Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con):
I thank my right hon. Friend for being so generous in giving way. Notably, the same cannot be said of the Leader of the House. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the pertinent question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) about the nature of the legal advice sought? Mr. Speaker, from your statement last week, I understood that the whole purpose of todays proceedings and the Committee work that
you are instigating was to find out what processes were in place. Who knows who might be the next right hon. or hon. Member to face similar proceedings? I wish to be satisfied today that we know the nature of the process in place. Will my right hon. Friend give us an answer on that point?
Mrs. May: I entirely agree that that is a matter of concern to all hon. Members. Indeed, the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) was entirely appropriate, which is exactly why the review should take place and the Committee should be able to meet and start work immediately, so that Members can be satisfied about the processes that are in place and can ensure that they can do their job and carry on with their work.
Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I do not know how much, Mr. Speaker, you enjoy the right hon. Lady acting as your interpreter: This is what the Speaker wants; this is what the Speaker means. I am not sure that that is a helpful way in which to continue the debate. But on the narrow question of the idea that any Committee set-up reflecting the broad composition of the House would be unacceptable to the Opposition, is it not true also that any Committee set-up representing principally just the Opposition may not be acceptable to the Government? Does the right hon. Lady not understand that there are many right hon. Members here who would be quite independent of the Government and quite critical of them, and that Mr. Speaker will decide, not her?
Mrs. May: The right hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that I appeared to be interpreting Mr. Speakers wishes, but I was quoting Hansard. It is perfectly clear: Mr. Speaker said that the members would be nominated by him
to report as soon as possible.[ Official Report, 3 December 2008; Vol. 485, c. 3.]
He said, too, that they would look into the seizure...of material from my hon. Friends office. That is the issue for debate today, and that is what the House should put into practice, but the Government motion singularly fails to do so. Let me be clear about what the debate is not about.
This whole affair raises a number of questions relating to matters outside the workings of this House: the relationship between the Executive and the police; the responsibilities of the Home Secretary; and the relationship between the Home Office and the Cabinet Office. Those are not matters for this debate. Today, it is for this House to exert its authority and for each and every one of us to consider how we can ensure that the rights of Parliament and of our constituents can be upheld. There will be some people who will ask why we should
bother with thissurely no MP is above the law. Of course, that is the caseno Member of Parliament is above the law, and parliamentary privilege has never protected MPs against criminal proceedings.
There are, however, two key issues at stake. First, MPs must be able to do their job, both in representing their constituents and in holding the Government to account. What we are talking about today is the search of an MPs office and the seizure of material that was fundamental to the ability of my hon. Friend to do his job. Crucially, material held by an MP which is going to be used or is capable of being used in parliamentary proceedings is indeed subject to parliamentary privilege, which we hold not for ourselves on our behalf but for our constituents.
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire) (Con): Is it not right that the protection that MPs have is that there should be due process of law? Is it not the complaint that, on the basis of Mr. Speakers statement, there was not a proper warrant when there should have been, and the processes did not work, which is why we must have the inquiry now so that those lessons are learned?
Mrs. May: My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Committee needs to meet so that we can learn the lessons of the mistakes that were made in the process that was undertaken that led to the ability to search the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford.
Mrs. May: I said that I would give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). After doing so, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), but then I shall make progress.
Mr. Cash: Does my right hon. Friend think that the Leader of the House has started out on a completely false premise, because the operational independence of the police in this context depends on the application of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984? It is a question of law, but does she not agree, too, that under article 9 in relation to proceedings in Parliament, it is well established that the law and custom of Parliament are the first question to be considered, so there is a conflict between the two, and the courts would undoubtedly have decided that this was a matter of parliamentary privilege, and they would never have let the police in the first place if that had been put to them?
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The Public Administration Committee, which is so ably chaired by my friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), met in private a number of times during the police investigation into the cash for honours affair. Why cannot the Speakers Committee meet in camera?
Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman makes an extremely important point. There is no reason why the Speakers Committee would not be able to meet in private if it considered that the matters before it required it to meet in private.
I said that we held parliamentary privilege not on our own behalf, but on behalf of our constituents. The second issue at stake is the relationship of trust between an MP and their constituentstrust that means that constituents feel able to share information with a Member on the basis of confidentiality. Constituents do not give information to their Member of Parliament on the basis that one day it might be pored over by police officers. Parliamentary privilege is not our privilege; it is the peoples privilege.
There is also a practical issue at stake. The House authorities do indeed have responsibility for the House estate, including offices, but the contents of an officethe papers and information in electronic formdo not belong to the House. They belong to the Member, so it was not for the House authorities to consent to the search of my hon. Friends papers and electronic information. We need to know not just why a search took place without a warrant, but in the absence of a warrant, why it took place without my hon. Friends consent.
The work of the Committee is not to decide who should have spoken to whom. It is about these fundamental questions of privilege, an MPs ability to do their job, and constituents rights to confidentiality.
Mrs. May: No. I listened carefully to the arguments advanced by the Leader of the House. She said, as she has done on previous occasions, that the Committee cannot meet because the House cannot run an inquiry concurrent with the police investigation, as the inquiry could prejudice any police inquiry or any criminal proceedings.
Mr. George Howarth (Knowsley, North and Sefton, East) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Will you reflect on the observations that the right hon. Lady has just made? They are starting to border on being prejudicial to any future inquiry.
I was going on to say that of course it would be wrong for the House to prejudice a police investigation, but the Governments argument on this point is false for three reasons. First, I point out the simple practical fact that the Metropolitan police themselves are running an inquiry concurrent with a police investigation. They have an inquiry into the handling of the case, which is due to report in a week.
However, the more important point is that the Government are wrong to claim that the work of the Committee would prejudice the police inquiry, because the two will be looking into completely different issues. The investigation of the source of the leaks and whether
any action should be taken against a civil servant or against a Member is a different issue from the investigation of the rights of MPs over information and resources in their parliamentary offices, the identification of what is needed to do their job, and the consideration of the meaning of parliamentary privilege.
Either the Leader of the House is unable to understand the distinction that I have outlined, or she understands it but chooses to ignore it because it is inconvenient for the Government. I refer to the point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in his intervention on the Leader of the House. Should it not be for the Committee to decide what it does and when? Its hands should not be tied by the House. If the police were concerned that the Committees work prejudiced their inquiry, it would be for them to go to the Committee to explain, and for the Committee to decide whether to continue, just as has been mentioned in relation to decisions taken by the Public Administration Committee. I therefore believe that there is no reason why the House cannot undertake the necessary inquiry without prejudicing the police investigation.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): Does the right hon. Lady agree that it seems rather strange that we should be discussing the whole idea of prejudicing the inquiry, given that the Government tried to force through the 42-day measure on the premise that we were all going to discuss issues to do with individuals?
I now move on to the issue of why the inquiry needs to be held now. That is because we need to clarify the meaning of parliamentary privilege, who can and cannot grant access to an MPs office and effects andcruciallywhere constituents stand on the information given to their Member of Parliament in the expectation of confidentiality. Those questions need to be resolved; they cannot be left hanging in the air until the Government deem it convenient to have a debate.
In business questions last week, the Leader of the House referred to her four principles on parliamentary privilege; she has referred to them again today. I have to say to her that the four principles that she set out in the piece of paper attached to the note that tried to set up a meeting between her, Government Ministers and Officers of the House last week were not actually about parliamentary privilegethey are general principles. However, the Leader of the House has challenged us to agree with them, so I will take each one in turn.
I agree that MPs must be able to do their work, that the Opposition must be able to hold the Government to account and that the law and processes must support thatbut where was that principle when police seized
material from the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford? I agree that MPs are not above the law, but no one has ever suggested that they are. I agree that no one should seek to undermine the impartiality and professionalism of the civil service or the operation of the civil service code, but where was that principle when Alastair Campbell was given authority over civil servants? I agree that no one should seek to undermine the operational independence of the police, but there is a difference between operational independence and proper accountability.
Last week, the Leader of the House implied that operational independence for the police meant that politicians could not direct them in their actions. I am not suggesting that they be directed. But they will not think any the worse of a Home Secretary who asks them awkward questions about what they are doingquestions such as, Is that a proportionate response?, Have you consulted the Director of Public Prosecutions? and Have you applied for a warrant? Asking such questions is not improper interference with the operational independence of the police, but the proper exercise of scrutiny by the person responsible to the public for ensuring that the police are doing their job and keeping within the law in doing so.
Mr. Speaker, I set out earlier why I believe that the Governments motion does not meet the requirements set out in your statement last week. The amendment in the name of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), which is signed by a number of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members, addresses those issues and clearly sets out a proposal that I believe meets Mr. Speakers statement. For that reason, I will support that amendment if it is moved, and I urge other hon. Members to do so.
As it has been proposed by the Government, the Committee would be stymied in its remit, packed with a Government majority and silenced when it was needed most. I urge hon. Members to reject the Governments motion and treat it with the degree of contempt with which the Government have treated the House.
Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab):
The situation that we are debating today is serious, and the issues that it raises need to be seriously addressed. If we want parliamentary privilege to be taken seriously by others, we need to address the problems that this case has thrown up. We will not do that if we pursue the course of action taken by Tory Front Benchersto sidetrack all the debate into scapegoating, finger pointing and blame. The truth is that what happened does not reflect much credit on most of those involved. I suspect that most of them are now feeling, If only Id thought that at the time, I would have done something different. However, that does not mean that we will get anywhere
by singling out any particular individual for blame. The whole set-up in this place is at fault. We are responsible for the set-up, and therefore responsible for the faults.
After the Home Secretary, rightly, got sick and tired of persistent leaks from her private office, she asked for a leak inquiry. Cabinet Office officials rightly set up such an inquiry, and then called in the police. There are clearly plenty of precedents for that.
The police proceeded with their investigation and arrested a civil servant, who has made it clear that he was the source of the leaks. That took them to the hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), who has never denied that he had a sort of standing order with this civil servant to get a continuing
Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): The Leader of the House suggested that nobody should say anything prejudicial in this case. May I recommend to the right hon. Gentleman that he heed her words, because he has gone way over the line in what he has just said?
Frank Dobson: I have seen the legal representative of the civil servant on television, and his lawyer in effect admitting it, and I understand from what has been said on behalf of the hon. Member for Ashford that he admits that this young man had tried to get a job with him, that he had supplied him with information, and that he had met him several times. I do not know what I am supposed to withdraw. The hon. Gentleman[Hon. Members: Withdraw!]
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. If a right hon. or hon. Member were going to make an attack of a personal nature on another right hon. or hon. Member, it would be in order for him to notify that Member in advance. No such notice has been given.
Frank Dobson: I go on to say, thenI hope that the hon. Member for Ashford will agree with methat I am astonished that the police chose to arrest him in these circumstances. I cannot understand why they did not question him or, if they wanted to take it one step further, question him under caution. The police seem these days to be a bit arrest-happy with quite a lot of people, including members of the Labour party and Labour Members in the House of Lords.