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Mr. Straw: I am always happy to stick to that. My speech would have taken less than 20 minutes, but it lasted for 47 minutes because I took interventions. The problem for someone like me—people have credited me with taking care with the House—is always deciding whether to give way. I prefer to give way because interventions are an important way of holding Ministers to account. However, time and again, if one
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gives way, a 20-minute speech turns into a 40-minute speech, so one is criticised for taking too much time. I should add that many Back Benchers find it convenient to intervene during a Minister’s speech so that they can get themselves in the local paper and, having done so, then push off to the Tea Room.

Mr. Maples: I appreciate that point, which was why I said that the limit should be 20 minutes, plus interventions. However, there must be some self-denying ordinance on Front-Bench spokesmen. They make speeches about how Back Benchers should have more time, but then occupy the time themselves. If Back Benchers are to be restricted to three, five, or eight minutes, Front-Bench spokesmen should also be restricted.

Malcolm Bruce: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maples: No, I want to move on—[Hon. Members: “Give way!”] The hon. Gentleman will get to make his own speech.

Malcolm Bruce rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. It is entirely for the Member on his feet to choose whether to give way.

Malcolm Bruce: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) accused the Liberal Democrat spokesman yesterday of speaking for 35 minutes. He actually spoke for 19 minutes and took five interventions, so the hon. Gentleman should correct the record.

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is not a point of order for the Chair, but the hon. Gentleman has corrected the record by making that statement.

Mr. Maples: I will check the record. I was present, and I seem to remember the speech going on for much longer than that.

I wanted to speak about the sub judice rule, which is a highly technical piece of parliamentary procedure that I had not come across until I ran into it about two years ago. The case is no longer sub judice so I can mention it. The Foreign Affairs Committee heard evidence from two people who had been arrested and, they allege, tortured in Saudi Arabia. They were held in jail for nearly three years. As a former Foreign Secretary, the Leader of the House is well aware of the case. We wanted to cover that evidence in our report, but two other people who had been arrested at the same time in Saudi Arabia brought a civil action against the Saudi Arabian Government in the British courts. That case dragged on for two years. It has only just finished because it went to the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords.

We were told by the Clerks Office that under the sub judice rule we could not refer to the two people who had given us evidence that they were tortured in Saudi Arabia, because there was a parallel case going on in a British court on similar facts that arose at a similar
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time out of similar incidents. That is far too wide a definition of the sub judice rule to be acceptable to us in carrying out our duties.

We were compiling a report on the human rights records of other countries. Saudi Arabia is a country that we look at consistently because it has a very bad record on torture, but we were unable to say in our report that two British citizens alleged that they had been tortured in Saudi Arabia and gave us direct evidence of that, because there was a parallel civil action going on which related to the same facts.

In that civil action the Government briefed leading counsel to take part—I am not sure in what capacity, whether as an intervenor or as an amicus curiae. I sought to ask in a written question whether the Government had done that and, if so, what the cost was. I was barred again by the sub judice rule from asking that question for nearly two years. That is wrong, too.

My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who was the Chairman of the Procedure Committee, said that there are good reasons why we in the House should not attempt to have debates and come to conclusions on matters which it is for the courts to decide, and I accept that.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Maples: I shall give way in a moment, as I know that the hon. Lady has been involved in the matter as well.

If we had sought in our report to say that the people who had brought the action against Saudi Arabia were right, I can see that that would be treading on the judiciary’s turf. We do not want the judiciary on our turf, so in general we should stay off its turf. But that must be done around the narrow definition of what the case is about and whether we, as Parliament, are seeking to pass judgment or whether individual Members speaking in this place are seeking to come to a conclusion which it is the rightful business of the courts to do.

The rule needs to be much narrower. I am not satisfied that either of the Procedure Committee’s reports and their reference to the Speaker’s discretion, which I shall come to, are enough to address the problem.

Ms Keeble: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I hope to catch the Deputy Speaker’s eye later in the debate but in case I am not successful, may I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks? I agree that the proposals are not satisfactory.

Mr. Maples: The case in which the hon. Lady was involved has been mentioned in the debate and she may wish to check what was said. I am grateful for her support.

I am sorry my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) has left. I have discovered that the sub judice rule does not apply to cases once they have been taken to the European Court of Human Rights or the European Court of Justice. I am sure he would be happy and relieved to know that.

It is right that we should not seek to influence a court in its decision, but there is a distinction between
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civil and criminal proceedings. If a criminal case is brought against somebody, members of the public might end up being on the jury and might hear and be influenced by what had been said in debate in Parliament. Civil cases are heard by judges sitting alone, except in a few libel trials, and it is inconceivable that a High Court judge in a civil case would be influenced by what I said in a question to the former Foreign Secretary or by what a Select Committee might have said in a report. The judge will come to his conclusions and his judgment on the basis of what he hears in that court and the representations made to him.

It is wrong that the rule should apply in the same way to civil courts as it does to criminal courts. The rule should draw that distinction. Also, the rule should be restricted to the subject matter of the case, and should not apply to peripheral issues that people want to raise around it which are in some tangential way related to it.

Sir Robert Smith: When the Procedure Committee looked into the subject—the Chairman of the Committee made this point earlier—it considered not just the risk of influence, but the need to ensure the appearance of due separation and comity between Parliament and the law. There are two parties to any civil case, and the losing party should not feel aggrieved because they feel that their case has been interfered with by Parliament. The hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) and I may well expect judges to be above allowing their judgment on a case to be interfered with by the House, but the House must be seen not to interfere in the case.

Mr. Maples: I thought that I had already said that I can see two reasons for the sub judice rule. First, it avoids us appearing to prejudice a court’s decision, and, secondly, it prevents us from getting on to the courts’ turf at all.

The comity point—the obligation not to comment on things that are rightfully the business of a court while proceedings are under way—should be more narrowly defined, and it should centre on the substance of the case. To take the example of our Select Committee report, if the people who brought the case had given evidence to us, and then sued the Saudi Arabian Government, it would have been wrong of us to publish the evidence and to say, “What happened to you is absolutely outrageous.” However, I do not see why we should be prevented from publishing evidence given to us by people other than those involved about another series of events. Equally, I do not see why I should not ask the Government how much it cost to brief the counsel who is looking after the interests of those involved in the case. All that I am saying is that the dividing line is drawn much too far away from the court’s procedures, and much too far into our territory. When a case goes on for two years, as did the case to which I referred, it is very difficult for Members of Parliament to carry out their jobs.

Two Procedure Committee reports have been produced on the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield considered the matter when he was
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Chairman of the Committee a couple of years ago, and the Committee concluded that,

The latest Modernisation Committee implies the same thing. It says that the perceived imbalance between how the sub judice rule applies in Parliament and outside could be addressed

It goes on to say that the phrase “national importance”, which is involved in the matter of the Speaker’s discretion in the sub judice resolution, should be interpreted “reasonably”, and not solely with reference to its 1970s origins.

It will be interesting to learn whether the proposals work, but I suspect that they will not, and that the Speaker will find that his discretion does not go wide enough. It certainly will not go wide enough to enable the Clerks in the Table Office or on Select Committees to advise Members that they are entitled to make the inquiries that they want to make; they might err on the side of caution. That will result in Members having to take their cases directly to the Speaker, because it is the Speaker’s discretion, and no one else’s, that matters. The sub judice resolution of 15 November 2001 said, on the subject of discretion, that matters sub judice

but then it says—and this is the crucial point on discretion—that

and so on, with the Speaker’s discretion. Any lawyer would agree that the phrase,

restricts the definition of “issues of national importance” to those categories. I hope that the Procedure Committee, the Leader of the House or perhaps the Speaker himself, will look into the matter again so that we can try to redefine the Speaker’s discretion in the sub judice rule, or redefine the remit of that rule by allowing different standards for civil and criminal proceedings. We should restrict it to the crux of the case that is before the courts, and not bring in peripheral matters.

We should reconsider the wording of the provision on the Speaker’s discretion, because I think that we will find that it does not go wide enough. I am seriously worried because, in the past two years, I have found myself restricted once as a Select Committee member, and once as a private Member of Parliament, from pursuing matters that could not conceivably have affected the result of a case, or have been a breach of the comity between Parliament and the courts. I have been restricted from doing so by the very narrow wording of the sub judice rule. I am disappointed that, as I said in an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight), the Procedure Committee did not think it necessary to change the wording of the resolution. I think that we will have to return to the matter.

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Mr. Greg Knight: I apologise for the fact that I was not in the Chamber when my hon. Friend started his speech, although I caught some of his earlier remarks on a monitor. He raises an important issue, but would not the correct way forward be for him to seek a meeting with the Speaker on the issue, because it is the Speaker who will exercise discretion, and determine whether the scope of his discretion is adequate to deal with this particular case? Should not that be the first port of call? If there is a problem, I am happy to invite him to come before our Committee, and we will certainly consider the matter again.

Mr. Maples: It would be inappropriate to share with the House any discussions that I have had with the Speaker, but it had occurred to me that that was my first port of call before my right hon. Friend suggested it.

I made representations to the Procedure Committee when it was chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield. In fact, we discussed the issue, and he explained the reasons for the Committee’s conclusions. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Perhaps the proposal will work, and Members will not experience problems, but at least the hon. Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) and I have been able to share with the House the fact that we have run into problems with the sub judice rule. That should not be the case—we cannot do our job properly as Members of Parliament if we encounter a rule that is subject to wide interpretation. If that interpretation continues, and the Speaker believes that it is not in his discretion to allow us to pursue such matters, the House must return to the sub judice resolution and amend it to restrict its scope and allow Members to do their job properly.

4.26 pm

Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): I speak as an enthusiastic moderniser and a former long-standing member of the Modernisation Committee. The modernisation of our arcane and antiquated procedures was the subject of my maiden speech, which was described by “Dods” as “brilliant”, but was ignored by everyone else.

Hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I support motions 6 and 7 on the proposed communications allowance and the ending of September sittings. Like the majority of hon. Members, I supported the Cook reforms of 2002, which were a good thing. I thought that they would all work, and I was enthusiastic in organising support for them. The hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) will remember that we won the vote on sitting hours by seven votes, so it was a tense night in the House. Many of those reforms were successful, and we ended the absurd spectacle of our legislating in the early hours of the morning. I often wondered what would have happened if journalists interviewed hon. Members leaving the Smoking Room or the bars at 2 am. What if a microphone had been put before us and we were asked what we were voting on? I am not sure that I knew exactly what I was doing at that time of the morning—perhaps it was only the Whips Office that knew.

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I accept that one of the Cook reforms did not work. Politicians do not like to admit that they were wrong, but as an enthusiastic moderniser and as a friend and supporter of Robin Cook I have absolutely no hesitation in admitting that we got it wrong on September sittings. I bought the argument, voiced by the right hon. Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) earlier, that the long summer recess gave the media a stick with which to beat us. It was too long a period for the Government to escape scrutiny. However if we compare Parliament with other legislatures, we can see how enthusiastic and conscientious we are. League tables are very much in vogue, and I have with me one showing that, in 2005, the US Senate sat for 159 days and the House of Representatives for 140 days; in 2004, the House of Representatives sat for 110 days, and the Senate for 133 days. In 2005, the House of Commons sat for 133 days, and for 160 days in 2004—the highest number of sitting days for any legislature in the table and certainly in the western world.

At the bottom of the league, it is worth noting the efforts, or the lack of them, expended by the German Bundesrat, which managed a princely 12 days in 2004 and 11 days in 2005. The Bundestag, which is the lower House, managed 67 and 64 days respectively. We are not top of the league, as the Leader of the House and I discussed earlier. Greek parliamentarians win the gold medal, because in 2005, they managed to sit for 248 days, and for 110 days the previous year. I do not know what happened in Greek politics between 2004 and 2005, but it took up an awful lot of parliamentary time. Without boring the House with endless figures, out of all the modern Parliaments, we not only sit for more days, but sit for longer hours, too.

Malcolm Bruce: As the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) has pointed out, the problem is not how long we sit, but the times of year at which we sit. If we were to sit for six months and then not sit for six months, people would protest. Is that not the point that the hon. Gentleman should address?

Martin Salter: If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the start of my speech, he would know that I am addressing the way in which the media try to portray this House as a House of slackers that does not pull its weight.

I accept that we could organise our parliamentary calendar more effectively. If education authorities move to six-week terms, we will find it difficult to enable, for example, hon. Members from Scotland to spend any time at all in the summer with their families. I am sure that the House authorities, the House of Commons Commission and Mr. Speaker will continue to wrestle with that problem. Nevertheless, this British House of Commons sits more often and for longer sittings than almost any other comparable Chamber.

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