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8 Dec 2008 : Column 268

The police then wanted to search the MP’s home and his constituency office. I wonder whether they asked him if it would be okay to do so or just proceeded to a warrant. They then decided that they wanted to search his House of Commons office. I do not know whether they asked his permission—in quite recent times Labour Members have given their permission to police who wanted to search their offices—but it appears that they did not and that they did not get a warrant.

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I think that the right hon. Gentleman will know that my predecessor was treated by the police in exactly the way that he is explaining. First, he was asked whether he wished to meet them to discuss a matter that was of national security level. Secondly, he was asked to come to the police station if he wished to discuss that matter. Thirdly, he was asked if he minded if his office was searched. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell me why he thinks that the process this time was so different from that of 2004?

Frank Dobson: I have already said that I am surprised that the procedure was different in the case of the hon. Member for Ashford.

The police then approached the Serjeant at Arms. I point out to everybody, including commentators outside this place, that the Serjeant at Arms is responsible for the safety and security of Members of this House, and that the mainstay of that safety and security is the Metropolitan police. She therefore has frequent meetings with the Metropolitan police—specifically, the people who used to be the special branch, and are now the anti-terrorism unit. She discusses our safety and the deployment of the police, including armed police, in this place. She is out there to protect us.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Frank Dobson: No, I have given way already.

It has to be said that the Serjeant at Arms is unlikely to see the Metropolitan police as jackbooted storm-troopers of the police state; she sees them as working colleagues. They may very well have exploited that in their relations with her by not making clear that she was entitled to ask them for a warrant. The police got the consent of the Serjeant at Arms, and went to the offices of the hon. Member for Ashford, where they were challenged by a representative of the Leader of the Opposition, who again, does not seem to have asked whether they had a warrant. The whole situation is a mess, and we are responsible for it.

Contrary to a lot of the media coverage that seems to suggest that the Speaker makes the rules, the Speaker does not make the rules—we make them, and the Speaker is there to carry them out. The big problem is that the rules are not clear. We all agree that there is something called parliamentary privilege, but hardly anybody agrees exactly what it amounts to. It is apparent from reading articles by apparently learned academics in the news media that they do not agree either on the boundaries of our parliamentary privilege.

If we are serious about parliamentary privilege, we need to clarify what we mean by it. We should turn it into statute law to show that we take it seriously and
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that anyone who breaches it will be dealt with seriously. I would also include in such a law the Wilson doctrine that prohibits our phones being tapped. It was not very long ago that the previous Prime Minister was going to undermine that doctrine, and he was only prevented from doing so by a Cabinet revolt. Conventions should not be set aside at the behest of a Prime Minister or any individual, which is why we need to shift the rules on parliamentary privilege to statute law.

Mr. Bellingham: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Frank Dobson: No.

Once we have done that, and only after we have done that, the Speaker, the Clerk of the Commons and the Serjeant at Arms can work out clear procedures for following the rules that we have laid down. Once we have made the rules clear, we will be entitled in conscience to complain if those rules are not followed, but as we do not have a clear definition of parliamentary privilege or a clear explanation of what will be done when parliamentary privilege is threatened, we had better keep quiet until we have done our job, and we should stop criticising the people who have tried to do theirs.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Today I returned to my office in the House of Commons, on the Upper Committee corridor, after an absence of some days. I found a letter sitting on my computer keyboard, in my office that had been locked. It is from the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), it is politically partial, it parrots the Conservative line on the matters before the House today and it contains implicit criticism of Ministers, the House authorities, the police and yourself, Mr. Speaker.

Given the subject of today’s debate, I hope that the House will understand that I have some concerns about returning to my office, and opening the door with my key to find such a letter sitting on my computer keyboard. I do not wish to accuse anyone. I would not want to end up with egg on my face—or indeed, bacon—but I would like to ask you, Mr. Speaker, whether it was a House official or a Conservative party researcher who left the letter on my computer, or whether it was something far more innocent. Given the debate, I have every reason to ask how it got into my office.

Mr. Speaker: I will look into the matter.

4.4 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): This debate is about an important matter for the House, as everybody acknowledges, hence the large turnout. That is not because we are precious about our rights and liberties for ourselves, but because we hold them on trust for our constituents, as we have all agreed.

Today, the Leader of the House has come—I have to say this to her—arrogantly and disrespectfully to seek to change what you, Mr. Speaker, asked the House to do in the interests of Parliament, to what she wants the House to do in the interests of the Government. That is not the job of the Leader of the House. She could have tabled the motion without realising the implications
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and how much it deviated from your wish, but that is unlikely. If it was not unlikely when she tabled the motion last Thursday and then re-tabled it, it must be unlikely today.

You have indicated, Mr. Speaker, that you have selected all the amendments tabled, including the amendment that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has tabled, which is not on today’s Order Paper and which is available outside. I wonder whether, perhaps at the end of my speech, you might arrange for that amendment to be passed round, as statements are, so that everybody has it before them.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The amendment is on the Order Paper now.

Simon Hughes: One of the things that I think all colleagues point out when we show friends and visitors around the House of Commons is the picture of Speaker Lenthall, one of your predecessors, Mr. Speaker, robustly standing up to the people whom King Charles I sent here in 1642 to arrest colleagues. The colleagues were not here—the birds had flown. Of course, it is not quite the same when police officers come to the door, but the issue is the same: does this place have a right to protect its activities and what are those rights?

Your great city, Mr. Speaker, and this great city have many citizens who understand the law very well. If the police knocked on the door of one of my constituents in Southwark or Bermondsey, everybody inside would know two basic things. First, they do not have to let the police in unless they have a warrant. Secondly, that applies not only in respect of a warrant for the person in question, but if the police are looking for somebody upstairs.

By your statement’s admission and by the helpful protocol that you have issued today, Mr. Speaker, you have accepted that something went badly wrong in the House of Commons on 27 November. For whatever reason, the authorities did not, as it were, stand up to the police investigation as they should have. You asked us to set up a group of senior colleagues as quickly as possible, to find out what went wrong and to make recommendations. That is what we want to do. Some of us believe that the issue is important enough to allow the colleagues whom you choose from across the parties in the House, with the experience in the House and with the House’s rights and privileges, to get on with that job now and not to wait for weeks, months or years, which is potentially the implication of the Leader of the House’s motion today.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Although I entirely agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, does he not believe that the House is entitled to know from whom legal advice was requested before the police were allowed to invade the office of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green)? That is a basic question, the answer to which we should be entitled to know in this debate.

Simon Hughes: I would say the following to the hon. Gentleman. You have made it clear, Mr. Speaker, that various people have responsibility for these issues: yourself, the Serjeant at Arms, in some respects the Leader of the House, the Clerk of the House and those who advise
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them—Mr. Speaker has counsel and there are Law Officers who are available to be consulted. The hon. Gentleman raises questions that should be answered. If they cannot be answered today, potentially because nobody who can speak in this debate knows the answers, they could be answered quickly and with no prejudice to any inquiry about the hon. Member for Ashford or anybody else.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD) rose—

Simon Hughes: Just before I give way to my right hon. Friend, I should say that you have been very clear, Mr. Speaker, that there are times when we cannot discuss matters before the courts because they are sub judice, but that does not apply if nobody has been charged. It is very clear that we are able to have that debate—albeit subject, of course, to proper wisdom and guidance on what is right and wrong, what might be a matter of prejudice, and so forth.

Sir Alan Beith: I put it to my hon. Friend that there is an even more compelling reason for urgency. When I asked the Prime Minister last Wednesday whether he supported Mr. Speaker’s decision as set out in his statement—that the police would not be admitted without a warrant—the Prime Minister said that he was waiting for the results of the inquiry. If that is the case—it does not seem to have been embodied in the words used by the Leader of the House, but this was the Prime Minister speaking—Mr. Speaker’s decision does not have the support of the Government until the Committee has been able to inquire into these matters, which the motion does not allow until the police inquiries are over.

Simon Hughes: Let me deal specifically with my right hon. Friend’s absolutely accurate point. The motion in the name of the Leader of the House is, in case anyone is in any doubt, extraordinary in that respect, as it says

of course, we are all agreed on that—

The Leader of the House knows perfectly well what “any relevant inquiry” means; the meaning is clear and it could be weeks, months or years. She knows that. Things might not just be thrown into long grass; they could be put off until the other side of the next general election. This is a ridiculous proposal.

The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who chairs the Public Administration Committee with great respect and authority, referred to what you, Mr. Speaker, wanted us to do and to what the amendment wants us to do, which is to give the Committee appointed by Mr. Speaker the right to take its own advice and to follow it. If we are talking about senior and experienced colleagues, it is beyond comprehension that they will be unable to take advice, follow it and act appropriately.

Several hon. Members rose

Simon Hughes: It is completely wrong for the Leader of the House to seek to tie the hands of the House and this Committee for an indefinite period; she knows the implications of that, and it is absolutely not honouring what you, Mr. Speaker, asked us to do last week.

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Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD) rose—

Mr. MacShane rose—

Simon Hughes: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Norman Lamb: Is it not also unfair on individuals such as the Serjeant at Arms and the Clerk for these matters to be left hanging in the air unanswered? Is it not in their interest that legal advice be made available so that everyone can see straight away exactly what happened and how those decisions were made?

Simon Hughes: That is a good argument, demonstrating exactly how we should proceed.

I said last week that I hoped Members across the House had affection and respect for you and your post, Mr. Speaker, just as much as they do for the Serjeant at Arms and others, but it is quite wrong to leave this matter in the air. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) is absolutely right that we need to resolve this matter. If a Committee is set up this week as appointed by you, Sir, it can start work this week and do so because it understands the rights and interests of the individuals concerned.

Several hon. Members rose

Simon Hughes: I will give way only one more time and then I am going to finish, as many other colleagues wish to speak.

Mr. MacShane: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify whether he as Front-Bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats shares the position advanced from further down the Opposition Benches, which I found absolutely extraordinary, that if the relevant amendment were adopted tonight, this Committee should meet in secret?

Simon Hughes: Let me make it clear that the amendments that we are talking about—amendments (b), (c) and (d) are not in the names of any Front Bencher of any political party. The amendment that I am speaking to is supported by Back Benchers of the three major parties. I should hope that that would give it some authority, although senior colleagues in all the parties are also involved, which I hope provides even more authority. People with great experience of the House and of the relevant issues are also involved. I support that, which is why my hon. Friends and I will support the amendments at the end of the day. [Interruption.] As to the secrecy issue, that is a matter for the Committee, as the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said. Committees of this House, including a Committee appointed by Mr. Speaker, would take the decision. The instinct would not be to meet in secret, of course, but the Intelligence and Security Committee, for example, meets in secret. Clerks are here, and people to advise us, and it is nonsense to imagine that seven senior colleagues cannot get on with the job and deal immediately with those matters that can be so dealt with, and matters that become sub judice—

Mr. MacShane: Secrecy?

Simon Hughes: I have dealt with secrecy. The answer is that all Committees have the power to meet in secret for some of the time. Nobody—including the right hon. Member for Maidenhead—has suggested that the
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Committee should meet in secret all the time. If we are holding the police to account, we will want them to put their argument in public, because some of us believe that they might not have acted appropriately either. They are not above the law, just as we are not, but the activities, communications and possessions of those elected to represent the citizens of Britain need to be protected.

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge) (LD): Will my hon. Friend give way?

Simon Hughes: No, I must make progress.

None of us wants to send out the message that there is never a time or place for the police to come into this building and carry out their activities. That is not our argument. However, you, Mr. Speaker, above all, are the guardian of processes and procedures, which safeguard people’s rights and liberties. Whether it is the European convention on human rights, which some people support, or the traditional rights and liberties, they are governed by process as well as substance. Process matters, and it seems to many of us that the process failed.

The Government have done some good things—and have understood, at some stage, how to defend the rights and liberties of the public—but their regular fault is not being able to let go of power being transferred to Parliament. They persistently seek to manipulate what might be the broader interests of Parliament. The other day, in relation to Select Committees, which could have been more representative of the regions of England, they insisted that the Government had to have their majority and their way. I hope that Labour Back Benchers—I listened to the speech of the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson)—realise that the question is whether we stand up for Parliament and the right of the Speaker of the House of Commons to have people deliberating independently of Government influence, or give in yet again to the Government having their way over all our procedures. We were elected to stand for the independence of this place. I hope that colleagues on both sides of the Chamber will support the amendment and say to the Government, “I’m afraid that this is not your business. Hands off.”

4.18 pm

Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): After a chance conversation last week with a respected Conservative Member of the House, I have followed this issue with special care. After studying what I believe to be all relevant material, I have concluded that both the motion and the controversy are unnecessary, and that the motion is a waste of the House’s time.

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