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Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On many, many occasions over the years, Madam Speaker has advised us that hon. Members have to take responsibility for what they say in this Chamber. However, I ask you to imagine how it would seem to the outside world if an hon. Member used parliamentary privilege to pass a criminal conviction on someone what has not even been charged. Frankly, it does not do much for the reputation of this House or--not that this matters in the slightest--the reputation of the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice).

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of what the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) have said, does it mean that the Tory party and Tory Members will make no reference to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Sarwar), either today or any other day?

My recollection is that the Tories have, times without number, previously attacked Labour supporters who have been charged. Indeed, they did so last night over the hon. Member for Govan. The Tories want to be able to attack Labour Members, but, when a Labour Member attacks an ex-Tory Member, it is a different kettle of fish. Let us have fair play in this place.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has not given the Chair the opportunity to ensure that fairness applies. We are governed by the sub judice rules of this House, and they have not been breached.

Mr. Prentice: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I do not wish or intend to behave irresponsibly.

The Jonathan Aitken libel action collapsed in June. It is now coming up to Christmas. I asked how much time had been spent by the Commissioner investigating the case, and was told last month that it was the equivalent of 39 man days. I do not want the investigation to drag on indefinitely. There is irrefutable proof in court transcripts that Jonathan Aitken lied under oath.

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Jonathan Aitken was a Cabinet Minister. At one time, he was Minister for Defence Procurement. He was one of only two Members of Parliament in recent times to resign from the Privy Council. He brought the libel action against The Guardian and Granada Television. The "World in Action" documentary, "Jonathan of Arabia", detailed his history of arms dealing, and the fact that he was sponging off very rich Arabs.

The story is set out comprehensively in a book entitled, "The Liar", written by three journalists from The Guardian, Luke Harding, David Leigh and David Pallister. What upsets me about the whole case is that, when Jonathan Aitken went to court, he said that he was defending his reputation. He said that he would use

To do that, Jonathan Aitken resigned from the Cabinet and as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. He persuaded the then Prime Minister and many of his Conservative colleagues that he was a truthful individual. Against that background, had he won his libel action, he would have been awarded exemplary damages. I hate to think how much The Guardian and Granada Television would have had to pay out--probably hundreds of thousands of pounds.

In essence, the story is very simple. I will not rehearse it, other than to cite a few salient facts. When Jonathan Aitken was Minister for Defence Procurement, he stayed at the Ritz hotel in Paris, where he met Sayed Ayas, the business manager of Prince Mohammed, the son of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia. The Guardian asked the simple question: "What was he doing there?" Correspondence started, innocently enough, between Peter Preston of The Guardian and Jonathan Aitken.

The contradictions in that correspondence began to show. For reasons that are known only to Jonathan Aitken, he alleged that the bill to settle the account at the Ritz hotel was paid by his wife Lolicia and not by Said Ayas. However, she was in Switzerland. In the libel action in June, irrefutable evidence was produced. The British Airways counterfoils for the journey of Lolicia and Jonathan Aitken's daughter Victoria from the United Kingdom to Switzerland proved that there was no possibility whatever of his wife dashing across to Paris to pay the bill.

That is the story. Jonathan Aitken lied on oath, like the magistrate who was sent to prison for 15 months, the friend of Terry Venables who was sent to prison for four months, and all the others that I have mentioned. They are all in it together. They are liars.

I take a simple view about these things. I am at one with Lord Denning, who said all those years ago:

I hope that the police are going to pass the papers to the Crown Prosecution Service just as soon as may be, so that the Aitken affair can finally be settled.

10.10 am

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The noble Lord Denning is a good and compassionate man. He is also one of the greatest jurists that this country

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has produced. He would not have approved of what we have heard from the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice). Jonathan Aitken is an old friend of mine. We all know that he has brought disrepute on himself and we deeply regret that fact, but we should not use the privilege of Parliament to stamp on the grave of a man who was once a distinguished Member. I deeply regret what I have heard.

I turn to another, although not wholly unrelated, matter: the way in which we treat Members of Parliament against whom allegations of serious misconduct have been made. I am glad that the Leader of the House is in her place, because I should like her to consider my suggestions.

The points that I want to raise relate to the procedures of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. What I say is against the background of the findings against Mr. Neil Hamilton, the former Member for Tatton, and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing). The procedures that we have in place do not sufficiently protect hon. Members against whom serious allegations have been made.

We need to be clear that a finding of serious misconduct against an hon. Member has the most serious consequences for that Member. Mr. Neil Hamilton lost his seat. His reputation has been wholly destroyed, and I imagine that he will find it extremely difficult to secure worthwhile employment in this country. In the case of the hon. Member for West Derby, the consequences were less grave, but his reputation has been seriously tarnished.

Those consequences were predictable and foreseeable. Because of that, it is important that the procedures that we put in place are sufficient to give hon. Members proper protection. Indeed, they should comply with the rules of natural justice. May I suggest in broad terms the nature of the procedures that we should put in place?

I think that it is clear that we should have a two-stage process: an inquiry with a right of appeal. As to the inquiry, I am content that we should proceed by way of a commissioner. That is a matter for the House, and I do not object to that, although I say in parenthesis that it would be a good thing if he were to sit with more than one other--preferably, it would be a panel of three. However, the rules of natural justice are not being complied with. May I summarise what the rules should be?

It is important that every hon. Member should know the nature of the charge that has been made against him or her. It is important, too, that the Member should have ample opportunity to defend himself or herself. Hon. Members should be represented by counsel, if that is their wish. The evidence against them should be given on oath. The evidence should be tested by cross-examination on behalf of the hon. Member--by counsel, for example--and the hon. Member should have the opportunity, through counsel, to make representations to the commissioner at the initial stage.

Those basic elements should exist, and, with the greatest respect to the House, to the Select Committee and to the commissioner, they did not exist in the case of Neil Hamilton.

I also believe that there should be a proper right of appeal, and that it should involve a rehearing, if necessary, of evidence. That did not happen in the case of Neil Hamilton; nor did it happen in the case of the hon. Member for West Derby. The latter asked to be heard by the Select Committee, I believe twice, and it denied him

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that request. In the case of Neil Hamilton, evidence was not given on oath before the Select Committee. Indeed, in effect, there was no evidence. Therefore, in respect of both men, there was no appeal.

Standing back, I can understand why hon. Members on both sides of the House might say to me, "You are putting an enormous infrastructure in place. Is it worth it?" I make two observations on that.

First, I ask for no more than the protection that is afforded to a person who appears before a magistrates court charged with a speeding offence. Every element that I have described applies to a person who is tried before a magistrates court for speeding. Evidence is given on oath, he knows the charges, there is the chance to cross- examine, he makes representations by counsel, and he can go to the Crown court for a complete rehearing. We are denying hon. Members the privileges, rights and protections that we give to the simplest citizen who is charged with the slightest offence.

We need to tackle the problem, because the injustice is great. I should like us fundamentally to change the procedures. I have already discussed briefly the principles that should apply at the initial stage--that is, in front of the commissioner. The House can work through the detail, and there will doubtless be various other models, but the principles are clear. However, I have come to the conclusion that the Select Committee cannot be the appellant body. There are several reasons for that.

Once we accept that there needs to be a rehearing, including the taking of evidence, we have to ask ourselves: has the Committee the time to do it? The answer is probably no. Almost every member of the Select Committee will know the person who is appealing to that body.

Moreover, most of us have been members of Select Committees, and we all bring to them our own prejudices and biases; we should not, but we do. Furthermore, in a place such as this, there are pressures of a private type--private chats in the Lobby, and the pressures that we all understand. Those should not play any part in what is a judicial process, yet they do. Therefore, I do not believe that the Select Committee can provide the sort of judicial solution--the judicial appeal--that hon. Members are entitled to expect. So what do we do?

Again, I do not want to say that I have a clear final view, but I have two suggestions. We can go down one of two roads. We can set up a specific committee that reports to the Select Committee and is composed of judicial figures--a panel of three or five persons who hold or have held high judicial office. In almost every case, the Select Committee would accept that report. Alternatively, it would have to give some jolly good reasons for not doing so. That committee of judicial figures would hear the evidence, listen to the submissions and constitute an appeal.

The alternative is to set up an ad hoc committee of senior Members of this House, and perhaps of another place, chaired by a former or current Law Lord, which would perform the same function and report to the House. There might be other models--I do not wish to be dogmatic--but I am certain that we must create a structure that accords with the principles of natural justice and gives hon. Members the feeling that they can with confidence entrust their good name and reputation to the procedures that we have established.

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Let us be clear about one thing: Members are destroyed by what happens at the moment, and we should not allow it to continue. I therefore ask the House to give urgent consideration to the my suggestions.

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