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8 Jun 2009 : Column 534

That is not the only occasion in my time on the Foreign Affairs Committee that that has happened. I have deprecated the fact that there has been an unhealthy linkage, primarily of Labour Members with the Government, but it also happens the other way. I can think of instances when the partisan enthusiasm of a particular Conservative Member was reflected in his feeding information to his Front-Bench team. I am surprised at the Liberal party, which is embarrassed, particularly by the evidence of paragraph 55 of the report, which cannot be ignored. It states that Mr. Smith

The real test is whether we will allow this culture to go on. That gentleman was probably the most innocent party. He was newly employed in his job and he was told what was expected of him by the Front-Bench team of a particular party, but all the parties are guilty of the same thing. Unless or until we create a situation in which members of Select Committees can leave their party affiliation at the Committee door, that will continue, and it debases Parliament.

I appeal to colleagues to pause and reflect. The Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal party keep going on about reforming Parliament. This is a test of whether they mean what they say. Even within their own organisations, they ought to make it a serious offence against their party for people to abuse the Select Committee system.

The response of the Committee chaired by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) to paragraph 85 is just pathetic. Let me justify that statement, because I do not think anybody will argue but that its conclusions are logical. There was an attempt to deceive the Committee’s investigation into the leak; the good gentleman set out to dissemble—to mislead—the right hon. Gentleman’s Committee in its legitimate inquiry; and all there will be is a 28-day sanction. However, unless or until the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal party and this House are determined that when people appear before a Select Committee they shall be required to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, such events will continually occur.

And there are casualties. If Dr. David Kelly had been told and advised and had had to give evidence under oath, as happens in the United States Congress, people would not have prevailed upon him not to be candid with the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Obviously, colleagues will recall how the matter is ingrained in my memory. I therefore say to the House and to Front-Bench spokesmen, “Don’t give me all this nonsense about parliamentary reform unless you mean it.” I say it to the leader of the Conservative party, too, and to the leader of the Liberal party, in particular, because sometimes it is like the unctuous talking to the sanctimonious.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD): Ooh!

Andrew Mackinlay: The hon. Lady goes, “Ooh!”, but I listened to what the leader of the Liberal party said and I desperately believe that we must address the status of this House and the role of Select Committees. As the
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House knows, in my defence I thought that the whole business of Regional Select Committees was nonsense and an invitation for such events to occur. Unless and until there are proper sanctions against such abuse, it will go on. One could say, “Everyone’s a beneficiary and everyone’s a loser; it all works out; it’s all politics,” but this issue is related to the other matter of our party leaders talking about the reform and status of Parliament.

The business of the Select Committee staff is a total red herring. Whether or not they put “Confidential” on the documents and whether or not there was a problem with the technology is irrelevant; we all know what the ground rules are supposed to be, and they should be enforced. I hope that Members will reflect on the matter. The hon. Lady thought I was being perhaps pompous by pointing it out, but I ask her to reflect on the matter, too. It is wrong that the events should have occurred, but I do not attribute anything to the poor people in the report. They are probably very upset, and no doubt hon. Members will reflect that there was wrongdoing, but, to others who go before Select Committees in the future, we really must show that documentation has to be clearly safeguarded, and that people should be candid—certainly with a Committee that inquires into wrongdoing and bad conduct.

In my view, there must be severe sanctions, because they will mean that people do not commit wrongdoing, and sanctions afford a degree of protection to people who want to tell the truth to a Select Committee. If they know that they have to take an oath or—if I cannot persuade the House about an oath—that a serious sanction will be applied to them, such events will not happen. It would help them to tell others, such as Members, civil servants and company executives, who might be leaning on them: “Get lost; I’m appearing before Parliament.”

I remember that I was once derided for saying that this is the high court of Parliament. I could not understand why and I still do not today. It is the high court of Parliament, and we have to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. I do not want to delay the House, but everyone here should reflect on the issue and talk to the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal party and say, “Don’t give us all this nonsense unless and until we make the Select Committees independent of the Front Benches and the party spokespersons in our political system.”

4.40 pm

Mr. Don Foster (Bath) (LD): I begin by commending my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) for the measured way he has responded to the report and for the apology that he has so willingly given the House. I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has said, with one exception: he is wrong in the inferences he has drawn in respect of instructions having been given by any member of the Liberal Democrat Culture, Media and Sport team, which I lead.

However, I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay and probably with all Members of the House that the leaking of
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Select Committee documents is wrong and should be deprecated. Although paragraph 59 of the report makes it absolutely clear that I had no involvement with and no knowledge of the leak that took place, I accept entirely that I, like other hon. Members, have to take responsibility—in my case, for actions that have taken place in my office and within my wider DCMS team. In so far as I did not give instructions to my staff about the need to deal sensitively with documents of this kind, I was remiss. I apologise to the House for that.

The Deputy Leader of the House said that there was a responsibility to ensure that all members of Select Committees were reminded of their responsibilities in that regard, but I believe we should go further and accept the recommendation of my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay. He rightly pointed out that all Members need to be reminded of the importance of giving such instructions clearly to all members of staff who work for us and to those within the teams for which we have responsibility. For my part in the issue, limited though it may have been, I apologise to the House.

4.42 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I, too, express sympathy with the comments of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the need to strengthen the Select Committee system. However, I want to concentrate specifically on the events that occurred in the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which I chair.

I express my thanks and those of the rest of my Committee for the work of the Standards and Privileges Committee. When we made the referral to that Committee, to ask it to try to discover the source of the leak, we did so without huge optimism that it would be successful; on previous occasions, the Committee has not managed to expose sources with the success that it has had on this occasion. We are grateful to the Committee and we hope that the fact that we have been able to discover the source and take action this afternoon will send a message to other Select Committees about the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of their proceedings.

My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), who chairs the Standards and Privileges Committee, began by talking about the importance of a relationship of trust between Committee members; that, he said, was why leaks should be regarded as reprehensible. I entirely endorse his words, but I take issue with one comment in his report. Having said that the matter was serious for the reason that I have just mentioned, he went on to say:

My right hon. Friend will not be surprised that I slightly dispute that. The leak occurred online, appearing on Most news distribution is done online in the world that the Culture, Media and Sport Committee looks at; indeed, as observers will know, that is the cause of problems for the traditional media.

The report appeared at about 10 am, I think. I was at a meeting of the British Screen Advisory Council, an umbrella body for media organisations. I was approached
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by representatives of ITV and the BBC within 35 minutes of the report’s appearance, and I was called by the chief executive of Channel 4 within two hours. I simply say that the report was of great interest to a number of people in the media. It also had a degree of market sensitivity because we were dealing with the independent production sector, which was going to be affected by our recommendations.

I fully agree with my right hon. Friend that the relationship of trust is paramount, but I would not like him to think there were not other good reasons why we felt that the leaking of that particular heads of report was indeed a serious matter.

In its report, the Committee rightly draws attention to failings of members of my Committee’s staff. That is fully accepted by those members of staff, and they will take its recommendations very seriously. As Chairman of the Committee, I should like to put on record the extent to which we depend on those staff and how professional and dedicated I have always found them. It is not just my Committee that enjoys that degree of support; I think that any hon. Member who is involved in Select Committees would agree that generally we are extremely well served by our staff. I was slightly surprised to discover that some of our papers were being circulated by e-mail not only to people involved in our present inquiry but to some of our advisers in other inquiries. I am not sure what our adviser on heritage and planning made of the heads of report on the BBC’s commercial operations. In future, we will be much more restrained in circulating material; I think that that lesson will be well learned in all Select Committees.

The hon. Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders)—in this context, I would say my hon. Friend—has made a gracious apology to the House. When I first asked all members of the Committee whether they could give any indication of how the leak occurred, he was clear that he had no knowledge of how it came about. I said to him at the time that I fully accepted his assurance, and I fully accept it this afternoon. It is extremely unfortunate that the leak occurred within his office, but he has made it plain that he had no knowledge of it and that it was not under his instruction. That is fully accepted by me and, I think, by all members of the Committee. Although I think I am right in saying that he told the Standards and Privileges Committee that our inquiry into the BBC’s commercial operations did not “float his boat”, he is nevertheless a valuable member of our Committee who participates in other areas of our activities. We are very glad that he does so and look forward to his continuing to do so in future.

4.47 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I, too, thank the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and the Standards and Privileges Committee, on which I was privileged to serve for a good period of time, for their work and care in producing this report. I want to make it absolutely clear that there are no circumstances in which I condone or seek to excuse the leaking of material from Select Committees. As the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) said, that happens far too often, and it has happened historically. He referred back to the Foreign Affairs Committee and its Sierra Leone report, and to his involvement and that of the hon. Member for Hackney,
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North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott)—and, rather gnomically, “other members”, of whom I was one. We were very much engaged with that episode. I remember how outraged we were that our carefully constructed lines of inquiry were being directly leaked to a Minister of the Crown, in direct contravention of the interest not only of the Committee but of the inquiry whereby we were trying to shed light.

I hardly know of any Select Committee where there has not been, on occasion, at least an intimation that material has been leaked. That even includes the Standards and Privileges Committee. There was a time when we were very concerned that material was being leaked from that Committee; happily, that practice has not persisted. Let us be absolutely clear: the leaking of material from Select Committees cannot be condoned or excused; I do not care which party is involved—the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives or Labour—or whether it involves members of staff or Members of Parliament.

I am grateful to the Deputy Leader of the House for the advice that he has caused to be sent to Clerks to Committees, because it is clear from the report and from the remarks of the Chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport Committee that procedures had become a little lax in terms of how material was circulated. It was perhaps circulated rather more widely than it should have been, and it was not sufficiently clearly marked as confidential. That is a lesson that is well learned.

I have just two further points to make. With regard to the leak inquiry itself, one thing puzzles me. It is clear from the very first page of evidence that there were in fact two leaks, one on 14 February and one on 25 February. As I understand it, all the evidence relates to the leak of 25 February, and there is no link, either suggested or otherwise, between my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Mr. Sanders) and the very similar material that appeared on the earlier date. I wonder why the Committee did not inquire into the earlier leak and its provenance, because that leak seems equally relevant and remiss.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having the good grace to apologise to the House despite the fact that, as he said, he clearly had no direct knowledge of the circumstances in which the material was leaked. What he said was important—that we each have a duty to ensure that members of our staff clearly understand the rules of privilege and what they are required to do and not do. That applies to any Member who is a member of a Select Committee, but equally to any other Member who receives a Committee’s material. I suspect that many Members are in the same position as my hon. Friend of not having made that explicit to all their staff. I hope that clear guidance will be given to every single one of us, and to the staff under our control, that they must not leak such information, and that to do so is a contempt of the House and of the process of Select Committees.

I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock that the sooner we get Select Committees absolutely free of the executives of each of our parties, the better. Then they will be able to act properly independently, scrutinise and do their job effectively without any suggestion that they have ulterior political motives, beyond the obvious one of doing their job as Members of this House. If we make that clear in today’s debate, we will do a good job on behalf of the House.

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4.52 pm

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): I, too, welcome the conclusions before us and congratulate the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), and all the Committee’s other members, on having undertaken a thorough investigation and come up with their conclusions.

All of us recognise the importance of this issue. If Select Committees are to operate effectively, it is vital that they can carry out their work free from leaks, particularly given the cross-party, collegiate nature of their work. Much has already been said, and I do not intend to detain the House longer than is necessary, so I shall simply make three brief points.

First, given the discussions on a new parliamentary standards authority, we must ensure that it does not impact on this type of investigation being carried out with similar conclusions, including the ability to impose sanctions. Secondly, as we reform the way in which MPs’ staff are employed, we must give serious thought to sanctions being imposed by the Committee on Members’ staff, even if they are to be directly employed by the House authorities.

Finally, given the large turnover of Members’ staff, it would be no bad thing for some Members to remind their staff of the confidential nature of Select Committees and all their deliberations. Leaks to journalists, or for that matter to anyone else, undermine not only the work of Select Committees but the whole of Parliament.

Question put and agreed to.


8 Jun 2009 : Column 540

Health Bill [ Lords]

Second Reading

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