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Andrew Mackinlay: The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. The great problem is not that the Sessional Orders are irrelevant and out of date, but that there has been a lack of vigour and will on the part of Parliament to ensure that people coming before a Committee are clearly cautioned beforehand that they are expected to be candid with Parliament.
Mr. McWalter: My hon. Friend's integrity, determination and courage are on the record, but surely he understands that to pretend that the House has the capacity to proceed with severity against those who infringe our Sessional Orders is a major mistake. We need to do what he wants us to do properly, not to pretend that some 1839 law has sorted everything out for us.
Andrew Mackinlay: I disagree. The fact is that we have the power; what is needed is enforcement. Most legislatures have such powers and enforce them. On this occasion, I commend the Congress of the United States, which requires those giving evidence to take the oath. Parliament would be sensible to follow suit. We all know that taking the oath before entering the witness box cautions us about the gravity of the evidence that we are about to give. It would help if we did the same in Parliamentit is provided for in Standing Orders.
My point is that we do not caution anyone and it has become the custom or culture for someone appearing before a Select Committee to regard it as legitimate sport to give as little away as possible. Doing so is not seen as being irregular, nor does it attract any criticism of any substance when one is found out. Severe penalties ought to be enforced if a person perjures himself before a parliamentary Committee.
I understand my hon. Friend's comments about the gravity of giving evidence to Select Committees, but I was a member of a Select Committee that attempted to interview the Maxwell brothers about missing pension funds: they said that they were not
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prepared to answer any questions and prayed in aid the right of silence, which is inherent in law in this country. What would he do about such a case?
"if it shall appear that any person has been tampering with any witness, in respect of his evidence to be given to this House, or any Committee thereof, or directly or indirectly has endeavoured to deter or hinder any person from appearing or giving evidence, the same is declared to be a high crime and misdemeanour; and this House will proceed with the utmost severity against such offender."
Let me draw on personal experience of what I regard as attempts to interfere with Select Committees. When I was a member of a Select Committee in a past Parliament, the permanent secretary of a Government Department intimated to the Committee that the witness we wanteda junior civil servant, or junior to him at leastwas sick. I found it somewhat surprising to hear that on the Monday because I had seen the man in question on Saturday partying. After I had let that be known, that civil servant, to his eternal credit, stormed up to the permanent secretary and said, "What is this you're saying about me? I insist that I appear." He did so and acquitted himself well, and two weeks later got substantial promotion.
That is an example of deliberate interference by a senior civil servant to frustrate the attempts of a Select Committee to get a witness to appear. To complete the picture, let me tell the House that a senior Minister phoned me at midnight one Sunday to ask, "What the hell were you doing?"he used those words, or perhaps stronger ones. He concluded by saying, "This conversation never took place." Well, it did, and the whole affair is recorded in my diary. The fact is that attempts have been made to interfere with Select Committees and we need to stamp on them to ensure that they are never repeated.
These Sessional Orders are very important because they protect those people in the public or the private sector who recognise their public responsibilities and want to be candid to Parliament but are being leaned on by employers, managers or some other vested group. I should have liked the Committee to say that before a witness appears before a Select Committee, its Chairman should draw his or her attention, probably when they receive the invitation to appear, to the fact that they are obliged to be completely candid and to give full disclosure, and help him or her by saying that if anybody should interfere with that it will be taken very seriously by Parliament. We do not do thatwhy not?
Sir Nicholas Winterton:
I can tell the hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West
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Hampshire (Sir George Young) that the Liaison Committee is considering that matter. If the hon. Gentleman would like the Procedure Committee to be involved, he might care to write to me, and I will ensure that we, too, consider it.
Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I do not want to delay the House for much longer because I should like to hear from the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, whom I hold in the highest regard. However, if what the hon. Gentleman says is correct, why are we making this change? It is foolish and should be rejected. The Leader of the House mentioned his submission on the Osmotherly rules. We know that no Governmentnot only Labour Governments, but Tory Governments hithertolike civil servants to appear before Select Committees, so they pray in aid the Osmotherly rules, which, to his credit, the Clerk of the House of Commons, in his memorandum to the Hutton inquiry, said are not agreed or subscribed to by Parliament. That is on the public record, and rightly so.
The Osmotherly rules are conjured up by the Executive of the day to protect and promote their selfish interests. It is time that we asserted ourselves to say that we will have nothing to do with that, and that we will introduce a discipline whereby people who appear before Select Committees are protected, but expected to give full disclosure and candour. That is why right hon. and hon. Members, including those who are in the Tea Room, should join me in the Lobby later this evening to sink this stupid proposal.
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful for the trailer given by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). Whether he spoke loudly enough for his voice to carry to the Tea Room remains to be seen. I want to make three points, the first of which is a direct response to the hon. Member for Thurrock.
The hon. Gentleman may know that relatively recently the Select Committee on Constitutional Affairs reported to the Committee on Standards and Privileges a potential case of breach of privilege in which a witness who had given evidence felt that she had been disadvantaged by having been threatened with removal. When we investigated the matter, we found that there had indeed been contempt. The Government are reviewing the rules following our discovery that the civil service is not well informed about Select Committees, privilege and the risk of contempt. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) and I, together with other members of the Liaison Committee, are providing input to clarify the rights and privileges of Select Committees and the risks that are run if there is any contempt or tampering with witnesses.
My second point relates to the Sessional Orders. The Procedure Committee recommended the replacement of obsolete Sessional Orders and resolutions with a statement of the duties and responsibilities of Members, with the details being left to the discretion of the Speaker. In their response, the Government accepted that recommendation and suggested that the Committee on Standards and Privileges might wish to
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express a view on a form of words. My Committee was sympathetic to the idea of making a contribution, so with Mr. Speaker's approval we offered him some thoughts reflecting the substance of the Procedure Committee's vision, which, when he draws up the statement that he will make to the House at the start of the Sessionif the motion is agreedhe may wish to bear in mind.
My third point concerns Parliament square, which is an issue that I have pursued in business questions and in Westminster Hall. I was pleased to hear what the Leader of the House said when he introduced the debate. However, we have waited two days short of a year for the Government to come up with that response, and we still do not know when the legislation that he mentioned will be introduced or enacted.
In the meantime, the problem will continue. I was slightly dispirited by the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), who appeared to advocate a slow process. I have no objection to draft legislation and consulting the House, but I hope that there will be no further delay. The problem has existed for three years. The Procedure Committee has made inquiries and reported and the Government have consulted extensively within government for a year. I hope that there will be no undue delay in making progress.
I have always advocated a balanced solution that respects the rights of the individual to protest, those of visitors to the centre of our great capital to appreciate and enjoy one of the most historic sites in the world and those of people who work nearby, not least the policemen on duty at the gates, to work without constant high volume noise. The solution should also respect the rights of those who work in or visit the Palace not to have our security compromised by providing cover at the entrance to New Palace Yard. My strong view is that we have not got the balance right.
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