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30 Jun 2009 : Column 251

Mr. Walker: If my hon. and learned Friend unwittingly over-recorded or under-recorded the hours that he worked, would he be committing an offence? If so, what sanctions could be visited on him?

Mr. Grieve: We will tomorrow consider the requirements laid down in clause 9. I could be fined and, as a professional person, I might be able to pay a £5,000 fine, but it would have catastrophic consequences for my ability to continue in professional practice. That would be an extreme double whammy.

I am particularly concerned by clause 5(8) because it would put the requirements into statutory form, which would enable the offence to bite on it. I had thought that that provision would go away and we would be left with only the House’s obligations and not the statutory obligations. As it is, this provision will be a fertile field for litigation. I am entitled to invoke the law as much as I can, and I imagine that, if the amendment were taken to its logical conclusion, it could end up in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. In that event, my argument would be that its impact on my ability to earn a living—quite apart from the duties of confidentiality and privacy law—caused it to breach articles in the European convention on human rights. We are creating a labyrinth for ourselves.

The Secretary of State is temporarily absent, but I forgive him that. I am sure that he has a good reason for disappearing behind the Speaker’s Chair. I believe that it is for the reasons that I have given that he showed a slight hesitation as he approached the Dispatch Box to try to disentangle the impacts of clause 5. Amendments 29 and 30 deal with clause 5(10), which states:

I interpret that as a preliminary for the offence of paid advocacy that appears in clause 9. What is bizarre, however, is that, according to my understanding, although a payment must be “specified”—I suppose we see that in the rules—a benefit in kind is not subject to qualification by the word “specified”. On the face of it, we are putting in statute a requirement that any benefit in kind, irrespective of the rules that we are enacting, be prohibited.

The regulations show that there is a real problem with benefits in kind. Those who drew up the regulations experienced great difficulty in deciding what constituted a benefit in kind and what constituted a gift. If I deliver a speech—as I did recently—to, for example, a Conservative association or indeed a rotary club, and if at the end of the evening someone gives me a bottle of claret, is that a gift or is it a benefit in kind? It is clear to anyone who reads the regulations that those who drew them up were not at all sure into which category such things should fall. As a consequence, if thereafter we come to the House and try to advocate anything that might be to the advantage or otherwise of a particular organisation, we shall be committing a criminal offence carrying a fine of £5,000.

All this strikes me as a complete fantasy world. I am afraid that the reason for that fantasy world is, yet again, our semi-mad Prime Minister, who goes out and makes statements to the public without thinking through the consequences of his actions in an attempt to secure some cheap and quick public fix. That is what the
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Secretary of State is now having to disentangle without ruffling too many feathers at No. 10 Downing street, and that is to the extent to which, at present, we are being disgracefully governed.

Mr. Redwood: Should not Labour Members also take this matter seriously? When Labour legislated for Electoral Commission returns concerning political donations, that turned out to be extremely damaging to many candidates for the deputy leadership of the party. Labour Members must understand that this measure could have all sorts of perverse consequences for people who want to behave honourably but find the rules very difficult.

Mr. Grieve: I agree with my right hon. Friend.

Let me say in fairness to the Secretary of State, who has now returned to the Chamber, that I have detected today a real willingness to listen. I think that he has a pretty acute awareness of the areas of the Bill that are wanting. It can also be said—although I realise that this does not apply to one or two Members—that we have a common purpose in trying to establish an allowances and payments system that will bring the House out of disrepute.

We had every incentive—all of us together—to make the Bill a success, which is why it pains me so much when I see where we are starting to go so catastrophically off the rails, with consequences for every Member. That will first of all do us damage, but it will also damage our reputation for competence.

Mr. Jenkin: Before my hon. and learned Friend sits down, will he give us some advice about amendment 74? It states:

Does that mean that the content of this code is limited to

or could the code go wider than those provisions, as these are terms of art and there is considerable flexibility in the interpretation?

9.15 pm

Mr. Grieve: I am sure my hon. Friend will agree with me that we will want to listen to what the Secretary of State says. I am prepared to be talked out of my anxieties on this, but I have to say that I can see how that problem could arise. I think there are clear advantages in keeping the distinction between “rules” and “code” until such time as this House is completely satisfied that it wants to create some unified structure.

Mr. Cash: I certainly agree with my hon. and learned Friend about the distinction between rules and codes. Having got that out of the way, does he also accept that there is a problem in there being the majority that there is in this House? A lot of matters may well therefore need to be resolved in the House of Lords, but whereas I entirely agree that this Bill has in its essence and principle a good objective—which I have advocated for a very long time—as many of the areas it addresses are privileges of the House of Commons, it will be nearly impossible for the House of Lords to be able to make any meaningful amendments. The privilege arrangements and the black lining will mean that they will not be able to have the effect that they otherwise would have.

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Mr. Grieve: My hon. Friend may well be right. Another point arises from an amendment that he has tabled. It relates to the European convention on human rights. So long as this House has kept its principles simple, it has succeeded in escaping outside jurisdictions—for very good reasons, I think—but if this House starts to create criminal offences for its Members, which we are doing, that will clearly become much more difficult. Also, when we come to consider this matter tomorrow, I strongly recommend that the House should pause before creating criminal offences which, in fact, pertain to regulatory breaches of its own rules. That too is likely to create very serious problems for how we run ourselves.

Mr. Cash: My hon. and learned Friend touches on an extremely important question, relating to the application in this context of the principles applying in the Duncan Sandys and Damian Green cases, but we will come to that tomorrow, will we not?

Mr. Grieve: Yes, we will, but I want to conclude now.

Our amendment 73 simply specifies that Ministers should be obliged to supply their hours of work and the hourly rate of pay for what they have been doing. I cannot think of a reason why they should not do so if we are being put to this burden. Ministers may be Members of this House, but ultimately the work they do as Ministers is distinct from other aspects of their work. I cannot think of a reason why they should not realise now the onerous burden that is being placed on everybody else.

Sir Stuart Bell: I have been listening all night long to this very interesting debate, which mixed up Sir Christopher Kelly, the new rules coming in tomorrow and this Bill. I should add at the outset that the purpose of amendment 16, which stands in my name and that of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), is simply to add the Speaker to the list of those persons who should be consulted. I do not think there is any particular problem in that.

I have risen to speak about Government amendment 74, however. I understood what the Justice Secretary said, because we did have some concerns about the original clause 6, which he graciously withdrew yesterday. The clause seemed to undermine the concept of privilege and place its determination in the courts by referring to “the Nolan principles” and “such other matters”. Those who examined this matter felt that that would have opened up the privilege question and taken us into the courts. The concern is that Government amendment 74 might have the same result.

The Justice Secretary made a pertinent point when he said that the old clause 6 meant that the House of Commons was to continue to have a code of conduct whereas now the new body, IPSA, would propose the code and, thus, not put the House and its privileges within the determination of the courts. I should like to draw that principle to his attention and he might wish to reconfirm it when he responds to the debate.

Sir George Young: I should like to speak to amendment 7, which stands in my name. It relates to clause 5(8), which the Secretary of State was good enough to refer to in his remarks, as was my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve).

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The registration of interests and the declaration of interests are two separate activities. My amendment seeks to remove subsection (8), which deals with the declaration of interests.

The registration of interests is dealt with in subsection (7); I have no difficulty with that and with the fact that one must register specified information in a register maintained by IPSA. My amendment would remove the requirement for IPSA to include rules relating to the declaration of interests in relation to its financial registration rules—or the code of conduct, as it has been rebranded. Later on in the Bill, clause 9 recognises a distinction between registration and declaration, and a failure to register is made an offence, whereas a failure to declare is not. The rationale for that distinction is that whereas registration is part of a Member’s wider accountability to our constituents and the public at large, declarations arise in the context of proceedings in the House, for example in the course of a debate or in a Committee. Therefore, proceedings in the House should not be governed by statute law, but should be dealt with by the House itself.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that this House legislated in the Scotland Act 1998 for people to face criminal sanction for non-declaration in the Scottish Parliament? Given that this House believed at that time that such rules should be applied to another legislature in the UK, why should this House not be held to the same standard?

Sir George Young: Were my amendment to be successful, I would quite understand it if the hon. Gentleman felt obliged to table a consequential amendment to deal with the provisions to which he has just referred. My view is that it is for this House to decide the circumstances in which Members should declare an interest and to decide what to do if they do not. I, thus, believe that the amendment should be accepted and the rules relating to the declaration of interests should continue to be made by the House itself.

I just wish to say a word about the Government amendments, which rebrand the rules relating to financial interests as a code of conduct. It is not at all clear to me why what yesterday was a rule about a financial interest must today be a code of conduct. That is certainly not a consequential amendment flowing from the removal of clause 6; it does not follow at all that because that code of conduct has been removed another part of the Bill has to be rebranded as a code of conduct. I think that this has happened merely so that the Prime Minister can fulfil his pledge to introduce a statutory code. If the Government amendments are accepted, there will be two codes. One will be a statutory code covering financial matters and the other will be maintained by the House and will cover everything else. That is a recipe for confusion, and it is totally unnecessary.

Finally, I should add that many of us voted against the programme motion yesterday because we were worried that there would not be enough time to discuss matters, and it looks as though that prophecy is about to be fulfilled.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I entirely agree with what my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has just said—and, indeed, with everything that he said in his brief but, I felt, totally persuasive speech.

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I feel very sorry for the Secretary of State. He is trying to be his master’s voice and he is clearly finding it extremely uncomfortable. His performance at the Dispatch Box at the beginning of this debate was one of total sincerity but utter discomfort— [ Interruption. ] Yes, it was. It could be seen in the way in which he responded to my plea for clarity. I would commend to him the letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son, which are perhaps the best commentary on manners in the 18th century. The boy was going off on the grand tour, and his father warned him of the pitfalls of frequenting houses of ill-fame. He said, “Be careful of your money. Remember, the pleasure is momentary, the position is ridiculous and the expense is damnable.” Tonight, the right hon. Gentleman is a classic illustration of that. He adopted a ridiculous position, the pleasure of doing so is certain to be momentary and the cost to this House is damnable.

I think that the Secretary of State should think again, and if he has not read Lord Chesterfield there is a treat in store for him—

Angus Robertson: It sounds more like “Flashman”.

Sir Patrick Cormack: It is far better.

I ask the Secretary of State: what is the difference between a code and a rule? If, as he seemed to imply—at least, that was what I inferred from what he said—there is not a difference, then why persist with it?

The other, and far more important point, which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire raised in his amendment, is that clause 5(8) should be deleted. It really should.

Mr. Straw: I said that I would listen to the debate, and I have, and I am persuaded that it is right to withdraw clause 5(8). I add two caveats. The amendment is to clause 5(8). It follows, as night follows day, that clause 5(9) will have to be withdrawn, but I am not sure that we can do it tonight, because there is no amendment. We can sort that out in due course. Let me say to the Committee, for the avoidance of doubt, that it might be necessary to bring forward some consequential amendments—although I doubt it. If it is, I promise that I will consult the usual people, including the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young). I hope that that reassures the Committee.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am extremely grateful, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire is grateful and, indeed, that the Committee is grateful. Can we now build on that, and will the Secretary of State acknowledge, in a belated response to the point made by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) last night and by a number of other Members of all parties, as he came close to doing when he gave us the little timetable of hours that there is nothing disreputable about Members’ having outside interests? Will he acknowledge that it is quite right and proper that they should? It is of course proper that they should declare them, but in declaring them they should not be put into a ridiculous position, such as that mentioned by the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) when he talked about the difficulty for somebody who earns some of his money, as I do, from writing in giving precise and specific hours.

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Mr. Straw: I am very happy to acknowledge that. I regard myself—whether others do is a matter for them—as someone who takes his constituency responsibilities very seriously. However, it happens that I have been on the Front Bench in one capacity or another since November 1980, which is some time ago. When I was in opposition, I used to earn a significant sum from writing, which I used to subsidise my office—[Hon. Members: “How much?”] I cannot remember now. It is also true that for the past 12 years I have had a second job, as a Minister. I hope that that helps.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am grateful again to the right hon. Gentleman, and perhaps we can have a hat trick. He has accepted the amendment moved by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and acknowledged that it is both valid and honourable for hon. Members to have outside earnings. For the hat trick, if we are to have this provision on outside earnings, will he now acknowledge that Ministers should also declare? Ministers have to deal with their ministerial portfolios, and they travel the country or to other countries doing all sorts of perfectly right, proper and appropriate things—well or badly, but doing them nevertheless—but they are not able to perform their constituency or ordinary parliamentary duties at the same time.

To paraphrase what the Justice Secretary said yesterday, let what is sauce for the goose be also sauce for the ministerial gander.

9.30 pm

Mr. Straw: I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman comfort on that, as the distinction is that it is a fundamental part of our constitution that people may be Ministers. Our diaries are pretty public, and I can answer the question about whether I was able to do my constituency work when I was abroad with the following example. The Foreign Office record shows that on one occasion—and much to her surprise—I had to phone the chairperson of my local primary care trust from an armoured vehicle on the way to Ramallah.

Sir Patrick Cormack: I am sure that she was thrilled. If we cannot have sauce for goose and gander in that respect, then let us have it in the other—since Ministers do not have to declare their hours, let it be the same for others. In that way we will all be on all fours. We are answerable to our individual constituents, and we must satisfy them that we do a decent job in Parliament and the country. I never work less than 60 hours a week, and I break the working time directive every week of the parliamentary year. If, while we do that, we write the odd article or give the odd bit of advice, then God bless us all. Let us move forward in an atmosphere of tolerant and mutual admiration—as I admire the right hon. Gentleman for what he said a few minutes ago.

Sir Robert Smith: We have only 29 minutes left, but I hope that we will be able to reach other clauses—

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): We will not get any further because we will have Divisions. Keep talking.

Sir Robert Smith: The hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) points out from the Conservative Front Bench that there will be Divisions as well to use up the time, so I might as well speak for as long as I like.

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