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Valerie Beech has received no payment for this interview.
If The Mail on Sunday believes that information to be relevant when no money has been paid for a story, why is it not relevant when money has been paid? Why not force all media by law to make that clear every time? Compare that example to the recent Lord Brown case. Was it right that it had to be dragged screaming and kicking from Associated Newspapers, days after the allegations about his private life were first unveiled, that his former friend Jeff Chevalier was paid substantial sums of money by Associated Newspapers over a significant period of time for his story? Surely, the very first time that that story broke we, the public, were entitled to be told that tens of thousands of pounds in cash or kind were paid to extract that expression of grief from a jilted lover.
We live in an age when the media is immensely powerful. It can make or break careers and lives. The media have much more influence on Government policy, on how the country is run, than a humble Back Bencher like me. Indeed, the media have more influence than most junior Ministers. The rules for transparency and disclosure for elected representatives are stringent, and rightly so. We go on an overseas trip to view poverty in Malawi paid for by a charity and we are hounded if we do not disclose that fact. Sometimes, we hound each other over such trivial matters, and that is an issue on which we should all reflect.
Remember the outrage that was rightly expressed in the media when it emerged years ago that at least one of our colleagues was willing to accept cash to ask questions in this House? We rightly took the view that
such mercenary motivation was not to be tolerated in the nations Parliament. However, we have this powerful beast prowling around our country trashing lives and pronouncing their judgments and the reader does not have the first idea about how their stories were obtained and how much blood money was paid for the destruction of a reputation. It is time to bring that to an end. It is time for more transparency.
Naturally, the media must be allowed to protect its sources, and that is a principle we should respect. My Bill does not demand the disclosure of the sources identity, simply a sentence at the end of each broadcast or article stating whether or not the cheque book had been used, and if so how much. Then, the reader could make a better informed judgment about whether or not the story should be believed.
There is a particular problem, which I do not have time fully to consider today, and it relates to the police. Many sensational headlines emanate from some police officers who, within five minutes of a celebrity arrest, are apparently on the phone to their favourite reporter shopping the person concerned for casha person who is innocent until proved guilty, as we should remember. It happens every day. The editor of The Sun, Rebekah Wade, in her evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Committee on 11 March 2003, admitted that newspapers pay the police for stories. Often that is illegal, but whether it is or not, the reader should be told when it happens. Perhaps that is a problem that should be tackled through other means.
Comment is free, but facts are sacred.
That is a seminal statement of the values of a free press. Somewhere along the journey from 1921 to today, that concept of a news media in which facts are sacred has mutated into entertainment is king, and on that modern altar, private lives and public reputations are sacrificed for 24 hours of amusement and titillation. The spirit of C. P. Scott has been lost and with it trust in that vital and serious pillar of our democracy. I believe that my Bill, far from harming the media, can help to restore lost confidence in a noble profession.
Let us celebrate the robust and vivid character of the fourth estate, but let the media be sensational and responsible in equal measure. Let them work within the framework of disclosure and transparency with which all of the rest of us have to comply. Let us be tolddid they pay for that story, and if so, how much? I commend my Bill to the House.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Gary Streeter, Angela Browning, Sir George Young, Dr. Tony Wright, Mr. Frank Field, Mr. Tom Clarke, Mr. Colin Breed, Mr. David Curry, Mrs. Janet Dean, Mr. David Burrowes, Mr. Greg Pope and Ms Karen Buck.
Mr. Gary Streeter accordingly presented a Bill to require media organisations to disclose certain information about any payments made by them to individuals for the contribution of those individuals to articles or broadcasts in which they are involved; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 111].
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): We now come to the main business. The first of the Opposition motions is about an independent inquiry into the conduct of the Scottish elections. I must inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
That this House considers that the rejection of 146,097 votes in the constituency and regional elections to the Scottish Parliament, the equivalent of over 1,000,000 in a UK general election, to be totally unacceptable and an affront to democracy; notes that the number of rejected ballots exceeds the winning majority in several constituencies and that different formats of the regional ballot paper were used in different parts of Scotland; further notes that serious concerns have been raised about the issuing of postal ballots for the elections and the electronic equipment and processes used for counting votes; further notes that repeated advice not to hold the local government elections under the newly introduced single transferable vote system on the same day as the Scottish Parliament elections was ignored by the Scotland Office and the then Scottish Executive; calls upon the Secretary of State for Scotland to accept responsibility for the failures in the conduct of the Scottish Parliament elections and to apologise to the people of Scotland; further notes that the Electoral Commission is to carry out an inquiry, but considers that such an inquiry should be independent of the Commission, which had a significant role in the conduct of the elections, if public confidence in the electoral process in Scotland is to be restored; and accordingly further calls upon the Government, working in conjunction with the Scottish Executive, to instigate such an inquiry.
It would be remiss of me not to use this first opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on his appointment as First Minister of Scotland and to wish him and his new Scottish Executive well as they discharge the responsibilities devolved to the Scottish Parliament. As I have said before, I believe that the Secretary of State for Scotland will rue the Governments failure over eight years to put in place appropriate mechanisms for dialogue and interaction between London and Edinburgh. However, that debate is for another day. I understand that today the First Minister is expected to make a statement on his programme for government. I shall watch with interest to see whether he makes any reference to the conduct of the Scottish elections, given his previous support for an independent inquiry.
The House will recall the statement by the Secretary of State on 8 May about the conduct of the Scottish parliamentary elections. That statement proved to be wholly inadequate, not least because the Secretary of State failed to take responsibility for the conduct of the elections. He also failed to give the apology to the people of Scotland that I, and many on both sides of the House, demanded. I could not have agreed more with the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) when he described the conduct of the elections as an embarrassment and added:
we owe the people of Scotland an apology.[ Official Report, 8 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 33.]
That apology is still not forthcoming. Instead, the Secretary of State has sought to use the Jack McConnell approach to the cost of the Scottish Parliament: everybody is to blame, so nobody is to blame.
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): The Secretary of State has already initiated an independent inquiry into this matter. Does not the Conservative partys choice of the subject of the Scottish elections have more to do with wishing to avoid its war about education and grammar schools, the issue of the patients passport, which is set to be ditched, and the issue of the economy? The only thing that the hon. Gentlemans side could reasonably say would be, Well done Labour!
David Mundell: If the hon. Gentleman believes that the Government have set up an independent inquiry, he is mistaken. They have not; they have referred the matter to the Electoral Commission. We regard this debate as one about an issue of great importance to the people of Scotland.
During questions on his statement, the Secretary of State seemed to suggest that the then figure of 100,000, cited in the media as representing the number of rejected ballots in the Scottish elections, was too high. In fact, the figure turned out to be too low, by nearly 50,000there were 146,097 rejected ballots, the equivalent of 1 million in a UK general election. If that is not an important issue and an affront to democracy, I do not know what is.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that some papers were deemed to have been spoilt because the first, single-Member ballot space was blank? That need not have been a mistake. Voters for the Green party, the two Trotskyist parties or the two religious extremist parties might have decided not to vote in the first-past-the-post section because there was no candidate for them.
David Mundell: I agree that there is a differentiation to be made between spoilt and rejected ballot papers. One thing on which Members across the House will agree is that the guidance to returning officers on what is a rejected ballot paper must be much clearer.
Since the Secretary of States statement, further information about the use of different ballot paper formats in different regions of Scotland has come into the public domain. We Conservatives believe that the case for a fully independent inquiry is now even more compelling if public confidence is to be restored in the democratic process in Scotland.
I conceded that the Conservatives did not object to the single ballot paper. However, I said that we made it absolutely clear that the ballot
paper should not be used on the same day as another ballot paper on which people were encouraged to make more than one mark. That is clear.
Todays debate is a further opportunity for Members to highlight their concerns. It is also an opportunity for responsibility to be taken and an apology to be made. We do not seek to score political points, but there are clearly deep concerns on both sides of the House. We are not calling for the elections to be rerun; nor are we calling for the Secretary of States head, as others may have doneat least not yet. We simply want the Government to accept responsibility for the debacle on 3 May. They should apologise for it to the people of Scotland and hold a full and comprehensive inquiry, independent of the Electoral Commission and other stakeholders.
Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): On that point, I think that the hon. Gentleman accepts that the Electoral Commission has responsibilities that it is now carrying out, and it has gone a bit further in by involving Mr. Gould. However, the hon. Gentleman specifically asks the House to support the appointment of an independent inquiry. No doubt he has costed that, so will he say what would be the cost and who would bear it? Would it be Westminster or the Scottish Executive?
David Mundell: As the right hon. Gentleman will know, any costs would be a subject for the discussionsnow regular, I understandbetween the Scottish Executive and the UK Government. To date, the debacle has cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds. The matter must be put right if we are to restore integrity and confidence in the electoral system in Scotland.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): May I ask for clarification from the Conservative Front Bench? The issue is important. The Conservative party motion calls for the UK Government to initiate an independent inquiry. The hon. Gentleman said that he would welcome the initiation of something by the Scottish Executive, and the First Minister has pledged that. Why does the hon. Gentleman want the UK Government to initiate a parallel inquiry?
David Mundell: As the hon. Gentleman knows but may not accept, the UK Government are responsible for the conduct of the Scottish elections and the Scottish Parliament is responsible for the conduct of the local elections. My view, and that of my party, is that this Parliament and the Scottish Executive should work together, and not in conflict, on such issues.
As I was saying, the purpose of such an inquiry would be to determine why so many electors were disfranchised from having their votes counted, why there were significant delays in the issuing of postal votes and why the arrangements for the counting of votes were so unsatisfactory. Most importantly, we want to ensure that this ludicrous situation is never allowed to happen again, in Scotland or anywhere else in the United Kingdom. I am thinking of the operational aspects of the elections and the holding of two elections on the same day under completely different voting systems.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): Has the hon. Gentleman seen the briefing prepared for todays debate by the Electoral Commission? It outlines the terms of reference and method for the inquiry that Ron Gould has been asked to undertake. Will the hon. Gentleman indicate for the benefit of the House whether he would add anything to the terms of that inquiry?
David Mundell: That the Electoral Commission issued that document at least restores my faith in the impact of Parliament in requiring the production of that information. The hon. Gentleman does not understand the point of our motion, however. The point of this debate is that we want the inquiry to be independent of the Electoral Commission.
Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): People keep referring to the Electoral Commission and many of us have observed its work since it was first established. I am sure that Sam Younger is a very nice manI have had long chats with him. However, Sir Alistair Graham, appointed by the Government to look after standards in public life, criticised the
lack of courage, competence and leadership
should have shown greater focus and courage in alerting the risk to the integrity of the electoral process from legislative changes.
He went on to recommend a change in statute to streamline and refocus the Electoral Commission. That is the point: the Electoral Commission does not have a good record, which is why we want an independent inquiry.
David Mundell: I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. A further, specific point is that the Electoral Commission was a key stakeholder in the process and played an instrumental part in the design of the ballot paper.
Nobody can argue that a 700 per cent. increase in the number of rejected ballots since the last Scottish parliamentary election is acceptable. There can be little doubt that the changes in the conduct of the election had a detrimental impact on the ability of electors to have their vote counted. The report on the London mayoral election, reinforced by the Arbuthnott commission, showed that that was entirely predictable if two elections using different voting systems were held on the same day, especially when both ballot papers were in a new format. I and others raised that issue with the Secretary of State and his predecessor on numerous occasions, but the response was always to brush aside such concerns and carry on regardless.
There is no evidence that any one political party or candidate was disproportionately disadvantaged by the number of rejected ballots, but it cannot be satisfactory that the number of rejected ballots exceeded the winning candidates majority in more than 20 per cent. of constituency contests. In Edinburgh East and Musselburgh, for example, there were a massive 2,521 rejected ballots compared with a majority of 1,382. If rejected ballots had been a registered party in Glasgow Shettleston, it would have come third, with 2,035 votesabout 12.1 per cent. of the total votes cast.
Such figures strike at the heart of the United Kingdoms reputation for the conduct of elections,
which was an example of best practice to the rest of the world before the Labour Government began meddling with the electoral process. Compared with many countries throughout the world that want to hold democratic elections, Scotland and the UK have the expertise and technology needed to conduct elections in a successful and professional manner, but only when the advice of professionals is taken and adhered to.
It is self-evident that the Electoral Commission has a duty to report on elections and its statutory review of the Scottish elections is welcomebut as part of a wider public inquiry, not instead of it. The basic premise of natural justice dictates that the same organisation should not be responsible for all lines of investigation when, as I have said, it played a significant role in the elections; in particular, setting out recommendations for the design of the single ballot. The Electoral Commission employed Cragg Ross Dawson to undertake research that was used as a basis for deciding on a single ballot paper. It could certainly be argued that the commission put an over-positive gloss on that report in its letter of early August, seemingly omitting to disclose the finding that the single paper option was more likely to lead to errors, and thus contribute to a higher number of invalid votes. If the Secretary of State has actually read the report, perhaps he will use this opportunity to clear up the media speculation in that regard.
The Electoral Commission also ran the Vote Scotland campaign jointly with the then Labour and Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive to ensure that people knew how to vote correctly. Before the elections, the commission repeatedly appeared in the media to reassure people about the process, especially the issuing of postal votes. Only an inquiry that is not conducted at the behest of a stakeholder will satisfy the desire for an impartial investigation into how many people were disfranchised.
Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): No one would disagree that a debacle took place on election day, but I think the professionals created the problem, so it would be very unwise to say it was all the Electoral Commission. The matter is going to the Electoral Commission, so we should see what happens before we take the next step. I do not accept that people were not disadvantaged by the situation; parties must have won when they should not have won. Perhaps the easiest thing would be to go back to the Conservative policyfirst past the post across the board for both local government and Scottish Parliament elections.
David Mundell: In the new spirit in Scotland of parties working together, perhaps my party could discuss that issue with Labour. I was surprised that Mr. McConnell succumbed to Liberal Democrat demands to introduce the single transferable vote, when combined Conservative and Labour votes in the Scottish Parliament at the time could have defeated the proposal.
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