Previous SectionIndexHome Page

1.28 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): In deliberating on whether I should support the motion to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges, I inevitably have to make some judgment about the contents of the report. It would be difficult for any hon. Member to make a decision about the relevance of referring the matter without making at least some judgment about elements of the report.

Several matters are involved, but two of the most salient are the political aspect, which is the Lord Chancellor's involvement, and the one that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) raised concerning the conduct of a senior civil servant.

My plea, which I hope it is legitimate to make in this debate, is that when the Committee on Standards and Privileges comes to examine the matter—I hope that it will, as, on balance, I think I support the motion—it will feel free to examine the political aspects involving the Lord Chancellor, notwithstanding his own phrase in the document before us, that

for which I suppose we must be grateful. I also hope that the Standards and Privileges Committee will spend as much time as it feels is necessary examining the role of

15 Jan 2004 : Column 980

the civil servants involved and, as has already been touched on, the perception that civil servants have of the role of this House and its Select Committees. Surely that is what is really at stake here, and we should therefore be grateful to the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing us to pursue the matter.

If the examination shines a light on the attitude of senior civil servants to members of the public, or of public bodies, giving evidence to Select Committees, that will be a matter of the utmost gravity. It is very important for the Committee on Standards and Privileges to take all the time it needs, and to go as far as it needs, in examining the ramifications of the case. It might look like just one case, and it might or might not be isolated, but it sets the alarm bells ringing over the attitude of the Government, in political and administrative matters, to the Committees of this House and to the relationship between the Executive and the legislature. This case has the potential to be that important, so I urge the Committee to treat it with the utmost gravity and to go into it in whatever detail is necessary.

1.31 pm

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): I want to express my gratitude to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for making such a succinct and powerful case in moving the motion. I agree with him, and with the Leader of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), that this matter is important. It touches on something essential to the functioning of this House as a corporate body, if I may pick out language from the report. We have to be assured that any witness coming before a Select Committee is protected, and I recognise, as did the Government when they supported the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, that the concept of whistleblowing is important.

The circumstances clearly laid out in the report show that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and the Constitutional Affairs Committee have grasped that, because they have brought the matter to the House to ask for it to be referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. Like everyone who has spoken so far, I support the motion, which is in the interests of this House and important for those who do not understand the mysterious word "privilege". Privilege enables people to give their knowledge freely and honestly, without retribution, better to inform us in our judgments. Privilege in this instance is a protection not of our vanity but of the wider public interest. I know that the Government have always recognised that, in this and in the preceding Parliament, and that they work closely with Public Concern at Work. The issues surrounding that public interest that are raised are fundamental to privilege in this House.

1.34 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West) (Con): Judy Weleminsky and the others who gave evidence to the Constitutional Affairs Committee when it was considering the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service will know that what they said was

15 Jan 2004 : Column 981

important not only to the Committee's report but to the way in which the Government are taking forward the important work that CAFCASS is doing. We should recognise, as have others, that the Government have paid attention to that report, which was important to the children whose interests are supposed to be represented by CAFCASS, and to their futures. That is the underlying point from the Constitutional Affairs Committee.

From the point of view of the House, the issues have been well spelled out. I should like to pick up on the question, posed by the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), of when confidentiality agreements can be overridden in the public interest and in Parliament's pursuit of information. This time, that is an issue not for the Standards and Privileges Committee but for the Public Administration Committee or some similar Committee. I would ask that Committee to consider the very tight rules that the new Ofcom board is laying down for its members. I do not want to criticise that board, but that is an illustration of how tightly some such rules are now written. Being corporate and acting in solidarity can matter, but there are times when that needs to be overridden. It is worth having a serious investigation into that, which goes beyond this investigation into privilege.

There are some interesting questions on this issue. For example, from what board meetings has this board member been suspended, if that board has resigned? That takes us somewhat into Alice in Wonderland territory. We need to ask one simple question. If that lady had not refused to resign, would the House have known that evidence in the Department had come from the former chairman of CAFCASS—whom some of us believe should have resigned when our first Committee report came out—that showed that people were fingering her for the act of making information available in giving evidence to the Select Committee?

Keith Vaz: Before the hon. Gentleman strays into the details of the case, may I ask whether all the other members of the CAFCASS board have resigned?

Peter Bottomley: I cannot confirm that. I know that the board members have agreed to resign, but I am not competent to say whether the board no longer exists, and it is not relevant to the debate. I am in line with those who do not want to go into the detail, but I want to make the broader point that unless Ms Weleminsky had refused to resign, the House would not have known that the evidence was available, had been given by the outgoing chairman, was in the hands of officials and was listed as point No. 1 by the reviewing official from the Scotland Office. It is only because she declined to resign that we know that. She deserves praise for making it possible for us, as a House, to know what was going on. That is important because every week, officials, members of public bodies and others have to consider whether to make information available. Despite some embarrassment and difficulty, they have to overcome their fears. That is why the point about privilege is important.

Mr. Soley: The hon. Gentleman is not helping the situation, although he did a very good job with the rest of us on the Constitutional Affairs Committee

15 Jan 2004 : Column 982

yesterday. It is the job of the Standards and Privileges Committee to go into this sort of detail. It is for the House to debate that when the Committee has reported, if we think that that is appropriate. To go into such detail now is in effect to put on trial other people as well as the lady concerned. That is just not fair.

Peter Bottomley: At the risk of upsetting the hon. Gentleman, I think, bluntly and flatly, that he is completely wrong. I do not care whether I am the only person in the House who makes this point, but unless that lady had refused to resign, we should not have known what was disclosed in the documents. That is the point that I am trying to make, and on that point I shall end my speech. We actually depend—[Interruption.] This might be a laughing matter for some, but that does not serve this House.

We relied on that lady to give evidence in the original inquiry, and we would not have known what evidence against her was being accumulated if she had not refused to resign. My point is no greater than that, and it is not partisan. The hon. Member for Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush (Mr. Soley) will recognise that I have not mentioned the Lord Chancellor or gone into details about him. I have made the sole point that we have this information because of her actions.

1.39 pm

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West) (Lab): I want to make a few brief remarks as a member of the Public Administration Committee. On the remarks made by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on confidentiality clauses, the Public Administration Committee is taking forward an inquiry into inquiries, and this matter may fall within its ambit.

One of my constituents approached me about the Chairman of the Committee's inquiry because she was giving evidence. She wanted to ask my advice as her Member of Parliament about how she should approach giving evidence to the Committee on the CAFCASS inquiry. I told her that she should give her evidence truthfully, without fear and in the knowledge that there would be no repercussions for her professional career. I am sure that every hon. Member would have given the same advice to any constituent who approached them on this matter. That is why I welcome the statement from the Leader of the House that the Government support the reference to the Standards and Privileges Committee. At this point, it would be inappropriate for us to explore in any further detail the minutiae of the case.

Next Section

IndexHome Page