she had not been hard enough on one occasion, and we reconsidered the evidence on one of the accusations. We upheld her decision not to proceed further on that matter. That is an example of the Committee disagreeing with the commissioner. I found her tough, intellectual and uncompromising in terms of what she felt her proper role involved. The way that the rules were laid down may be criticised, but I felt that she was absolutely straight and upright in upholding them. I found no reason why we should throw stones at her.

On the points that other colleagues have made, when some people knew that I had been appointed to the Committee, they muttered, "Oh, that Filkin woman." How much of that was deliberately stirred up by colleagues who were subject to her inquiries only they know. Some of them may feel that, in some way or another, they have obtained a victory in her dismissal. If they think that, I feel sad for them because they have let down the House of Commons.

The parliamentary commissioner had an almost impossible job—she had to police the standards and ensure that they were upheld by some of the most self-opinionated people in the country, barring only the members of the senior judiciary. I thought that she carried out her task remarkably well, but I know that there were those mutterings and explosions. Some colleagues said that other colleagues were badly treated when they had not even read the reports or looked at the evidence on which the decisions were made. That is a criticism of us, not of the commissioner. I hope that her new job is as challenging, but that she has more support and understanding than she has achieved here.

I want to turn to the role of the House of Commons Commission. It did not completely follow the rules on establishing such posts, as laid down by the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and it came in late. Only later did the Commission involve the Chairman of the Committee. Although I accept that all hon. Members are equal in such matters, we, as members of the Committee, are more closely and intimately affected than others. However, at no time did the Commission officially—or even unofficially, so far as I know—approach the Committee to ask for our impression of the way in which the parliamentary commissioner was undertaking her role. Given what has been said this evening, hon. Members know that opinions would have differed. The least that the Commission could have done was to approach the Committee and ask, "What do you think of the commissioner's behaviour?" That was not done, and that important matter has to be examined by the Commission in future.

The fact that the Committee was not shown two audited reports on the work of the commissioner and her office—even now it has not been shown those reports—delayed things until after the recommendation to appoint the new commissioner and the virtual dismissal of the current one. The Commission behaved disgracefully in not letting the Committee know what was going on and what the problems were. I presume that it did not want us to see those reports because they showed that the commissioner was overworked and doing a good job, as were her staff. That is absolutely disgraceful.

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The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack) referred to tenure. One of the tasks that the House has given me is membership of our delegation to the Council of Europe. I am the Chairman of the Sub-Committee of the Legal Affairs and Human Rights Committee—European matters are all very complicated—that recommends to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe whom we think it should elect, from a list of three people submitted by countries, to be a member of the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg. It is in some ways one of the most onerous jobs that I have had in my life. Although those judges were originally part-time, they were appointed for a nine-year term. With the reorganisation of the court a few years ago, they were appointed for fixed terms. Under the new system, half of them, chosen by lot, will retire after three years to be replaced by others for successive six-year terms.

That system seems extremely fair, but we found some shortcomings. First, we found that in some cases, sitting judges were not reappointed, or not included on their country's shortlist, for a variety of reasons. It might have been for political reasons, because they had given or supported judgments that the home country did not like, or because their face did not fit, although they were competent judges. There was interference in that way, as there might have been on the matter that we are discussing tonight.

Secondly, we noted that some of the judges who were coming up for re-selection found it necessary to spend time at home, ensuring that their colleagues there appreciated the need for them to be on the bench in Strasbourg. To many people with judicial minds—like politicians' minds—what happened yesterday is quickly forgotten, and the judges had to remind their colleagues of who they were and why they were there.

The system was unsatisfactory. There were threats to the independence of the judges. Judges were in danger of corrupting themselves in the way that they went about seeking re-selection, and the factors influencing re-selection meant that the system did not work efficiently, which was a problem.

We shall be in a much better position if we appoint a Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards for a period of, let us say, nine or 10 years, knowing that they will not be reappointed at the end of the term, knowing that they will be independent, and knowing that the means exist to get rid of them if they shoot their wife or run off with the Treasury—although they will not get away with much gold if my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer keeps going on in the way that he is. In other words, the commissioner could be got rid of for malfeasance, but not for making unpopular judgments or for ruffling the defendant. We would be in a much better position if we adopted that arrangement; for starters, we would not have debates such as this so frequently.

If we take that course, we shall know when the commissioner is due to leave office, and we should be able to appoint a new one well enough in advance to enable them to learn the ropes before assuming the post. At present, the newly appointed commissioner is supposed to attend for perhaps one day a week for the first month, and after that perhaps two days a week, then perhaps three days a week and then—if he finds the job as difficult as it is—four or five days a week. However, given the work load that the Audit Commission found,

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it is nonsensical to appoint someone who has to wind up his present contract, fine, splendid, pure, upright and hard- working as the man is. I do not know the gentleman and I wish him well in his job, but I believe that we could think about some of these matters more seriously.

I shall now mention legal advice. I sometimes wonder to what degree legal advice and opinions from learned counsel are introduced deliberately to waste time—to produce red herrings or further matters to be investigated, just in case the Committee could be accused of being unfair. Colleagues obviously must have that right but, in their own interests, it should be used sparingly.

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