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There are two elements to a resolution of the issue. One is that the electors must know that locally they can hold their elected representative to account. That is why I personally have understood the arguments for a Jenkins report solution, which entails single member seats and top-up, rather than entirely multi-member seats. The second element is that although the present system often produces a majority in the House, even though the Government have not won anything like a majority of the public votes, that is a smaller advantage than a system that means that what people vote for is what they get. It does not mean that they will not get a strong
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and stable Government, although it may mean that they will sometimes get coalition government—two parties having to work together—because that is what the electorate believe will produce a better outcome. I hope that that is an adequate answer for the time being.

On the smaller Government agenda, the more people think that public decisions are taken by the growing number of special advisers, the more unhelpful it is. We need to cut down relatively not just the whole size of Government—the number of Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries—but the number of press officers and special advisers. The growth in their numbers is an unhealthy development.

Lastly, we must make sure that the situation on the other side of the coin is sustained. I thank the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) for his timely intervention. One of the real threats in the past year to the progress that we had been making, as we still are, occurred when a colleague put to the House a proposal that then had tacit support, if not more, from those on the Conservative and Labour Front Benches, to take this place out of the law on freedom of information that we had not long before agreed. People cannot be expected to have faith and confidence in public life if they are not allowed the access to information about our activity that we expect of all other public bodies, with the safeguards that already exist in legislation. I hope that we never again even contemplate going backwards with respect to the freedom of information legislation that we happily passed.

The report that led us here today is full of good proposals, and the Government have accepted most of them. We will achieve a system of good management and independent accountability in our public and political life only if they take seriously the big proposal calling for an independent system of regulators from top to bottom—regulators brought together in a way that looks coherent, and able to make their own decisions and not depend on a prime ministerial trigger. The age of patronage should be over. The age of the prime ministerial prerogative derived from the royal prerogative should be over.

It is Parliament, not the Executive, that should have the controlling authority in these matters. I am certain that when Government are willing to let that power transfer, the public will get a service, including a public service, in which they can have even more confidence, and that our reputation in the eyes of the voters will be slightly restored, and they will think that they are getting value for money in the process.

3.14 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I shall pick up some of the points that have been made in contributions to the debate so far, before filling in some of the cracks in the picture that has been painted by my friend who chairs the Committee, the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). By that I mean the details of the system that we are proposing and how it would work.

The Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made some astonishing statements—for example, when he suggested that political statements
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should be subject to some kind of Advertising Standards Authority test to ensure that they are decent, honest and truthful. That is bizarre. I wonder how the “Calamity Clegg” document would be scrutinised by such a body.

We have an independent Statistics Board, which was introduced by the present Government because we all recognise that we can have a great deal of debate which gets us nowhere if we do not accept the basis. We should have clean statistics that both sides are prepared to accept. That is why the Government established the Statistics Board, which is independent of Government.

My friend spoke about declining levels of trust in politics and politicians. I am not being prissy, but I hate to think what people outside made of our debate yesterday on party funding. I tried to intervene a couple of times, unsuccessfully. The image that would have been presented to people outside was appalling, but what is important for me is of no consequence for other Members in the Chamber.

For example, I think it is important that we clear up the business of tax exiles. I think it is fundamentally wrong that people who are not paying United Kingdom taxes should sit in the United Kingdom Parliament. That is the case at present. I am not talking about speculation about Lord Ashcroft. I am talking about Lord Laidlaw, a Conservative peer who gifted over £6 million to the Conservative party. This is all on the record. The House of Commons Appointments Commission has reported on it.

I think that that is completely unacceptable, but Conservative Members may not think so. They may get fired up about trade union affiliation to the Labour party. I may say to myself, “Well, the Labour party is a product of history. It is federal party. It grew organically from the trade unions,” and I can explain that away. So we have a big clash of ideas and sometimes, like yesterday, it spins out of control and the House of Commons becomes a big growling bear pit.

Kelvin Hopkins: As so often, I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Does he agree that the moneys collected in small amounts from trade unionists in an honest way and given as political donations is clean money, in a sense that money from Lord Ashcroft trying to buy whatever is not clean money?

Mr. Prentice: I am prepared to defend the trade union-Labour party link, but we are not talking about that today. We are talking about the report on ethics and standards.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am slightly surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s comments. Is it not the case that Lord Ashcroft has done nothing illegal? Much of the debate yesterday focused on illegal payments, which are in an entirely different division from the perfectly legitimate ones that have been made by Lord Ashcroft and other patriotic British citizens.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I hope the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) will not be diverted down that route, as he just recognised what we are debating today. If we go into personalities, we shall veer off course badly.

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Mr. Prentice: I follow your strictures as always, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would say only that I could not get the information that I wanted about person X using parliamentary procedures and tabling parliamentary questions. It is bizarre that I, as a Member of Parliament, am forced to use the Freedom of Information Act to try to get the information that I require about person X. We wait to see what happens. I am expecting a reply to my information request in a few weeks.

The Committee’s report was not about sleaze; we did not document sleaze or pinpoint individual instances of it. However, it is part of the background that we are having to cope with—the feeling that British politics and politicians are sleazy. As my friend the Member for Cannock Chase said, perhaps we have contributed to that.

I am sure that we all watched the three-part documentary on Tony Blair, the former Prime Minister. While reviewing his time in office, he said—I am just paraphrasing—that, on reflection, he regretted making such a big deal about sleaze in the mid-1990s. It was not, as my friend said, that there were not things to complain about. However, in the campaign to become the Government, I remember well that not a day passed without the Labour party banging the drum about how sleazy the Conservatives were. Tony Blair regrets that now; I regret it too, I suppose, because it is contaminating our politics and bringing us all down. It does not do us or the system any good if people look at the House of Commons and the British Parliament and dismiss us as sleazy. We are not.

Mr. Winnick: I did not agree with Tony Blair and, rarely for me, I do not agree with my hon. Friend. Surely we were right to take up the exposure of the corruption that was taking place under the Tories—payment for questions, brown envelopes and the rest of it. I am a frequent critic of the media, who are criticising our side at the moment, but I believe that The Sunday Times, for example, did a public service in exposing payment for questions. I said so at the time.

Mr. Prentice: I do not want to dwell on the issue; I have said what I wanted to say. My friend the Member for Cannock Chase talked about transparency, and I suppose that sunlight is the best disinfectant for all such matters, as he said. However, we also need ethical regulators that people listen to, and for those regulators to report to Parliament, not to the Executive. People who serve in such regulators should not be appointed by the Prime Minister of the day, but by an independent, arm’s length body; we have suggested the public service commission. Those people could report through that commission to Parliament. That is the way forward.

I want to say one or two words about the inquiry that produced the report. When we started our work on the issue, it was a revelation to me to see the constellation of organisations involved in ethical regulation. There are a huge number, ranging from the really big ones, such as the National Audit Office, whose budget is £65 million, to the little minnows such as the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which costs us about £200,000 a year. There are other organisations that we did not consider but are worth mentioning, such as the Information
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Commission and the Electoral Commission. The parliamentary ombudsman reports to our Committee anyway. There is also the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, whose job is to regulate standards in this place.

A huge number of ethical regulators had grown up, and there was no coherence. However, we had to start somewhere. In our report, we considered the ethical regulators that are sponsored by the Cabinet Office and whose existence is not set out in legislation. We considered the role of the commissioner for public appointments, the Civil Service Commission, the House of Lords Appointments Commission, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which I have mentioned, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

I should like to say a little about that latter committee. Sir Alistair Graham, now retired, took his job very seriously and was always on the front pages of the newspapers, berating the Government for some transgression, misdemeanour or slip-up. He was always on “Newsnight”. In his final report, he told us that

That is what the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life thought—it was a hugely serious charge. I think that I speak for all members of the Select Committee in saying that we were astonished that in all his years as chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, he did not formally ask to see the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to discuss those matters of concern. It was bizarre. I hope and expect that if the new chairman, who has just been appointed, has problems or reservations about the ethical standards pursued by the Labour Government, he will make an appointment to see the Prime Minister to talk about it, rather than rush into public print.

David Heyes (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): When the chairman appeared before the Select Committee, he was operating under a 40 per cent. budget cut, which has been going on for some time. He was filling in staffing gaps by borrowing people from the Cabinet Office. I wonder to what extent my hon. Friend thinks that his reluctance to approach the Prime Minister, or raise concerns about the ability to operate, were connected with that dependence on the Cabinet Office to resource his activities.

Mr. Prentice: That brings me neatly to a point that I was going to make later. It is all very well for the Government to say—I think that they say it in their response to the Select Committee report—that the ethical regulators are independent. However, if the Government of the day can cut the budget by 40 per cent. or 50 per cent., the idea of independence becomes fanciful. That is why we propose that the ethical regulator should be set up at arm’s length from the Government and that the responsibility for its funding, starting and operation should be given to the public standards commission—the arm’s length body that would report to Parliament.

I should like to spend a couple of minutes on the key recommendations of our report; my friend the Member for Cannock Chase has alluded to them already. We believe that the ethical regulators should be permanent.
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They should not be able to be abolished by ministerial fiat, and there should be no going back to the position of the Government being able to decide on a whim that they want to abolish a regulator. The Minister could tell the House this afternoon that the House of Lords Appointments Commission or the Civil Service Commission were going to be abolished. Any of those bodies, which were set up not by statute but by the Prime Minister under prerogative powers, can be abolished. That is wrong—they should be set up on a statutory basis. I welcome the fact that we are going to have a civil service Act, but what a dance of the seven veils we have had over it. In July 1998, the Government said on the record for the first time that we would get such an Act, and 10 years later we just might—I hope so. The second and third characteristics of the regulator should be neutrality and independence. It cannot be right that bodies that regulate the Government in some way are accountable to the Government, and that should change.

On the Government’s response to our report, it is a big step forward for them to accede to our recommendation that constitutional watchdogs should have single non-renewable terms—that is self-evidently the right thing to do—but many of their other responses are opaque.

It is not clear what will end up in the constitutional renewal Bill, but it is a big opportunity for the Government to look closely at how the ethical landscape can be reshaped. The Committee has made one proposal; there may be others. The system should be put into a legislative form, and the opportunity to do that will occur when the Bill is introduced early next year.

3.30 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). I agree with him that sleaze should not be the currency in which Members of Parliament trade.

Today’s debate is a much more constructive and calm discussion of standards in public life than the one that we had yesterday, and for that reason it will doubtless have much less coverage. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), not only for this report but for the heroic way in which he has ventured on to a whole lot of territories from which he might have been discouraged by the Government. At the beginning of his speech, he gave an indication of what might have been when he said that as a junior Back Bencher he made an injudicious speech about the mileage allowance that could have led him to fall out of favour with the Whips. Had it not been for that incident, he might now be at the Dispatch Box taking credit for a whole range of innovative and radical constitutional reforms that he still has to advocate from the Back Benches.

The report is unusual because it deals with abstract issues such as ethics, which are difficult to define and rather intangible, and various principles, structures and concepts. This debate therefore takes place on a somewhat different plane from many debates in the House. That does not excuse a rather thin and very belated Government response that ducks some of the major issues raised in the report.

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Let me begin by confirming what was stated by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, by the Lord Chancellor yesterday, and in the report: our standards of conduct in this country are generally high. As Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, I spend a lot of time talking to visiting parliamentarians, who are amazed at the high standards that we set ourselves and the procedures that are in place to monitor them. In many countries, MPs have immunity from prosecution. We do not have that, nor should we, but on top of the criminal system we have superimposed a ministerial code and the House of Commons code, breaches of which can lead to career-ending decisions. While we should of course always strive to do better, I believe that our politics here are cleaner than almost anywhere else.

Let me say a word or two about the Committee on Standards in Public Life. On 25 April, Sir Alistair Graham’s appointment ran out. No Chairman has been reappointed for a second three-year term, so the Government knew well in advance that there would be a vacancy in April. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase heroically said that he might be responsible for the delay because the Government were hoping that his report might recommend abolition. I am not sure about that, given that his report was published on 29 April and it was only today that an appointment was announced. Indeed, the Government did not advertise the vacancy until October. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that that body is being penalised for having had, in Sir Alistair Graham, an outspoken Chairman who was sometimes inconvenient for the Government.

It is important to have a Chairman, and I welcome the appointment of Chris Kelly, who worked in the Treasury when I was there. That is a very good appointment, and I applaud it. We need a new Chairman to focus on exactly what the Committee’s role should be. It is difficult, against the background of today’s controversies, to argue that the mission of the Committee on Standards in Public Life has been achieved and that there is no role for it. However, when we look at some of its recent activities, it is difficult to see how it envisages its mission. We need a new Chairman and a new focus, which underlines the point made in the report about the appointment being in the hands of the Government. They have the capacity to weaken the ethical regulator simply by delaying an appointment, as has happened in this case. If Parliament had been in charge, as proposed by the Select Committee, that would not have happened.

In passing, I would like to mention the constitutional watchdog about which I get the most complaints, the Standards Board for England. There is a passing reference to it in paragraphs 21 and 29 of the report. It is not quite clear who reviews that body—the Public Administration Committee or the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government—nor how it fits into the proposed structure, but someone needs to get a grip on it so that it is more focused and effective, and does not drive all my parish councillors into a rage.

I want to make one point only in my contribution, which concerns the relationship between the Prime Minister and the adviser on ministerial interests. The hon. Member for Pendle spoke of the dance of the seven veils, and that is what has happened in the dialogue between the Public Administration Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life on the one hand, and, on the other hand, this Prime Minister and the previous one.

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