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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Even if the Lord Chancellor is correct when he says that he did not take any account of the evidence given to the Select Committee, it is deeply worrying that a senior civil servantno doubt reflecting the general understanding within the civil serviceshould have thought that giving evidence to a Select Committee was a proper subject for disciplinary action.
Mr. Beith: That is one of the reasons for the Committee's wish that the matter should be considered by the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Personally, I am not at all surprised that any witness receiving the Lord Chancellor's original letter together with the document containing the allegation should form the impression that they were being punished, at least in part, for giving evidence to a Committee of the House. Having considered the Lord Chancellor's reply, my Committee concluded that
The Committee on Standards and Privileges has the power to establish whether a breach of privilege has taken place and, if so, to make whatever recommendations it believes appropriate. Accordingly, I ask the House to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges.
I want to make my position clear at the outset. With the leave of the House, I am happy to respond to any appropriate points that are made in the debate. The Government fully support the motion because it is right for the House to refer possible breaches to the Committee on Standards and Privileges and we welcome its scrutiny in this case.
The Government fully respect the privileges of the House and we will uphold them to the end. They are crucial to the independence of Parliament and the strength of our democracy. We are strongly committed to Select Committees. We have taken steps to increase their independence and effectiveness and we fully accept the need for witnesses to be able to speak out to Select Committees without fear or favour under the protection of parliamentary privilege.
The Government regard any possible breach of privilege with the greatest seriousness and look to the Committee on Standards and Privileges to establish whether such a breach has occurred in this case.
Mr. Hogg: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will tell the House what directions will be given to the civil service to ensure that never again will a senior official regard giving evidence to a Select Committee as an appropriate ground for disciplinary action.
It is not appropriate for me to deal here with the substance of the case. I simply draw attention to the statement that the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs made in his letter to the Committee. It appears as appendix 3 of the Committee's special report and states that
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): I thank the Leader of the House for the welcome assurance that the Government will support the motion. I join his tribute to the Chairman of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), for his presentation of the motion.
As the Leader of the House said, it would be wrong to prejudge the outcome. However, in supporting the motion, I emphasise that the allegation that Lord Falconer threatened a witness with dismissal for giving evidence to Parliament under the protection of a Select Committee is serious. It should therefore be referred for investigation. The ministerial code makes it clear that Ministers should require civil servants who give evidence before parliamentary Committees to be as helpful as possible in providing accurate, truthful and
The allegation would be serious if it were made against any employer, but it is doubly so when it involves a Minister who is also the most senior legal figure in the country. It is worth recalling that the Lord Chancellor has a parliamentary role in that he is the occupant of the Woolsackthe presiding officer of the House of Lords.
Mr. Speaker: Order. I like to give Front-Bench spokesmen leeway but we must be careful. We have a motion to put the matter before the Committee on Standards and Privileges. It is for the Committee to judge it and talk about the individuals involved. The matter will then revert to the House, when the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) and every other hon. Member will have the freedom to argue the case about who was right and who was wrong. We must be careful at this stage.
Mr. Clive Soley (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I welcome the way in which the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who chairs our Committee, put the case. It is important to get the case right. There are issues about the civil service and there may be matters about Ministers to consider. However, we should not judge them now. It is for the Committee on Standards and Privileges to determine the matter and we should debate it subsequently if necessary. Frankly, the less said the better at the moment. I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to rule that we simply refer the matter and get on with the business.
I want to make two other points. First, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed said, the Committee and the Government accepted the points that were presented. Consequently, CAFCASS, which provides important services to vulnerable children, could be reformed in the manner for which the witness had campaigned for a considerable time.
The lady has been suspended on the ground that she was not corporate enough and that confidential information was breached. The Committee will have to explore that because the Nolan rules on the conduct of members of public bodies are clear and include nothing about having to be corporate or to respect information.
Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I shall be brief, but I speak as a member of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. I fully endorse the words of the Chairman, who put the case very even-handedly. It is important that the issue does not distract from the excellent report on CAFCASS that the Select Committee produced. It showed the huge failings in that body's operation and resulted in a rare example of the Government doing what a Committee wanted it to do, in this case changing the way in which the board operated and making a fresh start.
To counter the point that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) made, the Lord Chancellor's letter of 8 January, which is published in the documents, makes it clear that the fact that the matter has come before the House has nothing to do with the way in which the witness gave evidence. He states that three times.
I hope that the Committee will consider confidentiality. When witnesses sign confidentiality clauses or appear in a confidential relationship and subsequently give evidence to a Committee, it should be clear that Parliament overrides that confidentiality. It has not been clear in the past, and the referral gives the Committee an opportunity to pronounce on that.