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Mr. Murphy: There is no evidence whatsoever that what happened with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Brightside could have been avoided by the availability of such an independent adviser. I say that that was a technical breach because that is what it was. It did not involve sneaking into a dark corner and asking for thousands of pounds to speak in the Chamber, or going into a court of law and committing perjury, or trying to block investigations into financial sleaze in the Government. It was a technical breach.

Chris Grayling: I cannot let the Minister get away with that. It is not my intention to spend too much time raking over the coals, but he must accept that the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has since admitted making telephone calls to investment bankers while he was a Cabinet Minister. In my view, that is not a technical breach of the code but one of the most serious breaches in recent years.

Mr. Murphy: The former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was in technical breach of the code. That is the reality of the situation. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell might wish to issue a press release to the Daily Mail, but if he wishes to enter into correspondence with me about this, I shall be happy to respond. On the Conservatives' wider agenda on this matter—in terms of the drip, drip, drip of press releases and so on—they seem unable to persuade anyone that the previous Conservative Government were not a national sleaze-fest, or that they have now reformed and deserve a second chance, or that an apology would be believed. My personal view is that some prominent members of the Opposition—by no means all of them—have therefore adopted a strategy of planting the seed of the idea that the other parties are just as bad as they are and, given the opportunity, would behave just as they did. Well, that will not work, because it is not true.

The technical breach by the former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was just that. It was not a deliberate attempt to commit the kind of criminal or fraudulent acts that were committed in a small number of cases over previous years. The Conservatives' strategy of suggesting that we are all the same reflects badly on all of us, and, it will not work. The public know which party was shrouded in the kind of sleaze that
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became endemic in the Conservative Government during the 1990s—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell says from a sedentary position that the Conservatives won the last sleaze poll. Well, the poll that mattered was the general election, and that is why he is sitting on the Opposition Benches and we are sitting here. The public have made their decision on a whole variety of matters. However, we should get back to the debate that we are meant to be having, rather than continuing this interesting chat that the hon. Gentleman and I are having across the Dispatch Box.

The Government have already done much to strengthen the ministerial code, as I said earlier. All Ministers are now required, on appointment to each new office, to provide their permanent secretary with a full list in writing of all their interests that could give rise to conflict. There is also detailed guidance on options for Ministers who may need to dispose of an interest or take steps to do so. Ministers are required to consult their permanent secretary on all these matters. There is also provision in the ministerial code for Ministers, when necessary, to obtain expert or professional advice from inside or outside Government.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell mentioned the Committee on Standards in Public Life. Even a cursory glance at the recent history of Government responses to the independent regulators of our body politic shows a whole series of recommendations by those charged with responsibility for keeping us on our toes, in terms of ethics and standards. The previous Conservative Government entirely flouted those recommendations and responded to them in a very negative way. For example, on the Treasury and Civil Service Committee's proposal for guidelines for Ministers, the Tory response was that it was not necessary. The ministerial code now contains those provisions. On a proposal on ministerial accountability, the Tory response was: "It is impossible." Aspects of the ministerial code now contain such provisions. On the Public Services Committee report of 1996–97 on ministerial standards, the Tory response summoned up the ability to "note the conclusions". Those recommendations are now covered by the ministerial code.

The fact is that there was an ailment in our body politic, and there is still a degree of cynicism towards politics and politicians across the world. It does no good, however, for the Conservatives to adopt this strategy of suggesting that we are all in it for ourselves. The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell said that the Labour party had forgotten what we said in opposition. This evening, it is as if he has forgotten what his party did in government. He sought election to this place in 1997 at the height of all those difficulties. I half expected him to wield the sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play this evening, but I am glad that he kept that well sheathed.

I want to thank the Conservative party, which has performed a great service to ethics in British politics. I know that many Conservative Members were not involved in what happened in the 1990s.

Mr. Kemp: On the question of Conservative ethics, the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) was uncharacteristically reticent when I raised the recommendation from the noble Lord Neill that there
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should be an investigation into whether the ministerial code should apply to Opposition Members. Will the Minister at least consider those recommendations to avoid impropriety on either side—not to engage in party political point scoring—and to make sure that the probity of the House, Ministers and shadow Ministers is always maintained?

Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend's suggestion is reasonable and fair. I would be interested to hear whether the Conservatives find that approach attractive, as it would be much easier to do that on a bipartisan basis, and the Conservative wind-up should offer a detailed response on that.

The hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell referred to control over special advisers and their work, which is a regular theme for him, but he ignores the fact that we introduced a contract, oversaw the numbers and published those details, which had never happened previously.

Another substantial area of public investment in which there seems to be limited oversight, which was raised in questions in the House either today or yesterday, is the way in which the taxpayer legitimately subsidises unpopular political parties through the Short money. I am not questioning the principle, which is accepted—

Mr. Bone: You did say unpopular political parties. Were you referring to the Conservatives—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I said nothing. I think that the hon. Gentleman means the hon. Member.

Mr. Bone: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Was the Minister referring to the Conservative party, which won the most votes in England at the last general election, and which represents constituencies covering three quarters of the geographical area of England?

Mr. Murphy: Of course I was, but the Liberal Democrats have also had vast sums of public money invested in propping them up. I am not questioning the principle of that. On a much wider point, this was a UK Parliament the last time that I checked, for UK politicians and from a UK general election. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to create an English Parliament—

Mr. Heald: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Murphy: Time is running out, and the hon. Gentleman will have time to respond to this point and the one about shadow Ministers' accountability when he winds up.

There is a UK Parliament and a UK general election, and we are elected here by our constituents. I hope that the previous intervention was not some sort of sideways endorsement of the Liberal policy of proportional representation, on which we would disagree strongly. On the question of Short money, some people have started to ask about value for money and the public ethics of it. I will leave that legitimate point there, and the hon. Gentleman might respond to it later.
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I will try your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I continue for much longer on the question of Opposition accountability in relation to the ministerial code and use of taxpayers' money—£22 million of it since 1997. I want to thank the Conservative party, however, and I look forward to hearing whether it is willing to adhere to the same standards as Ministers.

Had it not been for the galling sight of two Ministers committing perjury, and for the fact that a number—not all—of Conservative Members of Parliament were lining their own pockets from asking questions in this Chamber, the momentum for many reforms, in terms of the growth in regulation of our body politic, important decisions about the ministerial code, openness in government, overseas donations and publishing the list of gifts to Ministers, would not have been in place. In that at least, we find common cause. We thank the Conservative party for getting itself into such a mess prior to the 1997 election that we have been forced to clean that up. We do not, however, feel any sense of complacency, and we will continue to find ways of improving our body politic. That is an issue on which the public will judge us each and every day, and come the general election.

8.50 pm

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