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9.13 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I do not intend to follow the argument of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) in great detail, but I have some sympathy for the points that he has just made. When I was the Liberal Democrat spokesman on food, I received a large Wensleydale cheese. As that was not a major event attracting much publicity, I thought that the best way to advertise the fact that the home of Wallace and Gromit was alive and well and producing excellent cheese was to declare the fact in the Register of Members' Interests. Unfortunately, the gift was not considered a sufficient financial inducement, so I was prevented from declaring it—but the hon. Gentleman is right. We must take the register seriously. If we allow it to be used in a frivolous way, we will debase the whole exercise.

The point that I wanted to make was about timing. The report is workmanlike, and I give full credit to the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and his Committee. It is always difficult to know the right moment to produce a review. However, I suggest that this is an odd moment to produce one, because the right hon. Gentleman himself, the Leader of the House, the Conservative Front-Bench spokesman, the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) and the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) all gave evidence—either last week or at the beginning of this week—to the Wicks committee. It is considering the whole strategy of how we regulate ourselves—or, indeed, whether we should regulate ourselves at all. This is an odd moment to introduce the proposals not just for debate but for decision, given that those discussions will continue for several weeks, and possibly for months.

I accept that timing is a problem. Clearly, there was a need to make our rules compatible with those of the Electoral Commission. That probably could not wait. I hope that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire will respond briefly to the debate and will tell us whether there really is an imperative.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I listened carefully to the impressive evidence that the hon. Gentleman gave to the Wicks committee last Wednesday. I was there throughout the day and I got the impression from its members' line of questioning that they had already made up their minds against self-regulation. Was that his impression?

Mr. Tyler: The Father of the House has an advantage over me: he sat there right through the whole day—in fact, two days. I did not, but all those to whom I have spoken who gave evidence certainly seem to have gained that impression. I hope that it is not right, and that the committee is reaching its view unprejudiced by any presumption of whether it would be right to change the basis on which we in the House regulate our conduct. However, if that impression is true, it is even more peculiar that we should be taking steps today to review the rules, however peripheral they may be.

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In fact, the rules are not peripheral. I give credit to the Standards and Privileges Committee and its Chairman, because tidying up the question of advocacy is central to that Committee's role and to the way in which we operate in the House. Reference has already been made to the fact that real experience and expertise were being effectively excluded from the workings of the House by the way in which the advocacy rule was interpreted. That is critical to the work of the House.

If we are preventing people from bringing their knowledge and experience to the work of Parliament, that is a serious issue. It is not peripheral, nor is it peripheral to deal with such provisions, which the Chairman of the Committee properly describes as being de minimis. De minimis, by its very nature, is a relative term. If we are to have a de minimis provision, I hope that it will remove some of the overload on the register and the investigative system. That is extremely important.

My concern is simply about timing. I wonder whether this is the right moment even to clarify, let alone to relax, the remit of the Standards and Privileges Committee and the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, as we are being reviewed by the Wicks committee.

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): As a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I accept the hon. Gentleman's point about timing. In a sense, there is never a right time. Ideally, it would have been good for the new Parliament to have started a year ago with a new set of rules. The proposals have been made partly because a body of evidence and experience has built up and led us to believe that the time is right, and partly because it is probably not a bad idea to coincide with the beginning of the new commissioner's term. So all sorts of features are involved. In addition, Wicks is not concentrating on the issues before us tonight; he is considering the structures rather than the content of the rules, certainly at present.

Mr. Tyler: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that very helpful intervention, but I think that he would agree that the structure and the tactics—the details of which we are concerned with this evening—interrelate at the very least.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire said in his introduction that such matters would be kept under review. He also said that he had made a submission to the Committee on Standards in Public Life—the Wicks committee. I must accept that that is probably our best way forward at this stage. It would be rather absurd to leave things hanging in the air for several months until the completion of the Wicks committee's review.

I hope that we are making it clear this evening—perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would make it clear himself—that the proposals are provisional and transitional and that Parliament still has to face the big issues. Incidentally, it is important not just to have compatibility with the Electoral Commission; I hope that we will have compatibility with the House of Lords, too, in due course. However the other place is reformed in future, it would be ridiculous if one set of rules applied here and quite another applied at the other end of the building. Again, the right hon. Gentleman may like to address that point.

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Given assurances, which I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be prepared to give, that the proposals for review, and—it must be said—for relaxation, are being made only for the time being, and that he and his Committee will be prepared to enter into a dialogue with the House as well as with the Wicks committee in due course, I am prepared to accept them. Without those assurances, however, I would be bound to say that I find the timing most inappropriate.

9.20 pm

David Winnick (Walsall, North): If I register a slight note of dissent it is because I would not wish it to be felt that all of us necessarily agree with the recommendations of the Standards and Privileges Committee. I shall not, like my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), try to force a vote. No purpose would be served by that. The matter is not of such substance that a vote would be justified. I am somewhat uneasy, however, so it is only right and proper that, as a Member of the House, I should say so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said in his intervention that the Committee on Standards in Public Life might come to the view that self-regulation should come to an end. I do not know what recommendations it will make—my hon. Friend may have far better knowledge of that than I do—but if it does recommend that, it will be our fault. I do not want to recount all that happened in relation to the dismissal, as I would describe it, of the last Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, but my view is that that led to a number of questions being raised in the minds of a good many people involved with integrity and honesty in public life, not only in Parliament.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Will my hon. Friend accept that the previous parliamentary commissioner was given a virtually impossible job, and that the new parliamentary commissioner may have a more sensible job as a result?

David Winnick: I have made it clear both in debate and in correspondence that I wish the new parliamentary commissioner well. I genuinely mean that. He is in no way responsible for what happened previously, and it would be quite wrong to hold what happened to Mrs. Filkin against him in any way whatever. I want to put that clearly on record.

I also have great respect for the members and Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee. Self- regulation is always difficult. Passing judgment on one's colleagues, especially if they are in one's own party, is a job that not many would wish to do, but it is part and parcel of self-regulation. After all, in the medical profession, for example, if a member of a General Medical Council panel discussing a disciplinary case knew the person against whom the complaint was being made, we can rest assured that that panel member would not take part in those proceedings.

As for the proposals in front of us, I have reservations about the fact that a sum of £550 will not have to be declared if we agree to the report. Members may say, "What is £550 these days?" As has been pointed out, it is 1 per cent. of our salary. To many people outside, however—certainly to many of my constituents—£550 is quite a large sum. If the argument is, "We don't want to litter the register with smaller sums," I understand that.

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I hope that I will not be misunderstood—there is always a danger of sounding pious—but I would say, "Why accept gifts to the value of £550?" I do not want to give the impression that I am showered with gifts all the time in my constituency or elsewhere, but like most Members, I may be kindly offered a box of chocolates, for example, because of casework that I have done. Clearly, although I would not want to enter that gift in the register, I would explain that I much appreciate what is being offered and I accept it, but that, without wishing to be discourteous, I will give the gift—as would most if not all Members—to the local hospital. The important thing is not to be under any obligation. One could ask what obligation a Member would be under for £550, but that sum still seems too large to me.

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