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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 servant—no doubt reflecting the general understanding within the civil service—should 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

Committees of the House that seek to carry out effective scrutiny depend on being able to assure witnesses that they can give evidence freely, without fear of penalty. It needs to be clearly understood in Departments, public bodies and elsewhere that if that freedom is found to be threatened, it will be protected.

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.

1.20 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Hain): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) on the typically even-handed manner in which he moved the motion.

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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.

Mr. Hain: Although the right hon. and learned Gentleman has raised a point that is important to him, it would be wrong of me to anticipate the Select Committee's report.

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

My right hon. Friend would welcome an investigation by the Committee on Standards and Privileges to clarify the matter and will, of course, provide whatever further information it requires to reach its conclusions.

1.22 pm

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

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full information. It cannot be said that threatening someone's job for giving evidence to a Committee fulfils that standard.

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 Woolsack—the 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. Heald: I fully accept your ruling, Mr. Speaker. The reason for setting out the seriousness of the allegation is simply to emphasise that it should be referred—

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.

Mr. Speaker: I have already ruled on the matter. Again, I plead with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and others who are seeking to catch my eye to be very careful.

Mr. Heald: I fully accept that, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) for his conduct of the matter in Committee.

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.

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They are about independence, openness, accountability and sticking up for one's views as a member of a public body. On that basis, we strongly support the motion.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con) rose in his place and claimed to move, That the Question be now put, but Mr. Speaker withheld his assent, and declined then to put the Question.

1.27 pm

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.

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