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Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.

Question agreed to.

The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).


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Parliamentary Standards (Constitutional Reform)

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I inform the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.

6.44 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I beg to move,

The past fortnight has been a bad couple of weeks for parliamentary politics. We had the aborted attempt to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the revelations about the activities of certain peers and a reminder, in the Standards and Privileges Committee’s report, of the actions of one hon. Member. A week ago, when we discussed the freedom of information provisions, perhaps in a genuflection to Burns, I asked colleagues to try to see themselves as others see us. I despair at what those outside the House who are struggling to keep their jobs and to keep a roof over their heads think when they read in their newspapers of people asking for £10,000, £20,000 or up to £100,000 to affect legislation by the exercise of whatever influence they believe they have. This cannot go on, and it is time that we took action.

A sensible, appropriate and proportionate response is to recognise that Parliament is in urgent need of reform. I refer to Parliament as a whole, as the matter is not simply about those at the other end of the corridor. The title of the motion, as it was read out by the Leader of the House at business questions on Thursday—I am sorry not to see her in her place—referred to this as an “urgent” case. When I took that title to the Table Office, its staff told me that they were unhealthy— [Interruption.] I mean unhappy—they might be unhealthy, too. They said that they were unhappy with the term “urgent” and that it was not a parliamentary term. What could better illustrate the difficulties of reforming this place?

I hope that we can conduct today’s debate in a non-partisan way, because it is desperately important that we do so.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): But?

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Mr. Heath: No, there is no “but”. It is unwise for us to try to score political points off one another on these issues, and it is dangerous for anybody to claim moral superiority. I simply say to the whole House that those who are tempted to throw rocks either down the corridor or at other parties in this House should realise that we all inhabit an exquisite, Victorian, neo-Gothic house of glass. Every time we cast aspersions on other politicians, those aspersions are applied to us in our constituencies, however inappropriately. It is public perception that is important.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman deal also with the question of constitutional reform, which is implicit in the motion? The issues of standards and conduct to which he refers are matched by, if not less than, the problem of whether this is becoming a sham Parliament.

Mr. Heath: There are all sorts of constitutional issues, and the hon. Gentleman has a particular viewpoint on one of them. The perception outside is that politics is not being conducted in the way that it should be, and that we in this House and in the body politic generally are not clearly free from the taint of partiality that affects all of us. That is very dangerous, but more than that there is a perception that our political structures are not fit for purpose or serving the country well. That is where the thrust for constitutional reform comes from.

I turn first to the other end of the corridor and to another place—the Lords. There was palpable relief that for once, the reports over the past week were about things down that end, not here. That is a wrong-headed relief, because when there is damage to the reputation of politics, it affects all of us. The reputations of all of us are at stake. If the other House does not operate with credibility, it cannot properly perform the role that it is required to perform in our constitutional arrangements.

We therefore need to be concerned, as I know are many hon. Members, and noble Members in the other place who are honourable in their intent, about sorting matters out. Are there not inherent problems, however, with this mish-mash or half-reform that we have left in the other place? We still have 92 hereditaries who are there by accident of birth—never mind the pretend elections among that exclusive franchise. Uniquely among all Parliaments, we have people who are there—

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): There is Tonga.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman refers to Tonga, but there has been reform there, I think, so we are unique.

We have the 26 bishops as well, and 625 life peers. Those life peers are all placed there by—let us make no mistake about this—patronage. They are placed there because somebody has suggested they would be an ornament to that House. Indeed, some are; some are very able people who work very hard for this country. There are others, however, who, frankly, do not, and I afraid that my respect does not extend to every Member of the other place.

Chris Ruane (Vale of Clwyd) (Lab): Name them.

Mr. Heath: I am not going to name them, because as I have said, I am not going to be partisan, but let us say for a start that it is reported that at least eight were
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allegedly prepared to change the law for cash in their hands. To me, as to many peers, that is outrageous. Furthermore, however, we have as Members of the House of Lords a convicted perjurer, a convicted fraudster and a convicted fire raiser. What a rum crew we have making laws for this country. We also have four peers who do not choose to be resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes. They do not choose to pay the taxes that the rest of us pay, but they choose to make the laws that the rest of us have to live with. Two of them made solemn pledges that they would become resident for tax purposes—pledges which, since they have been elevated, they have chosen to ignore.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): The hon. Gentleman and his party make a big play of the fact that everybody who makes laws in this country should pay taxes in this country. That is a principle I can support, but can he tell me whether that extends to European Commissioners and Members of the European Parliament, who make 80 per cent. of the laws of this country, but who, as far as I am aware, do not pay any taxes in this country?

Mr. Heath: As a matter of fact, they do pay taxes in this country. [Interruption.] No, not those who represent other countries, of course; oddly enough, they do not, but those who are resident in this country, as our MEPs are required to be, are paying taxes in this country.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): Leaving Europe aside—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”]—I agree with the thrust of the hon. Gentleman’s speech so far, but does he agree that the law should be obeyed not only to the letter, but in its spirit? One of the tax exiles in the other place is funding campaigning in marginal constituencies to the tune of tens of thousands of pounds, to get a political advantage in a way that the public would perceive as totally wrong. What does the hon. Gentleman think about that?

Philip Davies: When did you start complaining about that, Bob?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am beginning to have some forebodings about the way this debate is going. I should remind hon. Members that we must be very careful about criticising particular people, and if they are only allegations or suggestions, that is quite out of order. Only factual matters can be referred to on the Floor of the House. I think the House will do itself a service in the country if we are seen to conduct this debate in a sober and serious way, rather than in the rollicking manner in which it has been conducted so far.

Mr. Heath: I agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, which is why I was very careful not to cast aspersions on any particular peer. I was simply making the point that all the people to whom I referred are noble Members—they are all people who are taking part in the making of the laws of this country. I think there is more than an argument that reform in this area is overdue.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: Lord Laidlaw is a self-confessed tax exile and he gave more than £100,000 to the Conservative party last year. Is it not inappropriate for any political party to accept donations from someone who is a self-confessed tax exile?

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Mr. Heath: I believe the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in saying that the gentleman in question has made no secret of the fact that he lives outside this country—he lives in Monaco, as I understand it—so I do not think we are in a contentious area there.

As I shall explain, this problem can be cured by proposals that have been made, and which I hope the Government will now accept. That is the point of this section of my speech: there are some immediate steps that can be taken—my noble Friends in the other place have suggested them—and the Government would do well to agree to them. Indeed, there are intimations that they have agreed to them. The Lord Chancellor was a very busy man over the weekend, writing columns in various newspapers saying he was minded to do this, that and the other. I rather hoped he might come to the House today when there was a debate on the subject and tell us what he proposed to do. Instead, however, he chose to send the Deputy Leader of the House of Commons, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—

Andrew Mackinlay: Unpaid.

Mr. Heath: Yes, unpaid. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Rhondda, but I feel that the Lord Chancellor and the Leader of the House might have chosen to be here, because they seem to have a lot of opinions on this subject, and they are hinting them to the press but not expressing them to the House.

What do we believe should happen? The following proposals have come from my noble Friend Lord McNally, and some of them are already before the other place as legislative proposals. One of them is that there should be the power to expel and suspend. It is extraordinary that that was discussed 10 years ago and still has not been brought into force. Another is that the House of Lords Appointments Commission should be on a statutory basis. That would cure the problem of peers making pledges to the Appointments Commission but then not honouring them. Both those proposals are contained in a Bill introduced by my noble Friend Lord Steel.

It has been suggested that all peers, and indeed all Members of Parliament, including MEPs—let us cover the points made by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies)—should automatically be considered resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes. That could be done at the stroke of a pen. My noble Friend Lord Oakeshott has proposed that, and it can be done now. Will the Government agree tonight to do that?

There is also the view that peers should be brought under the supervision of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. We have improved self-regulation in this House; it is not perfect, but it is better, and one of the reasons for that is the existence of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It is extraordinary that self-policing is considered to be a sufficiency elsewhere, and I believe that all Members of Parliament should be brought within the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

The issue of passes is a security issue, apart from anything else. Passes are issued to Members of Parliament for members of staff to do work in the House, not for any passing lobbyist who happens to want easy access to the parliamentary estate. There should clearly be a tightening up of the issuing of parliamentary passes.

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Lastly on my short shopping list for the House of Lords, there should be a declaration of interest irrespective of whether somebody is directly contributing to a debate. Some peers clearly seem to imagine that provided they do not actually make a speech it is all right to go along to Ministers’ or civil servants’ offices and argue the case for a change in legislation, which they are being paid to do, and that in some way that is not paid advocacy. The proposal seems very simple to me and the Government could usefully adopt it.

Andrew Mackinlay: Surely if people declare an interest it should ipso facto disqualify them from speaking about the matter in question and voting on it. There seems to be a culture in the other place that if someone makes a declaration of interest, they can proceed to speak about it, articulate it and advocate it, but in my view it should be a disqualification.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman is right—it is a cultural thing, although I hesitate to say that we always get it right in this House. We have to be much more careful.

I have set out a short shopping list, and if the Deputy Leader of the House is listening he could usefully say in his response tonight that he agrees to it and that those reforms will be undertaken, either through the legislation already proposed by my noble Friends, or through Government legislation if he prefers; but also that something will be in place in weeks rather years. However, to do that will be but to apply an elastoplast to the latest wound. There comes a point when we have applied so many elastoplasts that we tend to look a little ridiculous, which is the thrust of my argument. We have gone past the point when we can simply apply sticking plaster—we need fundamental reform to make our democratic structures fit for purpose. They are transparently not fit for purpose at present. We need fundamental reform.

There has never been a better time. Because of what we have heard over recent months and years, many people—not just commentators, but anyone who thinks seriously about the issue—think it is time to put this House, the other House and our parliamentary structures in order.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): On declaration of interest, does the hon. Gentleman agree that there should be rules about the level of outside interests that parliamentarians, whether of this or the other place, should be allowed while still maintaining their role as a Member?

Mr. Heath: My personal opinion is that it is extremely difficult to have an outside job and do the job of Member of Parliament. Other may be much better at juggling their time than I am, but as far as I am concerned being a Member of Parliament is a full-time job—and a lot of Members feel that way, too. It will be interesting to see whether the Leader of the House, who is not here today, will bring forward proposals, as she intimated last Thursday, to put into effect exactly what the hon. Gentleman said.

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