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9.48 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I am a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee and want briefly to express my support for the recommendations.

The major change that we are recommending relates to the advocacy rule, which the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) has just addressed. In fact, it was his problem that brought clearly to mind the fact that the rule had become unworkable. We propose that the advocacy rule be the rule that was originally recommended by what is now called the Wicks committee—the Committee on Standards in Public Life. We are doing nothing more than adopting the approach of what is now the Wicks committee as a method of ensuring that legitimate parliamentary activity is permitted.

We could sum up the other changes that the report recommends by saying that they attempt to simplify and update the rules in various ways. One effect is to reduce the number of registrable interests by introducing a £550 limit, to which I shall refer shortly. I emphasise that the recommendations will tighten the rules—for example, those that apply to property that hon. Members own. They should therefore consider that carefully. The rules on shareholdings have also been tightened. A new definition brings partners within the scope of the rules, and that definition now refers not only to spouses. The changes do not all constitute relaxation of the rules; some are tightened. We are trying to update the rules—the rule on partners is an example of that—and also to simplify them.

I want to comment on the points that hon. Members made in the debate. First, the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) asked why the recommendations were being made now when the Wicks committee is considering the matter. We are examining the substance of the code, whereas the Wicks committee is dealing with the machinery to enforce the registration system and the code of conduct. It is considering a different aspect of the problem. However, I take the point that we do not want to examine such matters often because it is a burden on hon. Members, who have to register their interests. If we constantly change the rules, it places a heavy onus on them. I accept the general point of the hon. Member for North Cornwall that we must keep the matter under review, but not too frequently because that would create confusion.

I always find the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) stimulating. He often makes me go away and think about things. I want to reassure him that the rules contained several financial limits, and we believed, in the interests of simplification, that we should adopt one cut-off point or threshold. We decided on the figure of 1 per cent. of the parliamentary salary. One could argue that it should be 0.5 per cent. or 2 per cent., but we fixed on 1 per cent. as a relatively simple threshold.

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My hon. Friend mentioned foreign travel. It is registrable if it falls above the threshold. If the foreign sponsorship involved a total payment of £600 in air fares, accommodation and so on, it would have to be registered. I am not sure that the threshold in that instance will mean that large amounts of foreign travel will not be subject to registration. I believe that they will.

Andrew Mackinlay: With respect, I believe that my hon. and learned Friend misses my point. The rules are unfair to hon. Members who go abroad and register that they have travelled at the invitation of a specific Government because they are interested in the country. The answer is for the House to facilitate adequate travel budgets so that hon. Members can travel unencumbered, unembarrassed and uninfluenced by a host Government. That should be the objective.

Ross Cranston: My hon. Friend anticipates my point: I was about to say that he had made me think about the matter. I agree with him, but that is not in the remit of our Committee. It is a good point, because Members of other legislatures get much more sponsored travel than us. There is a good argument for saying that we should receive more. There is already a limited amount, but perhaps it should cover trips to other parts of the world as well as to the EU.

The hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) made a point about incorporating the code into the ministerial code. There is a good argument for that, and I suspect that it will not be long before that is done. I agree with that point, but, again, it was not in the remit of the report. We were looking at the substance of the rules, and at how they ought to be changed.

Finally, I do not think that we have a purely self-regulatory system.

David Winnick: Before my hon. and learned Friend makes his final point, may I ask him a question relating to free gifts? Would he or his colleagues be in favour of the proposal that Members should send a copy of their annual tax return to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards? Is there any reason why we should not do that? The information would not necessarily go into the public domain; it could be held in private by the Commissioner. What is the argument against that?

Ross Cranston: There are big issues of privacy involved, and I would not go along with my hon. Friend on that proposal. The registration rules are quite clear. I shall read out part of rule 9, because it is important.

In other words, if an hon. Member thinks that a gift whose value falls below the threshold could be seen by outsiders as leading to the perception of a conflict of interest, they ought to register it, under the rules. If they thought that something below the value of £550 fell within the general definition of the register's purpose, the onus would be on them to register it. I should have thought that, in most cases, that would not apply, but my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) might take a different view about the very expensive box of chocolates that he receives and, under rule 9, he would be obliged to register it.

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As I mentioned, I do not think that we have a purely self-regulatory system. As my hon. Friend the Minister made clear, we are subject, in some cases, to the criminal law. We are subject to outside regulators, in that sense. We are also subject to constant public review by the press and, ultimately, we are accountable to the electorate. The most extreme example of that involved the former Member for Tatton, when the electorate said that his behaviour was not acceptable and that they would therefore not elect him—if that is how we interpret that particular result.

These rules are self-enforcing in the sense that the onus is on all of us to comply with them. If Members adopt a reasonable interpretation of the rules, they should not be subject to criticism. I adopt that view in a fairly legalistic way. If it is quite clear that a particular case does not fall within the rules, I do not think that Members should be subject to criticism on the basis that they should have sought advice and should have registered. I do not think that that is the way to go about it. These are self-enforcing rules, and Members have to read them. Yes, they should seek advice if they are in any doubt, but if they have no doubt, and if their interpretation of the rules is reasonable, they should not be subject to criticism.

On the whole, then, I commend these proposals to the House. We have tidied up the rules and brought them up to date. We have also dealt with the unworkability of the rule in relation to advocacy, which the hon. Member for Cotswold so amply illustrated in his speech. I commend the proposals to the House.

9.59 pm

Sir George Young: By leave of the House, may I say that I am very grateful, on behalf of the Committee, for the kind words that have been said about the report? I should like to reply briefly. I understand that business can go on after 10 o'clock, so if we hit 10 o'clock, I shall not turn into a pumpkin.

I want to say to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that a number of his hon. Friends have expressed the view to the Committee that the one group of people that is precluded from initiating a debate about a country overseas is often the group that knows most about it because it has recently visited it. That is the reason behind that change. I thought that I heard the hon. Gentleman utter some disobliging remarks about Tilbury football club, in which case, he is a very brave man. Whatever honorary position he is now obliged to declare in the register as an officer of that club may shortly be removed from him. As for minor interests, I think that he will find that the letter from the commissioner will discourage the registration of trivial matters so that what really needs to be registered is registered.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) mentioned timing. Some of the recommendations were made more than a year ago. There is a case for getting on with things when the House or the Select Committee has formed a view, which means that there may never be a right time, but I would be surprised if the Wicks committee took offence at what we are doing tonight.

I say to the hon. Gentleman, and to the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), that I think that the Wicks committee is more interested in the overall structure for maintaining standards of conduct in the House than in the details of the code. When I was examined, it was

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interested in an appeal process, the composition of the committee, the independence of the commissioner and the seniority of those serving on the committee.

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