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Mr. Speaker : The hon. Gentleman and the whole House must accept that, when a matter is raised on the Floor of the House it gives hon. Members who are not members of the Select Committee an opportunity to comment about it.
Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have not raised a point of order before, and it is not in the least frivolous. I ask you to refer a very important matter to the Committee of Privileges because
Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. How does it come about that a statement on hill farming went on for one and a quarter hours, while on an issue of this kind we are closed down in about half an hour?
Mr. Speaker : I can help the hon. Gentleman on this matter. I have to strike a balance every day on the pressure from hon. Members to speak in subsequent debates. The hon. Gentleman is another hon. Member who frequently complains that he is not called in debate. It is very selfish to expect to be called on a statement when that would have the effect of denying his colleagues the opportunity to speak in a debate. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways.
Mr. Heffer : I have never complained about not being called. I have complained, and will continue to complain, that you, Mr. Speaker, do not listen to Members who raise points of order but intervene before they have finished. Is it not about time that you listened to hon. Members making points of order before you move in and stop them? [Interruption.] Conservative Members should understand that I am trying to protect their rights. If they do not understand that, they do not understand the first point about Parliament, which is that Back Benchers, as well as Front Benchers, have rights.
Column 884attempting to protect the rights of Back Benchers--he in his way, and I in mine. I hope that the House will judge that, today, I have made the right decision.
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This point of order comes from a Member who, to best of his recollection, has never complained about not having been called in debate. While appreciating fully the difficulties that you have explained, and accepting fully your right to make these choices, may I ask whether you agree that, in this case, the difficulty is not only the fact that, because of the pressure of other business, the time allocated is short, but also the fact that this is a massive report of extreme complexity? It contains some very damning conclusions in respect of the acquirers of the House of Fraser and of Harrods and comes on the back of the assertion by the Secretary of State that he did not wish to use any of his considerable powers of intervention in the matter. In addition, there has been no indication that a debate will be arranged, either at the request of the Opposition or by the Leader of the House.
Mr. Speaker : That is a valid point. It is another judgment that the Chair has to take into account. This is a very complicated matter. It stands to reason that hon. Members have not had an opportunity to read the report and, therefore, are not in a position fully to formulate their questions. I think that it was right to have a preliminary look at the report today, with a view to returning to it at a later stage. I have no knowledge of a debate, but the hon. Gentleman may certainly raise the matter with the Leader of the House tomorrow.
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I realise that in situations like this you have a very difficult job. Would it not be of some assistance to you if we were to look at the possibility of having a fixed time allocated for statements--whether half an hour or one hour? We should then know exactly where we were. You, Sir, have said that we may return to this matter, but there is no guarantee that we shall ever be able to do so. In the light of the pressure from Members who wanted to intervene in the course of this very important statement, it is quite clear that it would have been much better to have an extended time for questions on it than to spend the next six hours talking about something on which many of us think we should not spend so much time.
Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On 24 January as reported at column 894 of the Official Report, I raised with you, Sir, on a point of order, the fact that the Isle of Wight Labour party had denounced the campaign against the community charge as having been inspired by the Militant Tendency. In view of the fact that the genie is now out of the bottle, with considerable disruption throughout the country, would it not have behoved the Leader of the Opposition to denounce the whole campaign much earlier?
Column 885Mr. Speaker : Very well ; I shall take a point from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is a very helpful former chairman of an important body.
Mr. Skinner : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. This is a very important report of 750 pages--a £600 million cover-up. If we do not want the Chair to be involved in that cover-up, and if we are to spend six hours debating somebody picking up £50,000 from the Saudi Arabians, we should have more than half an hour to debate the report.
Mr. Heffer : You said, Mr. Speaker, that I rose in relation to the statement. I never moved from my seat. I never made any move to ask a question. I think that you should withdraw your statement, Mr. Speaker.
Mr. Robert Adley.
Mr. John Bowis.
Mr. Charles Wardle.
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish the offence of blasphemy and certain other common law offences ; and for connected purposes.
Disagreement about religion has a long and extremely dismal history. Michelangelo's religious art in the Sistine chapel, when he painted frescoes for one pope, was painted out after his death on the orders of another incumbent in that office. In the 15th century, Joan of Arc was burnt at Rouen. John Huss was burned as a heretic in Bohemia-- [Interruption.]
Mr. Cryer : In the 16th century, much of Europe was consumed by Catholics and Protestants killing one another in the name of righteousness. Protestants killed other Protestants and both Protestants and Catholics killed more extreme dissenters such as Anabaptists.
Galileo was imprisoned in 1633 and forced to repent his view that the world was round. Spinoza, one of the great philosophers, was expelled from the Jewish congregation and condemned by both Catholics and Protestants. In 1697, the Blasphemy Act was passed and men and women suffered under it until the 1960s.
George Holyoake was imprisoned for six months at Cheltenham for blasphemy in the 1830s, for preferring concern for the economic well-being of humanity to duty to God. After serving his six months, Holyoake went on to found the London Secular Society and to campaign about the case of Thomas Pooley in 1857. Pooley, who was mentally disturbed, had written "Jesus Christ" and "T. Pooley" on a clergyman's gate. Mr. Justice Coleridge allowed the conviction on the ground that the words must be insulting in some way. Charles Bradlaugh was denied his seat in this place on several occasions because of his lack of religious views.
As recently as 1911, John W. Gott of Bradford was sentenced to four months' imprisonment for publishing satirical verses in his "Rib-Tickler" or "Questions for Parsons". Gott continued an increasingly bitter campaign to repeal the laws that were used to curb the public views of free thinkers.
In 1922, at the Old Bailey, Gott was sentenced to nine months' hard labour for blasphemy. Despite medical evidence that he was seriously ill, he was forced to serve the full sentence. He died shortly after his release in 1922. Another death on the scaffold of intolerance. Gott's tradition was taken up in Bradford by a well-known orator, Joe Corina. As society became more tolerant, it was possible on a Sunday evening on Broadway in Bradford to hear the secularists speaking yards away from an advocate of the Catholic Truth Society. I knew and admired both speakers. That spirit of tolerance and exchange of ideas must be preserved, and my Bill will help to do that. Following the recommendation of the Law Commission in 1966 that the statute of 1697 should be repealed, the Criminal Law Act 1967 implemented the recommendation. There remains, however, the common law criminal offence. That offence is one of strict liability,
Column 887in that it requires no evidence of intention to blaspheme. It provides only that the language should be shocking and insulting. Hence, evidence is not allowed about the defendant's belief and purpose, contrary to the general principles of our law. For example, a deeply religious person cannot bring evidence to the court of his religious conviction.
The Law Commission in 1985 recommended unanimously that the common law offence should be repealed. Two out of seven said that a new offence should be created. All seven agreed that the law of blasphemy should be repealed. Since that report, the Public Order Act 1986 created a new offence. Under section 5(1), a person will be guilty if he
(uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or disorderly behaviour, or)
(displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting,)
within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby."
So that dealt with the gap that a minority on the Law Commission suggested should be plugged and will surely cover any serious circumstance where disputes occur in the ordinary course of events. My Bill follows precisely the draft Bill provided by the Law Commission in its 1985 report. It consists of three clauses. Clause 1 would abolish the offences in common law whose abolition was recommended in the report. Clause 1(a) would abolish the offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel. Clause 1(b) and (c) would abolish the offences of disturbing divine worship or devotions, and striking a person in a church or churchyard. The clause refers to distinct offences, since there is some doubt, on the authorities, as to whether they exist. The most recent reported case dates from the mid-18th century. Of course, the Public Order Act 1986 created a new offence to cover any gap that might arise.
Clause 2 would repeal references to the common law offence of blasphemous libel in the Criminal Libel Act
Column 8881819 and to blasphemous matters in section 3 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act 1888, which confers privilege on newspaper reports of court proceedings, provided the matter is not blasphemous or indecent.
Clause 3 provides for the short title and extent of the Bill. No commencement date is specified, which means that, if and when the Bill was enacted, it would come into force on receiving Royal Assent.
I hope that the Bill is approved. It would end uncertainty and unfairness, and place all faiths on an equal basis. It would emphasise tolerance in society. I do not accept that any faith should impose its views on the rest of society. A faith can, and indeed does, persuade and urge followers not to see a film or read a book, but, for example, groups within the Muslim faith cannot impose censorship on the rest of the nation through the withdrawal of "Satanic Verses". People have a right to read a book, in paperback or hardback form, provided it has been produced within the law.
Our general tolerance is seriously scarred by the fact that Salman Rushdie cannot argue his views in a spirit of tolerance. Death threats to him are intolerable. The placing of all faiths on an equal basis would be a demonstration of our determination that the mutual exchange and discussion of various ideas should take place free from imposition and threats.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Bob Cryer, Mr. Tony Benn, Mr. Norman Buchan, Mr. Dennis Skinner, Mr. Bill Michie, Mr. Eddie Loyden, Mr. Brian Sedgemore, Mr. Clive Soley, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. Dennis Canavan, Mr. Martin Flannery and Mr. Eric S. Heffer.
Mr. Bob Cryer accordingly presented a Bill to abolish the offence of blasphemy and certain other common law offences ; and for connected purposes : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 30 March and to be printed. [Bill 79.]
The Leader of the House moves first the formal motion that the report of the Select Committee be now considered, in order to enable the hon. Member whose conduct is in question to address the House first. It has been our custom that, when the hon. Member has concluded his speech he withdraws from the Chamber, but on the most recent occasion the House decided that the hon. Members concerned could remain to hear the debate if they so wished. Therefore, I take it that that is the will of the House on this occasion.
Secondly, I remind the House that it is our custom that such speeches should be heard in silence and without interruption. Thereafter, when the formal motion has been disposed of, I propose to call the Leader of the House to move and to speak to the substantive motion in his name.
There will then follow a joint debate on that motion and on the amendments to it, and on motion 2 on the Order Paper and the amendment that I have selected to that, which is amendment (b). On the first motion I have selected all the amendments--amendments (a) to (d) inclusive.
At the conclusion of the debate, I will call the Members to move their amendments to the first motion formally so that the House may decide upon them. I shall then put the main question before moving on to amendment (b) to the second motion and then to that main question.
That the Report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests (HC 135) be now considered.-- [Sir Geoffrey Howe.]
Very considerable pressures have been brought upon me to discuss the Select Committee's report publicly before this debate. I have resisted that, because I felt that the correct place for me to speak was to this House, which I now do.
There was also an option open to me to make an earlier personal statement. I rejected that lest it seem like an attempt on my part to pre-empt the debate.
There has been considerable media coverage of this case. In coming to a judgment, I ask the House to put out of its mind that media coverage, much of it sensationalised and, in the light of the Select Committee's findings, simply untrue.
I now recognise that, some seven to eight years ago, I failed to register properly all my interests. Since first being elected to Parliament some 11 years ago, I have tried always to comply with the rules of the House as I understood them and properly to declare my interests.
Whenever I have spoken in debates I have also sought to declare relevant interests. I have, on occasions, refrained from voting, as on the Barclays Bank Bill in 1984, when I felt that there was potential conflict with the financial interests that I had. I ask the House to consider the Select Committee's report against that background.
Column 890I cannot honestly say to the House that I am happy with the investigation procedure but, subject to that, I turn to the two complaints that the Select Committee upheld and upon which it recommended further action.
First, there is the matter of the Saudi Arabian monetary agency. Some eight years ago my company, Falcon, in which I had declared an interest as a director, had a contract with the Saudi agency. That contract did not involve parliamentary lobbying of any kind. I did not declare that contract, because the work did not involve Parliament in any way whatever.
As the House will know, there is no general obligation to disclose the names of clients. Having already declared an interest in my Falcon company, it did not occur to me that rule 13(7) applied to sums received in the commercial business of my company.
Since this matter arose, I have discovered that I am not alone in that interpretation. Furthermore, the Committee seems to have accepted this uncertainty in recommending that rule 13(7) now be clarified.
Having stated how I interpreted the rules, I naturally accept entirely the Committee's interpretation, and I apologise for failing to disclose that interest.
The Committee has also determined that I should have declared the client relationship with the Saudi agency because of the question that I asked of the Prime Minister in 1982. As the House will know, I could not possibly have known that I would be called to ask the question, because it was only a supplementary question. Furthermore, the Committee accepts that I was not asked to put that question. It has also accepted that the question made no difference to my fee. I am grateful for those acceptances.
The reason why I asked the question, the answer to which was, of course, predictable, was that I wanted, as most other hon. Members would want, to encourage inward investment into the United Kingdom. Again, I accept the judgment of the Committee and I apologise sincerely for the omission.
The second matter concerns Selco East and Mr. Charles Chidiac. Again, these events related back approximately eight years. I must tell the House that I have never had any kind of contractual or financial relationship with Mr. Charles Chidiac. That fact was confirmed by Mr. Chidiac himself. Then, as now--and in common, I imagine, with hon. Members on both sides of the House --I sought to back British companies which were facing intense foreign competition. I had no financial interest in so doing and therefore did not consider that I had an interest to declare.
My company, Falcon, did have a consultancy agreement with Selco East, London. Under that agreement, my company, in which I had declared my directorship, was paid £200 a month for some nine months. It was for general financial advice work and banking introductions. It did not involve any parliamentary lobbying. The contract had nothing to do with my actions on behalf of British companies. Without the relationship between Mr. Charles Chidiac and Selco East, London, there would have been no requirement to declare the consultancy agreement. However, looking at it now, I understand why the Committee found that the relationship between Mr. Charles Chidiac and the owners of Selco East, London was so close that the consultancy agreement with my company should have been declared. I therefore accept the Committee's judgment concerning that and, again, I apologise.
Column 891I wish to emphasise that my failure to disclose those interests was to a misunderstanding of the rules, which no- one can fairly say are wholly clear. Indeed, a motion is now before the House inviting the Select Committee to study and report further on the definition of outside interests.
I had no financial reason for failing to declare those interests and I have never intentionally misled the House.
I say to the House that I am truly sorry for my mistakes, for the misery that I have caused to my family and for the embarrassment that I have brought to the House and to my constituency.
That this House
(i) agrees with the Report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests (HC 135) ; and
(ii) endorses the findings of the Committee in respect of the specific allegations against the honourable Member for Winchester and accordingly suspends him from the service of this House for a period of 20 sitting days and suspends his salary as a Member for that period.
The House will have listened, as I have, to the substantial statement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne), to his explanation and to his personal and repeated apologies with considerable personal sadness and with a deep sense of the seriousness of this occasion.
It now falls to me to undertake the painful burden of launching this difficult and important debate. The fact that the motions stand in my name alone indicates the unusual nature of the occasion. These are matters for consideration by the House as a whole, for this is pre-eminently not an occasion that any of us would wish to approach in a partisan spirit. It is an occasion for the House as a whole to search--as it has always tried to do, on those fortunately infrequent occasions in the past when we have been obliged to consider such matters--for reasoned conclusions and to consider what action, if any, to take in respect of alleged misconduct by one of our number. It is an occasion on which the House has to try to act in a similar non-partisan way. I certainly appear today not in any sense as a member of the Administration but as Leader of the House of Commons. In formulating the motions that I have laid before the House I have endeavoured, after wide consultations on all sides, to identify and to express the conclusions that I judge will best represent the opinion of the House as a whole.
As Leader of the House I have tried to ensure, as best I may, that just as the subject of debate is not one which will divide the House on party lines, so the motions that I move may also attract the widest support, and it is in that spirit that I have approached my task.
The debate today is of importance to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. That goes without saying--and his statement a moment ago emphasises just how important--but the debate is also important for the maintenance of the standards that we all strive to uphold in the House. I hope that we may be able to use this melancholy occasion positively to help in the necessarily intermittent process of defining more clearly how those
Column 892standards apply in specific circumstances, and how the House should set about upholding them when they are called into question. It is to that continuing task that my second substantive motion is directed. In that motion I suggest that the House may well wish to invite the Select Committee on Members' Interests to give further consideration to questions of procedure as well as of substance, which were touched upon in its report.
The report of the Select Committee is at the heart of today's proceedings. On behalf of the House I pay tribute to the work of the Select Committee under the skilful and sensitive chairmanship of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson-Smith). The absolute irrelevance of any kind of partisan approach to today's debate is reinforced by the way in which in all its findings, the Select Committee was able to reach unanimous conclusions, and that is a most important point. Both in its conclusions about the allegations concerning the conduct of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, and in its observations on the operations of the Register of Members' Interests, and on other more general topics, the Committee was in complete agreement. That fact must surely give added weight to its conclusions.
On that basis, the first substantive motion in my name today invites the House to endorse the conclusion reached by the Select Committee about the alleged misconduct of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester. Let me remind the House briefly of those allegations. The Committee grouped the complaints made against my hon. Friend under five headings. It records its findings on 10 separate counts. Of those 10, it finds no substance in five, it finds some substance in three but recommends that no action should be taken by the House, and in respect of two complaints against my hon. Friend the Committee found that he was at fault and recommended that the House consider action.
First, in paragraph 65 of the report, the Committee refers to my hon. Friend's failure to declare his interest in payment from an agency of a foreign Government--Saudi Arabia--of a little more than $88,000. The Committee found, as my hon. Friend has acknowledged, that he should have declared both the client relationship and the foreign payment.
Secondly, in paragraph 101, the Committee deals with my hon. Friend's failure to register his interest in a Lebanese company, while lobbying Ministers and officials on its and its clients' behalf, although a payment of £1,600 out of a proposed retainer of £2,600 a year was made to him. The Committee found it to be beyond reasonable doubt that my hon. Friend had a client relationship which influenced his parliamentary actions and conduct as a Member, and which should have been declared and registered.
It would be quite wrong and unfair to my hon. Friend if, by focusing on those two charges, we gave the impression that the Committee had upheld all the allegations made against him. It did not. However, the Committee's positive findings are, in its chosen language, serious matters, and we cannot belittle their importance.
Column 893The second part of my motion invites the House to decide what action, if any, should be taken to signal our view about the seriousness of that misconduct. I shall have more to say about that crucial question in the last part of my speech.
I will try to make clear my own view of the role of the House today. Judicial metaphors may be misleading. We are certainly not here to try my hon. Friend. We are not a court of law. A better analogy, in my view, is that of a disciplinary committee of one of the professions, although like all analogies it does not correspond at all points. One feature that our procedure has in common with professional and other disciplinary bodies is that it has provoked complaint and criticism from the person who has been the subject of proceedings--as it has today from my hon. Friend.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : If we are not a court of law, could we at least be clear whether the Lord President thinks that the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) has done anything legally wrong? I ask that question against the background of being had up by the Select Committee in 1967 with no capacity for legal defence in matters which subsequently turned out to be very different from how they looked at the time.
As I was about to say, certain criticisms can legitimately be made of the proceedings and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester has touched upon them.
Sir Geoffrey Howe : The answer to that is self-evident from the report of the Select Committee. Whether or not there is any legal offence involved, my hon. Friend has not been charged with a legal offence. He has committed errors which in the opinion of the Committee deserve to be regarded as serious and to be subject to action by the House. The matter stands within its own framework. Complaints are understandable.