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Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): In south-west London in recent weeks people have seen the eventual conviction of John Warboys, a cab driver who had come to the attention of the police but who then went off the radar and committed a string of serious offences against women, and now the case of Dano Sonnex, who came from a criminal and violent family and had been sent to prison for eight years for stabbing and other serious knife crimes. Sonnex had
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said that he felt he could kill, but on his release that information was not passed to the Prison Service or the probation service. It would be helpful if the Home Secretary gave an assurance—it is a Home Office and a Ministry of Justice matter—that when people with such criminal records, or facing such allegations, emerge into society, senior police and probation officers are in charge of their ongoing management. If that were done, it would be some reassurance that the lapses that happened in this case would not happen again.

Mr. Straw: I basically agree with the hon. Gentleman and I have discussed the whole Sonnex issue with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Sir Paul Stephenson, and with the acting deputy, Tim Godwin, and they are seized of the need to improve the police’s performance in this case. The terrible error happened in court on 16 May, and if the probation service had acted within targets and if the police had acted properly within their slightly longer targets, Sonnex would not have been available to commit those murders on 29 June.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): The recall failure was at the centre of this atrocity, and those failures went far wider than just the probation service. In fact, they come right back to this House. There should be greater powers to force the immediate recall of dangerous criminals and potentially dangerous people. When will this House start to err on the side of protecting innocent people—the public—rather than on the side of the rights of potentially dangerous criminals?

Mr. Straw: We have been much criticised for it, but that is what we have been seeking to do in recent years. If the hon. Gentleman goes through all the reports—I have published every report that has been made available to me—he will see that there is no suggestion whatsoever that the recall powers available to the probation service and the police were inadequate. This man could and should have been assessed as a high risk and probably recalled when he was alleged—just alleged—to have kidnapped a relative. He certainly should have been recalled when he was arrested and charged with handling stolen goods. Without any question, the full powers were there. The National Offender Management Service—the one agency to come out of this properly—turned the application round within 24 hours, as it was required to do. It was there. It was an issue not about powers, but about judgment and the use of powers.

Bill Presented

Citizens’ Convention (accountability and Ethics) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr. Martin Caton, supported by Norman Lamb, Mr. Douglas Carswell, Mr. David Drew, Julia Goldsworthy, Jim Dowd and Norman Baker, presented a Bill to set up a Citizens’ Convention for the purposes of establishing minimum standards of ethics for Members of Parliament and for promoting the involvement of citizens in political decision making; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on 16 October, and to be printed (Bill 106).

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Standards and Privileges

4.16 pm

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I beg to move,

The Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), is in his place and, I am sure, will catch your eye in a moment, Madam Deputy Speaker. Indeed, it is for him to lay out the full substance of his report. I do not want in any sense to tread on his toes, but merely wish to make one point about the way in which the House deals with the business of leaking from Select Committees and how the House authorities can respond to the comments made in his report.

A previous report of the Committee said:

namely, the Standards and Privileges Committee—

That was the 20th report of the Session 2007-08. In today’s report, which we are considering this afternoon, the Committee draws the attention of the House to the fact that

It said that, in particular,

The Committee’s report went on to point out that

that was leaked, and that

The Committee’s report draws attention to the fact that that is a problem and points out that if the Committee secretariat had acted in a different way, it might have been presenting a rather different report with rather different sets of conclusions.

The Committee calls on the senior management in the Committee Office to draw the Liaison Committee’s note

and to ensure

I merely want to reassure the House that I, too, will be writing to the House authorities to ensure that that is followed up, and to ensure that in every instance Clerks
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ensure that hon. Members on all Select Committees understand the rules by which Select Committees operate so that there is no inappropriate leaking, which interrupts the proper business of the Committees. I think that all Members on both sides of the House would acknowledge that Select Committees have been one of the most important innovations in the past 35 years and one of the most important ways in which we do our business today.

Finally, I thank the Chairman of the Committee and all its members for their assiduous work in bringing the report to the attention of the House.

4.19 pm

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for his supportive remarks, for the action he outlined in his closing paragraphs and for his kind words about the work of my Committee.

At the end of last year, the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale), carried out an inquiry into the BBC’s commercial operations. On 25 February, substantial excerpts from the Committee’s draft heads of report were published on The Guardian website. The Committee immediately carried out a leak inquiry, which failed to discover the source of the leak. Having consulted the Liaison Committee, the CMS Committee made a special report to the House, stating that the leak constituted a serious interference with its work.

Like my colleagues on the Liaison Committee, I accept entirely that such leaks interfere with the work of Committees, and that it was right for the CMS Committee to refer the matter to the Committee on Standards and Privileges. Disclosure of a Committee’s draft conclusions not only reduces the impact of the eventual report and gives prior but not necessarily wholly accurate warning to those who may be the subject of its recommendations, but as the Deputy Leader of the House has just said, can poison working relationships in a Committee. When a leak occurs, and it is not clear who is responsible, everyone is under suspicion. That includes the staff of the Committee and its advisers as well as Members.

The CMS Committee in its special report described leaking as “reprehensible”. My Committee used the same word last year to describe leaks from the Home Affairs and European Scrutiny Committees, and in a coda to the report we debate today we have tried to explain why, at a time when the public are more concerned with transparency and freedom of information than with preserving the confidentiality of Select Committee papers, the House should continue to take leaks seriously.

It is in the public interest for the work of Select Committees to be effective. All those of whatever political persuasion who value our parliamentary democracy wish the Government of the day to be subject to the most effective evidence-based scrutiny that can be brought to bear. Select Committees are an important part of the apparatus for achieving that, but the effectiveness of a Select Committee can be seriously compromised by a breakdown of trust. The House is right, therefore, not to tolerate the actions of those who breach its rules by leaking confidential Committee papers, and it rightly
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expects the Committee on Standards and Privileges to do a thorough job of investigating such leaks, as I believe my Committee has done in this case.

As our report sets out, we had grounds for pursuing a particular line of inquiry. We saw two of the main players twice, and all those involved had an opportunity to explain their actions in a private evidence session without the pressures of television or media coverage. With the assistance of PICT—Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology—we were able to discover how the leak came about and to obtain a full explanation from the person who provided the draft heads of report to a journalist from The Guardian. All the witnesses confirmed our understanding of the facts, which are set out in full in the report.

It was neither the first nor the last leak of the conclusions of the CMS Committee’s inquiry into the BBC. There had been an earlier leak to the same newspaper just 10 days previously, and there was a subsequent leak to The Daily Telegraph. Neither of those leaks was as serious as the one on 25 February and neither was referred to my Committee. Although we asked our witnesses about the earlier leak, we were unable fully to pursue it. I mention that because it is possible that there were others associated with the CMS Committee who were leaking but who as yet remain unidentified.

I turn to my Committee’s conclusions and recommendations. To start at the beginning, it is clear that the CMS Committee staff did not follow the correct procedures for the draft heads of report. They did not mark the document as confidential, they did not password-protect the electronic version, and they gave it an unnecessarily wide circulation. Although those shortcomings do not excuse the subsequent actions of others, they significantly mitigate them. Lessons have been learned, and I am delighted that the Liaison Committee has promulgated new guidance to Select Committee staff. I expect them to follow it and I ask colleagues who sit on Select Committees not to put pressure on Committee staff to depart from those procedures.

It is now clear that Mr. Tom Smith, the parliamentary researcher for the hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders), who sits on the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, was in the habit of routinely passing on Committee papers to the office of the Liberal Democrat spokesman on Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Bath (Mr. Foster). He should not have been doing that. In a crucial misjudgment on his part, Mr. Smith failed to tell us that he was routinely passing on those papers, until confronted with the evidence.

Mr. Smith also misled my Committee on his first appearance before it by withholding information and by failing to provide full answers to our questions. He has committed two serious contempts, to use the language of the House, first in passing on confidential papers and secondly in misleading the Committee. We therefore recommend withdrawal of Mr. Smith’s access to the House and its facilities for a period of 28 calendar days, which, if the House agrees, will begin today. In my Committee’s view, that is a proportionate penalty, given the seriousness of the offences.

As for the role of Alice Aitken, who works in the office of the hon. Member for Bath, it is clear that she was essentially acting as an intermediary by sharing the
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Culture, Media and Sport Committee papers sent to her with Mr. Stephen Lotinga, who was responsible for culture, media and sport in the parliamentary office of the Liberal Democrats. On balance, the Committee did not conclude that a formal penalty would be appropriate in that case, for reasons that we set out in paragraph 57.

It was Mr. Lotinga who passed a copy of the draft heads of report to a journalist on The Guardian, Mark Sweney. Although we were told by Mr. Smith that Mr. Lotinga had previously informed him that he was not involved in the leak, Mr. Lotinga admitted his involvement to us and made a full apology. We acknowledge his remorse and his co-operation with our inquiry, but we feel that the seriousness of the offence demands a formal penalty, and we have therefore recommended that Mr. Lotinga’s access to the House and its facilities be withdrawn for a period of 14 calendar days.

I turn finally to the role of hon. Members in this affair. I have mentioned already the part played by the office of the hon. Member for Bath. He told my Committee that he gave no specific guidance to his staff about the handling of Committee papers, and he was unaware that such papers were routinely passing through his office. We accept that he was not involved in the leak, or even aware of it, but like all hon. Members, he needs to take responsibility for the conduct of his office and those who work in it. As the report states, the hon. Gentleman has been “remiss”.

The hon. Member for Torbay was the only person named in our report who was entitled to see all the papers of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, of which he was a member. He was responsible for the secure custody of those papers, and he also had a duty of care towards his staff, and not least towards Mr. Smith. That included a duty to ensure that they were fully briefed on the importance of respecting and preserving the confidentiality of papers. The hon. Gentleman told us that he asked his staff to abide by the standard contractual terms and conditions of employment that applied to them, which include a duty of confidentiality. I think that he now accepts that that was not enough, and I look forward to his contribution to this debate.

Finally, may I make some observations on the respective roles in this place of Members and their staff? Just as Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the actions of their officials, so are we all, as hon. Members, accountable for what is done by our staff in our name. It is right, therefore, that the hon. Member for Torbay should take some responsibility for the actions of his researcher, of which, I accept, he was completely unaware at the time. That does not, however, absolve entirely those individuals who played the main roles in the affair, Mr. Smith and Mr. Lotinga. In my Committee’s view, the House needs to send a strong signal that it will not tolerate such breaches of trust as both men committed. Nor will it tolerate one of its Committees being misled by a witness. In agreeing the motion before it today, the House will send the appropriate signals.

4.28 pm

Mr. Adrian Sanders (Torbay) (LD): I thank the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), for his Committee’s consideration of this case. I should like to make it clear from the outset that I do not approve, or seek to excuse, the unauthorised disclosure
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of Committee papers. The Standards and Privileges Committee was good enough to include, in paragraph 71 of its report, my initial comments to the inquiry:

That strongly remains my view.

I am grateful to the Committee for its finding, on page 17 of the report, that I was not directly responsible for the unauthorised disclosure of the draft heads of report. There is no suggestion that I was in any way instrumental in the forwarding of the papers, and the report states that I was unaware that my assistant was receiving Committee papers, still less routinely forwarding them. The Committee found, however, that I should have explained more fully to my assistant his duties under rules of parliamentary privilege, and that I had a duty to explain to him the meaning of the confidentiality clauses in the contract that he had signed.

This is an important lesson for all hon. Members, particularly those who sit on Select Committees. The Standards and Privileges Committee clearly feels that a specific duty of care rests on each of us to make these matters explicitly clear to every member of our staff. In so far as I failed to make this plain to a member of my staff, I of course accept the conclusions of the Committee and apologise to the House. May I suggest to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee that it might be appropriate to send new guidance to every hon. Member and every member of staff, including House staff, to draw renewed attention to their terms and conditions relating to the confidentiality of Select Committee papers and with whom they may be shared?

4.30 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I think this is an example of a lot of humbug being expressed in the House, and I want to place on record my disappointment at the Committee’s conclusions with regard to sanctions. I realise this is a sensitive and stressful matter both for some hon. Members and for their staff, and I bear no malice whatever towards them. It is an example of the culture of this place, the overbearing command of Front Benchers—Government, Conservative and Liberal—and the tribal view that one must be able to score points and expose things in advance, get brownie points in the press and so on.

I am sick and tired of it, especially after battling for many years, and certainly since 1997 when I was put on the Foreign Affairs Committee. I bear the scars of the Sierra Leone inquiry, which resulted in the 1999 inquiry referred to in the current report. I admired the late Robin Cook and loved him very much, and I still do. I remember him phoning me at midnight one Sunday, saying, “Andrew, what the XXXX are you doing?”, because I was asking questions. One of our then colleagues was leaking stuff to him—documentation and, as we now know, almost word for word the deliberations of the Foreign Affairs Committee, when the Government were doing everything to stop my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and me supporting and combining with other Members to ensure that we had full scrutiny and accountability.

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