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We found time to amend the code for Ministers to ensure that, without waiting for Freedom of Information Act requests-incidentally, it was this Government who introduced the Freedom of Information Act-Ministers must publish quarterly information about all organisations that they have met, and specify the subject of those meetings. That will now be in the public domain. We also found time to amend and tighten the rules relating to former Ministers, extending the one year that had
obtained previously to two years, and introducing a requirement for not just notification but approval before any job is undertaken by a former Minister.
I understand that there was no proposal for the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments-if that is the committee that the right hon. Gentleman meant-to be put on a statutory footing by any Member in any part of the House during the passage of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. However, it is worth looking into. The current arrangement appears to be working well at present, but if hon. Members want that- [Interruption.] Well, we will consider it.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I thank the Leader of the House for advance sight of her statement. However, I think it very unlikely that it would have been made today had it not been for the revelations in the press.
The depressing fact is that the House of Commons always has to react to what happens, rather than taking the necessary action in advance. We did the same in the case of the expenses system. We did not react in time, and we have seen the consequences. We have done the same in relation to party political funding: we have not taken the appropriate steps, and we see what is happening as a result. Now there is the issue of lobbying, which we all knew would eventually hit the newspapers.
What will our constituents think when they read that right hon. and hon. Members of this House think that they should be paid, on top of their parliamentary salary, more for two days' work than a pensioner gets in a whole year? That is the reality of the situation. And what is that for? It is for asking a few cosy questions of their chums in government or, in the case of the hon. Member for Luton, South (Margaret Moran), of what she describes as the "girls' club"-I am not sure what that comprises. We are talking about questions being put not on behalf of constituents or the national public interest, but for the partisan commercial interest of whoever is prepared to pay the cab fare, and that cannot be right.
On the individual decisions, I note, as the right hon. and learned Lady has done, that the Transport Secretary has just answered an urgent question in another place. That was done in another place because the Transport Secretary cannot come here to answer elected Members on a key matter of public interest, and neither can the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills-neither of them are Members who have been elected to their current office. In order to dispel any lingering doubts, will the Leader of the House arrange for every record of meetings on this matter, as well as letters, e-mails or any other contacts, to be made openly available so that we can judge whether there has been any influence on policy?
The Leader of the House referred to the ministerial code and the work of Sir Philip Mawer, who was asked to investigate. We must remember that he can investigate only at the request of the Prime Minister; the Prime Minister is the only one who governs the ministerial code. I have very little confidence in the Prime Minister in this respect, because I happen to know that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has sent three letters to him with complaints about a former Minister who may have breached the ministerial code and he has not yet received a reply. So what confidence
can we have in that code? Should the code be adapted so that Ministers and civil servants are required not even to entertain approaches from Members of this House if they are made on behalf of commercial interests-if they are made on behalf of paid advocacy? There is no reason why Members should have access to Ministers on that basis; they are not working on behalf of their constituents, so why should they have that privileged position?
The Leader of the House has said that she is interested now-suddenly-in what the Public Administration Committee said about the statutory register for lobbyists, but she has had that report for some time and parliamentary vehicles were available for that to have been enacted. Why was it not? We have had plenty of time to debate lots of other things, so why did we not have a debate and an amendment-a Government proposal-on this subject? Why did she not accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth) to the Companies Act 2006, which would have required companies to register when they decide to hire a Member of this place in order to do their business? Why did the Government resist that amendment and not let it through?
The fact is that we are tougher on the lowliest parish council member than we are on Members of this House. It seems to me that paid advocacy in Parliament for commercial or partial interests is not compatible with the duties of a Member of this House.
Ms Harman: The hon. Gentleman says that we are taking action after the event. I have set out the action that we have already taken to make sure that details of meetings with Ministers, which previously were completely secret and not known to the public, are all routinely put in the public domain. I have explained to him that we have taken action to extend the period of time in which former Ministers must seek permission for a job they do. I have also set out to the House that whereas previously Members could be paid by companies or any organisation and it was shrouded in secrecy, we brought a motion before this House that now requires Members to register all the income they receive for work done in addition to their work as Members of this House. I ask him to recognise that we are not taking action after the event; we have taken action before the event. The allegation about my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) will be investigated by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
As far as the civil service code is concerned, we have put that on a statutory footing. As for people being paid on top of their salary, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and the step that we have taken is to ensure that instead of its being shrouded in secrecy, it is known to the public. He should recognise that the House took that decision. Previously, that information was shrouded in secrecy and now all members of the public can see it.
The hon. Gentleman asked me to put in the public domain information about meetings held by the Transport Secretary prior to the National Express decision. Because since 2007 we have decided automatically to make public the meetings that Ministers have, that information should already be in the public domain for decisions that were made in July and November last year. The hon. Gentleman is asking me to put information in the public domain-not only the fact of the meeting but what the meeting was about must be put in the public domain.
Ms Harman: No, what has happened is that there have been ongoing discussions about establishing a register of lobbyists so that there can be more transparency about who is acting on whose behalf. Because of the public concern that has arisen out of the most recent allegations, we think that it is right to move that forward on to a statutory footing to reassure the public that there is a statutory register. The law will require those who are lobbyists to register the fact that they are lobbyists as well as who their clients are.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked why companies should not have to register when they hire an MP. I would answer that it is the responsibility of the MP to register that they have been hired. That is certainly an important first step, which did not exist before last June, when it came into effect. We have just started to register that information.
I would share with the hon. Gentleman-I think all hon. Members would do so, too-a sense that we do not want anybody in this House to bring the House into disrepute. We do not want anybody to bring Government into disrepute or to throw a cloud of suspicion over a Government who are acting in the public interest. That is why it is important for me to be so emphatic, so that we reassure the public that whatever actions have been taken by individual Members of this House, they will be investigated. I can assure hon. Members that when it comes to decision making by Ministers, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills or the Secretary of State for Transport, they have taken those decisions as Ministers of the Crown in the public interest.
Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): Although I recognise the steps that have already been taken and what my right hon. and learned Friend has set out, may I ask her this question? Why should any hon. Member be involved in lobbying for commercial interests? No one has been elected to do that and it is understandable that if we are to continue to clean up Parliament, such lobbying should be totally outlawed. There is no justification for it and I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend recognises the strength of public opinion on this issue.
I certainly do. I think that I have made my views on this known to the House on a number of occasions. I know that my hon. Friend will be aware of them. It was a very important step for the public-who, after all, are the people who vote for us to be in this House of Commons-to know whether a Member of Parliament whom they have been sending to the House of Commons is doing work that is different from or over and above the work that they were elected to do. Their constituents should know that. Before we took
that step, it was not possible for the public to know that. The fact that it has made a difference has been attested to by the fact that a number of Opposition Members, including possibly some shadow Cabinet members, have decided to relinquish outside interests rather than fully registering them. It shows that it has made an important difference.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): Despite the seriousness of the allegations levelled against the Privy Counsellors, does the Leader of the House agree that they pale into insignificance when compared with assertions that Mr. Blair has been seeking to make money for himself through ventures in Iraq of all places?
Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The Member in question is not the first man to indulge in boastful fantasies while talking to a young woman, but should not this shameful episode convince the House of the need to follow the fine example of the Public Administration Committee, which united to make an all-party, tough recommendation to make sure that MPs could never again be for hire?
Ms Harman: I agree with the sentiments of my hon. Friend, and I think that important steps forward were taken by having full transparency. The register of lobbyists will also take things forward on a statutory basis.
Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): Why does it always take a crisis before the Government ever take any action on preserving the integrity of the House? With an election just weeks away, why will the Leader of the House not finally agree to have a fair, impartial and independent inquiry into all this?
Ms Harman: I would respond to the hon. Lady's question in two ways. First, I do not want to have to reiterate to her all the action that we have already taken to toughen up the system and to make sure that it is transparent, that there are clear rules and that those rules are enforced. I have explained to the House that, in respect of my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside, there is going to be an investigation into his conduct by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. If my right hon. Friend's conduct is found to have fallen short of the principles of public life, set out in the code of practice for Members of Parliament, further action will be taken. That investigation is under way.
As far as the question now is concerned, in respect of the decisions taken by the Government, as I said in my statement, the Prime Minister has sought the Cabinet Secretary's assurance that Departments have looked into the claims. One would not expect them to wait after allegations of such seriousness had been made. They looked into these matters right away and, as impartial civil servants, they have given their view that there was
"no improper influence on Government policy and decisions."
Colin Burgon (Elmet) (Lab): Is the Leader of the House aware of the revulsion that is felt by many Labour MPs about the attitude of so-called Labour colleagues? Surely, the answer to all this is to cut the Gordian knot and make sure that all MPs, especially Labour MPs, have no outside work at all when they are MPs. On a lighter note, will she at least say that this could mark the final nail in the coffin of the new Labour project?
Ms Harman: If my hon. Friend looks at the previous Register of Members' Interests, he will find that by far the most registered interests for people earning outside Parliament were not from those on our side of the House. I did not make that point in my statement, but he has provoked me to explain what the reality was. That is why we have argued for greater transparency.
Ms Harman: I strongly refute the allegation that there has been any impropriety on behalf of Ministers. I have already referred the House to what has been said by the Department for Transport, and I can refer the House to what was said by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The permanent secretary has said:
"I have looked into the allegations made over the weekend about former ministerial influence on policy-making. I am satisfied in the light of these investigations that there has been no improper influence on officials in my Department."
In addition, I can report to the House that the Business Secretary has said that he has not spoken to my right hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside about food labelling regulations, and that he would not expect to.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, on many occasions over the past many years, I have raised the question of Members of Parliament serving two masters and taking money from outside? There is only one solution to the matter, and it is that all Members of Parliament, on all sides of the House, must have one job and one job only-serving their constituents. Is it not high time that we put that in the manifesto and presented it to the people? Opposition Members would treat such a pledge in the manner that we expect, because they have so many lobbyists. No one starves on £60,000 a year, so let's get on with it.
Ms Harman: I sympathise with my hon. Friend's sentiments, and he and I have discussed this on many occasions. I think that the public ought to be absolutely confident that their Member of Parliament is acting in their interests. They need to know who Members are taking money from, and for what.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy) (PC): The Leader of the House has sought many times today to reassure the House that the individuals involved did not, and could not, influence Government policy. Should they not be investigated for attempting to obtain pecuniary advantage by deception?
Ms Harman: If there is any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, that is something that the police will decide independently to investigate. It is not for me as Leader of the House, or indeed for Ministers, to direct police investigations. It is for the police to work out what they want to investigate, and to take that forward with operational independence.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): We on this side of the House are all scandalised by the behaviour of the Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers). It was a disgrace, and absolutely shaming. I want to congratulate my Friend on saying at the Dispatch Box that the Government-hopefully the next Government-will bring forward a mandatory register of lobbyists. However, I did not hear the Gentleman who speaks for the Opposition commit his party to bringing in a mandatory register.
Ms Harman: We will put the mandatory register proposal in our manifesto, and we hope that all parties support it. A reading of the previous Registers of Members' Interests shows that large sums of money have been taken, overwhelmingly by Opposition Members. They held something like 70 per cent. of directorships, whereas something like 30 per cent. were held by Members on this side. We should recognise that the rules that we have brought in are important for all Members of this House.
Alistair Burt (North-East Bedfordshire) (Con): But on what terms are briefings given to former Secretaries of State about future Government policy? An example would be briefings given by the Ministry of Defence to the former Secretary of State for Defence. It cannot be within the terms of such briefings that they are available for use for commercial gain by private companies, as the former Defence Secretary himself has alleged.
Ms Harman: Briefings are not given to former Ministers unless they have a particular responsibility to carry out on behalf of the Department or of the Government. If they have such a responsibility, they carry it out in the public interest, and not for any private interests.
Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): The noble Lord Whitty recently attacked the influence of lobbying companies representing producer interests in securing important amendments to the Digital Economy Bill. Given that, would it not be an affront to our democracy if that Bill, which has been so heavily influenced by lobbyists, were to be rushed through its Second Reading on Easter Tuesday-possibly as the Prime Minister is on his way to the Palace to seek the Dissolution of Parliament-and then rushed through its final stages in the wash-up?
Ms Harman: The Digital Economy Bill is of great concern not just to lobbyists, but to consumers and providers of digital services. We will look for an opportunity to bring it back to the House for debate. There is no intention to rush it through, and certainly no intention to serve the interests of lobbyists. The intention is to serve the interests of this country.
Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): Can the Leader of the House say whether the Prime Minister spoke to the Cabinet Secretary or even the Business Secretary before ruling out a Government investigation?
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