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23 July 2007 : Column 635
7.45 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): These are always difficult debates for this place, Mr. Speaker, and as you evidenced, they are difficult for the Chair. We respect and understand that and therefore always come to such debates carefully.

I want to say two preliminary things about the process. When the present commissioner was appointed, he came here with an extremely good reputation, and nothing that he has done since has suggested that he has not entirely sustained that reputation. Indeed, when you, Mr. Speaker, announced to the House that he was to retire at the end of the year, that was regarded with sadness in a way, but a considerable amount of respect and thanks also went to him, and we have to bear that in mind.

The Chairman of the Committee said that the inquiry was the most difficult he had been asked to do and, on all the evidence, it was the most difficult piece of work the Committee had been asked to do—certainly in recent years. I hope that we will all give the commissioner the thanks he deserves; it was not an easy task and his report is evidence of that.

Secondly, I endorse what colleagues have said about the Committee. When we look at the list of members, we do not find many who are not robust and independent-minded colleagues, and they come to the Committee with that reputation. Of course, they come with political views, but experience shows that they do an extremely fair and balanced job on behalf of all of us. Unless there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary—and there is not—we should all be clear that the Committee came to the commissioner’s report afresh and formed its own view. On behalf of my colleagues, I thank all those who served on the Committee on this case, which was difficult, and others.

I did not want to intervene more than once while the Chairman of the Committee was speaking, and he kindly answered my question, but I have some factual questions, two of which are for clarification and one other on which he may be able to help me. First, it is implied but nowhere said that before any colleague is called to appear before the Committee, or chooses to do so, they can be legally advised. It is not explicitly stated, but my understanding is that if the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) wanted to take legal advice at any stage he could do so. I assume that it is implicit, too, that the Committee could take legal advice if it wanted to do so before coming to a view. That is an important point and I hope that the Chairman can clarify it.

Secondly, I have looked back at debates since the war on reports from the Committee or its predecessors. Many recommendations for suspension have been made, from short periods of two days to periods of a month, but an 18-day suspension has never been recommended and I wondered whether there was a reason why the Committee chose that period on this occasion.

Sir George Young: I had not planned to intervene but perhaps I could answer the hon. Gentleman’s questions. Of course, Members can take legal advice if they are under investigation and both the Committee and the commissioner have access to legal advice if we need it. The hon. Gentleman asked why we had
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recommended 18 sitting days. If the recommendation had been a month, when we did not know whether the House might be about to adjourn or go into a recess, we would not have been sure for how long the Member would actually be suspended. By setting an 18-day period, it is absolutely clear how many days the Member will not be in the House.

Simon Hughes: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his clear answers on those two matters.

The third matter, which is only partly for the right hon. Gentleman but which was also raised, is that it is of concern to all Members and you more than anyone, Mr. Speaker, that it appears that the report was leaked before it was brought to the House. You have taken a very clear view about that in all your rulings, and I hope that the investigation that the right hon. Gentleman has initiated will be pursued with all the seriousness that we would expect. Whoever the people concerned and whatever the issue, we must be very clear that it is unacceptable that reports on any matter from Committees of the House go into the public domain in that way. I hope that that investigation will be brought to a speedy but fair and stern conclusion.

I want to make a couple of comments on the report itself. It is very clear from the recommendations and evidence that the judgment on the amount of campaigning done by the hon. Gentleman from the House was well based on the evidence. There is always a question of degree about how much colleagues do things here that trespass into their other political lives, but the evidence in the report is clear that the Mariam appeal was effectively run from here for eight months. The evidence is that it used a considerable amount of resource—people and so on—and that is a warning to all of us. I hope that that has been made clear, and the report reached an entirely reasonable conclusion on that matter.

My understanding is that we also have a system that makes it clear that, if there is any doubt about whether an activity should be declared at the beginning of a debate, when we table questions or in the register, there is now a process for checking that. Constituents sometimes come to us and plead ignorance for not declaring finances in a benefits case. That may be entirely understandable, but here we have a very clear system: where there is any doubt, there is a process for establishing whether we ought to declare. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman said that he was aware at some stages that he needed to make declarations. It is pretty clear that, even if he was denying some of the things, there was a process for clarifying whether he should be on one side of the line or the other, and he clearly failed to do that. None of us has taken a personal view. It is not a view based on the fact that the hon. Gentleman is a member of one party or has left another; it is a view based on the evidence.

On behalf of my colleagues, I thank the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee for their assiduous work in a very difficult case. This will be the end of a long and extended inquiry, made longer by legal proceedings. In the normal tradition of the House, although such matters are never whipped in any corner of the House, I shall certainly support the recommendation of the Committee, because it is absolutely against all our interests if we set up a cross-party, independently minded Committee to
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look into these things and it does a job over weeks and months, on advice, with a senior person helping, and we do not follow its recommendation. It was a unanimous report, and I assume and hope that the House will support it in the same way.

7.53 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead) (Con): I wish to make only a few brief remarks on this matter. It is always with great regret that the House debates motions that relate to the standard of behaviour of a Member, and it does so only after a proper process of investigation, first, obviously, by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards and then by the members of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. In this case, those processes have been properly followed and both the commissioner and the Committee have come to their decisions after a considerable period of investigation and consideration.

The members of the Committee are drawn from the House; they are our peers. We appoint them, we ask them to do this job, and we are grateful to them for undertaking this work on our behalf. I entirely refute the suggestions made by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) that they conduct themselves with anything other than absolute integrity in doing that job on our behalf.

I should also like to pay tribute to Sir Philip Mawer, who has conducted himself in all his inquiries in his position as commissioner with both rigour and integrity. This was a lengthy and complex case, and he should be commended for his hard work and the commitment that he has shown to his task sometimes in the face of considerable provocation, as has been made clear by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young).

My right hon. Friend has properly explained how the Committee came to its decision on the charges made, and it is absolutely clear in the report and it has been made clear this evening that, although some of the charges could have been rectified by an apology, there was certain conduct by the hon. Gentleman that the Committee considered damaged the reputation of the House. I want to make a brief remark on that aspect.

Self-regulation in the House works only as long as all hon. Members are willing to respect the process of scrutiny that has been established by the House. We ask the commissioner to do a job on our behalf. He can do that job only if we all comply with his requirements and are willing to submit ourselves to his inquiries when required to do so.

I note that, in paragraph 352 of the report, the commissioner says:

The reputation of the House depends on our willingness and ability to undertake that self-regulatory regime properly. The Committee has clearly found that, in failing to meet the standards required, the hon. Gentleman
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brought that process into disrepute and damaged the reputation of the House. I certainly intend to support the motion tonight and encourage all hon. Members to do so.

7.56 pm

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): As the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) says, it is always with great reluctance that the House has to debate a motion of this kind. It does so only after a full process of investigation and consideration by a recognised due process. The Committee on Standards and Privileges, following the work of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, published its sixth report of the 2006-07 Session, entitled “Conduct of Mr. George Galloway”, last week.

The Government have arranged this debate at a time when the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Galloway) could be present and as soon as practicable. The debate has considered the consequences of the hon. Gentleman’s actions in relation to the standards of conduct that are set out by the House and that the public who elected us expect us all to uphold.

The hon. Gentleman’s actions in relation to the matters before us have been investigated by the commissioner and then considered by the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I, too, thank the commissioner, Sir Philip Mawer, for his hard work and commitment to the inquiry. I also thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges, and all hon. Members who serve on that Committee for their work on behalf of the House.

The Committee has concluded that the hon. Gentleman has failed to meet the standards expected and that his conduct in certain specific areas has

to such an extent that a suspension is called for. The right hon. Gentleman has explained the reasons for the Committee’s view and for the specific term of the proposed sanction. I urge hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

FORCED MARRIAGE (CIVIL PROTECTION) BILL [LORDS] (PROGRAMME) (NO. 2)

Ordered,


23 July 2007 : Column 639

Orders of the Day

Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Bill [Lords]

Not amended in the Public Bill Committee, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

7.58 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill has now been carefully debated both here and in the other place, and I think that we can safely say that it is a shining example of cross-party co-operation to tackle the dreadful problem of people who are forced to marry. I therefore want to put on record again my thanks both to the Opposition for providing time for the Bill to be debated in the House and to the Liberal Democrats—in particular, Lord Lester—for introducing the Bill in the other place and working so hard to secure its passage there. With the noble Lord’s help the Government substantially redrafted the Bill, and when it came here, we adopted it as our own. In this House, we have secured support on both sides for a Bill that will provide much-needed help for the young women—and indeed some men—who find themselves forced to marry. The Bill will go a long way towards tackling that pernicious practice. The cross-party support for the Bill has been critical in ensuring that progress.

On Second Reading and in Committee, there were great debates on some of the most important issues raised by the Bill. It was sensible and proper that those aspects were discussed further. I will comment on one or two of the issues. There was concern that there was not sufficient consultation with stakeholders. The Government, through the forced marriage unit, have been engaged with key stakeholders since the unit was established in 2005 and we also consulted on forced marriage—including whether it should be made a criminal offence—in 2005. A wide-ranging and varied group of stakeholders responded to that consultation.

Lord Lester, who sponsored the Bill in another place, consulted on making changes to his original Bill in February this year. Again, those who responded were wide-ranging and included experts in the field, non-governmental organisations, charities dealing with forced marriage casework, faith groups and other interested individuals. Lord Lester himself has worked with the Southall Black Sisters, which is a well-established, well-known and influential women’s group working in London, as well as organisations such as Karma Nirvana in Derby and the Newham Asian Women’s Project, both of which have been closely involved with the work of the forced marriage unit and have been consulted regularly.

We also took it upon ourselves to consult a number of the family division judges, who regularly hear such cases, in order to ensure that the drafting of the legislation was appropriate. They made some helpful suggestions to improve the Bill’s flexibility and I want to record my thanks to them for their contribution. In the run-up to the Lords Grand Committee, Baroness Ashton met a number of stakeholders, including Southall
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Black Sisters, Imkaan, Karma Nirvana, and Himat—a support group that meets the particular needs of south Asian gay and bisexual men. She also met Khatun Sapnara, a family law lawyer, who worked closely with Lord Lester in drafting the original Bill.

I wholeheartedly agree with the points that have been made about strong community relations being key to the future success of the legislation once passed and, for that reason, I wanted to set out how important it was that we had met the different groups that have an interest in this area. In that respect, the work of the forced marriage unit, and other NGOs and charities, is critical and invaluable in raising awareness of the issue and highlighting access to support and assistance.

The forced marriage unit, as I said in Committee, undertakes a great deal of publicity, outreach and awareness-raising work. Speeches are made at about 75 events every year. The unit runs a national publicity campaign involving radio, TV and the national and local press. As part of its two-year strategy, it will explore ways of making the outreach programme more targeted and focused on the hard-to-reach community groups and on older generations in communities that are affected by forced marriage. It is also focusing on building links with devolved Governments in the UK and with other Governments across Europe through participation in the EU Daphne-funded project, “Active Against Forced Marriage”. The FMU contributes to the Foreign Office’s overall work with overseas Governments to improve human rights, including tackling forced marriage and other forms of violence against women.

The Bill is just one part of a much wider programme of work already under way to raise awareness of the problem of forced marriage and to protect women’s rights in this area. It might be appropriate at this stage if I remind hon. Members that the Bill has been extended to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Executive Committee considered the inclusion of Northern Ireland in the Bill on 24 May and agreed that it was content that Westminster should legislate on devolved matters on this occasion. Likewise the Northern Ireland Assembly debated and agreed a legislative consent motion on Monday 4 June.

There was some concern during the debates about whether there should be criminal remedies for forced marriage. The Bill offers civil remedies. As I said on Second Reading, we consulted in 2005 on whether we should introduce criminal offences for forced marriage. The majority response from stakeholders and voluntary groups with great experience in the area was that going down the route of criminalisation might be seen to target and stigmatise certain ethnic and religious communities and would simply drive the practice underground, making the situation even worse for victims. Victims of forced marriage are often unwilling to take action against their parents, and many respondents felt that the legislation would simply not be used. So, we decided against criminalisation.


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