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9.1 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Stephen Twigg): I am sure that the whole House will join me in welcoming the report from the Committee on Standards and Privileges and thanking the Committee and all its members for their work.

Last year, the House agreed with the Committee on Standards in Public Life that a senior Opposition Member should be Chair of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The impartiality of that Committee is clearly very important, and I am pleased that it is so clearly demonstrated in this report. I cannot imagine a person better fitted for the post than the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young).

The report and the consultation papers on which it is based speak for themselves. We need to ensure that we uphold the highest standards and that our work is not hampered by rules that inadvertently prohibit legitimate parliamentary activity. We should not forget that the purpose of having a code in the first place is to make sure that our standards are high; it is not a substitute for, or a shelter from, the criminal law. It is important that

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Members have the freedoms needed to operate effectively. The main freedom that we have is the freedom of speech necessary to enable us to pursue matters in the House or through its Committees. In the United Kingdom, our immunity extends only as far as formal proceedings in Parliament. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has made it clear that it expects the commissioner to refer any cases where it appears that a Member may have broken the law to the police. It has added that if the commissioner failed to call in the police, it would do so. I am sure that we all welcome that. If we always remembered that, and took pains to make it clear, it might ensure that some of the wider public debate on standards kept a proper sense of perspective.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the most important change proposed today is the reform of the advocacy rule. This is not a thoughtless change aimed at making life easier for MPs. Our current rules have been widely criticised, not only in the House but by knowledgeable outsiders, for being overly stringent. It has become apparent that although the broad thrust of the rule is correct, and it is right to have a blanket prohibition on what the Committee graphically describes as

its very breadth has caused some problems. That was well illustrated by the controversy surrounding the appointment of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) to the Opposition Front Bench, but it has also been picked up by the non-parliamentary Committee on Standards in Public Life when reviewing its earlier work.

The advocacy rule is an important safeguard, but as the Neill committee, as it then was, noted, when it operates too stringently it can prevent Members from dealing with precisely the subjects about which we are most knowledgeable. The proposed new rules should ensure that lobbying for reward or consideration remains completely banned, yet allow Members to deal with matters of genuine and general interest.

The introduction of a system for rectifying minor or inadvertent failures to register is also welcome, as is the Committee's willingness to censure those who come forward with frivolous or partisan complaints.

I also welcome the right hon. Gentleman's remarks to the Wicks committee last week, when he said that he and his Committee wished to do more on education, prevention and advice-giving. I am sure that that will help us all.

We must, as a House, try to uphold the highest standards. We must deal severely with those who knowingly fail to do so, but we must also accept that none of us is infallible and ensure that the system operates in a way that punishes the seriously guilty while helping the merely misguided to do better next time. I am convinced that these proposals will assist us in that, and I commend them to the House.

9.5 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I very much agree with the Minister's remarks, both in their content and context. I welcome the report produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee. Let

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the House not underestimate the difficulty of the work of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. The Committee strives to strike a tricky balance between the desire of many to see the application of the strictest possible standards to the House and those who want standards that are sensible, workable and, indeed, comprehensible to Members themselves.

The code of conduct—vital and central as it is—should never be seen as set in stone, as some permanent oracle; it must be flexible and something to which we can return from time to time, and the Committee is right to have done so. In the previous Parliament, the Committee struggled with both the advocacy rule and the limits on gifts and hospitality and found it difficult to reach a conclusion. I very much welcome the fact that the new Committee, under my right hon. Friend, has managed to pick its way through the thicket and emerge with sensible, practical and balanced proposals on those matters.

I always thought that it was—and still is—ridiculous to suggest that Members of Parliament can be suborned or bribed by trivial gifts and hospitality. The suggested new limits are a move in the right direction and refute that suggestion.

I simply want to acknowledge the work of the Committee and to recommend to my colleagues and to the House that we adopt the proposals, but that we continue to monitor them closely to ensure that they reassure the public and us that we are adhering to proper standards and that we shall continue to do so.

9.6 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): I am not entirely comfortable with the proposals—I have some reservations.

I fully accept that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members—if not all of us—would not consciously be influenced by the chance of a free trip from a particular Government or interest group. However, human nature being what it is, it is much more difficult—despite one's intentions—not to be influenced by the warmth, hospitality and kindness that is offered when one goes abroad at the invitation of a Government. That is manifestly true and can occur almost unconsciously.

We are going about the problem in the wrong way, however. Parliament should not say—as it is saying—that we cannot get full travel budgets for Members of Parliament from the public purse—

Mr. Forth: What?

Andrew Mackinlay: If the right hon. Gentleman can contain himself, I shall finish my point.

Our travel budget is not comparable to that of similar legislatures in other countries, where the facility is at the discretion of the Member and he or she can travel unhindered—independent of a host Government. Our system is deficient in that respect.

When the right hon. Gentleman intervened, perhaps the fact had crossed his mind that recently we agreed a provision that allowed MPs to visit European Union states, or EU applicant states, up to three times a year, provided that they touched base with the Parliament of that state. The provision is confined to those countries.

Mr. Forth: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Andrew Mackinlay: I promise that I shall give way when I have completed this point.

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That provision offers an adequate travel budget for Members who want to learn more about the EU or its applicant states, but it does not allow us to visit Israel, Palestine, the People's Republic of China, the Koreas or the United States of America; it applies only to EU countries or EU applicants. We should have allowed an extension of that provision, with stringent ground rules, so that any hon. Member could make such visits—perhaps up to three times a year. If we had, we would not need to relax the advocacy rule. We could visit any country in the world at the invitation of a Government or interest group without breaching the advocacy rule.

Mr. Forth: The hon. Gentleman may be surprised to learn that I rather agree with him. However, why did he not table an amendment to the motion that was on the Order Paper the other day to make this point and to allow the House to vote on it? Why did he allow that restrictive measure that he is criticising, on grounds with which I rather agree, to pass through the House unamended and without even a vote?

Andrew Mackinlay: I beat my breast three times—mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. One often wishes that one had amended a motion. However, I regret that personal circumstances have meant that I have not been around as much as I would have wanted in the past couple of weeks. I accept the right hon. Gentleman's admonishment and that is why I said in carefully crafted terms that I wished to express my reservations about this motion.

I do not suppose that this will be the end of the tale. I hope and imagine that we will revisit the issue. The compelling case for not restricting hon. Members to visiting European Union or accession countries just three times a year should be reconsidered. If we do that, I hope that we will also reconsider the relaxation of the advocacy rule. In my view, it is not the right way to go about the problem.

I also wish to make another confession. In the past, I was one of those who often included things in the register that now appear in the category of frivolous. I did not register those things in a frivolous way, but as an open declaration. For example, I put down the fact that I was the honorary patron of Tilbury Town football club, but my local newspaper, the Evening Echo, described me as a director of the club. As much as I love the club, it is not the most sexy place in the world or the most wonderful football club. It is wonderful to me, but its immediate prospects of reaching the premiership are not enormous. I made a declaration, but it was trivialised.

I raise that point because I listened to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee and it struck me that we should all be very sensible and not register such things in future. The previous form invited us to declare non-pecuniary interests, and we declared them for a variety of reasons. For example, we could show our pride in our association with a particular organisation or to show our breadth of interests. However, the guidance and instructions that we are about to receive should make it clear that we are registering our pecuniary interests and not the wider interests that can often be malevolently twisted or inadvertently confused for pecuniary interests.

I hope that the Chairman of the Committee will take that point on board. What was an invitation hitherto to make a wide declaration of one's enthusiasm and support

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for various organisations should now go. Perhaps there should be a separate document to show the scope of one's enthusiasms for organisations. We should not muddy the waters by making such declarations in the register of pecuniary interests.

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