Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): As the Minister knows, I wrote to him last week commending two or three items that he has included in his package. They are good short-term measures, but they are only short-term. May I urge the Minister to look further? Direct financial compensation will be needed, owing to the disastrous position of many rural businesses.

Does the package cover Wales? Last week, Wales Office Ministers were not even invited to join the taskforce.

Mr. Meacher: As I said a few minutes ago, given the magnitude of the economic impact of this outbreak, no Government would be in a position to compensate each and every business for all the losses it has suffered. What we want to do is enable people to survive the crisis and not go under--to get to the end of it, and then begin to recover their economic strength. If more measures are needed to achieve that, we will certainly consider them.

I understand that a Welsh representative was at the meeting of the taskforce. I stand to be corrected if that is not so, but an invitation was certainly issued. Representatives of all devolved Administrations are invited, and a Welsh representative was present this morning.

I am keen for this to be a United Kingdom initiative, although the work of the taskforce primarily concerns England. It hardly needs to be said that foot and mouth is no respecter of boundaries, and I am keen that we should all act together: that will make our action more effective. It is, however, for the devolved Administrations to decide on the implementation of what is agreed in their own way.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have allowed questions on the statement to continue for nearly an hour and 20 minutes, but we must now move on. I thank the Minister for his patience.

20 Mar 2001 : Column 209

20 Mar 2001 : Column 211

Points of Order

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Department of Trade and Industry has in its possession a report into the affairs of a company called Hollis Industries plc. That company was also the centre of a separate investigation by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges because of an allegation that an hon. Member had received an undisclosed payment of £200,000. The Committee, at the time, was unable fully to resolve the matter because of a lack of information.

The point of order is that that information does exist and that it forms part of the report which is held by the Department of Trade and Industry. However, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is refusing to publish the report, despite the fact that he has legal powers to do so under section 449 of the Companies Act 1985. The matter therefore constitutes a cover-up for the political convenience of the Government.

Mr. Speaker, can you tell me whether you have received from the Government an indication that they will now explain themselves to the House or provide the necessary documents, so that the House and its Select Committee can get to the bottom of this tangled web of relationships and payments between the late Robert Maxwell and the Labour party and Government of today?

Mr. Speaker: I have received no approach. That is all I can tell the right hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Caroline Spelman (Meriden): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Adoption and Children Bill was published last Thursday, 15 March. On the front cover it states:

The notes are still unavailable in the Vote Office, despite the fact that, yesterday, the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), said that they would be made available. Consideration on Second Reading will occur next Monday, but the lack of those notes is making preparation for it extremely difficult.

Mr. Speaker: That is a matter for the Government. However, I hope that those documents are promptly made available to the hon. Lady and to any other hon. Member who is interested in the matter.

20 Mar 2001 : Column 212

Standards and Privileges (Independent Appeals Body)

4.52 pm

Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay): I beg to move,

The Committee on Standards in Public Life, at the time in question, was chaired by Lord Neill, and the report reviews the first five years working of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges. The report has been gathering dust for 15 months. The House has been given no opportunity formally to consider the Committee's recommendations, which I think should be debated before the end of this Parliament.

The report expressed concern that our in-house procedures for examining the conduct of hon. Members

as set out in the Nicholls report.

For hon. Members who are not familiar with the 1999 Nicholls report, I should say that it is a joint report on parliamentary privileges in the Lords and Commons by a Committee which was chaired by Lord Nicholls, who is a distinguished Lord of Appeal in Ordinary. Many distinguished Members of this place sat on that Committee, which had a broad spectrum of views on the way we should conduct our proceedings.

The House of course has a perfect right to determine its own rules on the way in which it conducts its affairs. However, I cannot imagine that any hon. Member would claim that the current system is entirely satisfactory. Lord Neill seeks not to change the rules, but to extend the right to an accused Member to appeal against a decision when that Member feels that his affairs have been treated with less concern than might be considered proper.

The Library informs me that, currently, the only way in which an hon. Member can challenge a decision of the Standards and Privileges Committee would be to go to the European Court of Human Rights, in Strasbourg. That is a lengthy and expensive procedure that prolongs the agony and leaves a cloud hanging over the hon. Member concerned. An appeals procedure, as recommended by Lord Neill, would establish a degree of consistency by building up a body of case law and would help to take some of the politics out of these proceedings.

The first recommendation that my Bill would seek to adopt is that

The report goes on to say that

For this reason, Lord Neill proposes that what he calls "an investigative tribunal" should be chaired by an independent lawyer, such as a senior retired judge, advised on the parliamentary procedures involved by two or four senior Members of the House.

The second recommendation that I believe we should adopt is that Members who receive an adverse ruling and wish to challenge it should be provided with financial

20 Mar 2001 : Column 213

assistance to pursue the appeal. It is only when the appeal is dismissed that the Committee should report to the House, along with any recommendations as to penalties.

I have raised these matters on more than one occasion with the Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office. He has said that he is in favour of these matters being debated and that we should examine the possibility of providing legal advice and expenses to Members who wish to challenge decisions.

Lord Neill is not the only one who has expressed concern about the way in which our current procedures are working. In his retirement report, Sir Gordon Downey--the former commissioner, who worked with the Committee for three years--warned of the dangers of tit-for-tat wars breaking out. One would have to have flown in from another planet not to realise that that prediction has already come to pass.

If we were to adopt Lord Neill's recommendations, I believe that they would bring our disciplinary procedures nearer the concept of natural justice and would go some way towards improving public perceptions of the way in which we conduct our affairs. Whether we like it or not, these are portrayed in the press in a manner that must give cause for the public to wonder precisely what this Chamber is about and where our priorities lie. I commend my Bill to the House.

4.58 pm

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton): I am grateful for this opportunity. I shall speak briefly to answer the points of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) and--in some limited measure--to oppose them, at least in their emphasis and timing. I do not wish to press this to a vote as it should not be a divisive or a dividing issue. I would be extremely reluctant to see the House divided--whipped or unwhipped--along party lines. What matters in this case primarily is not the feeling in the House, but the feeling in the country.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for the points that she raised and the particular perspective that she brings to the matter. She has had personal experience of the House's self-regulation, of the procedures of the commissioner and of the Committee, and of the consequences. There is no doubt that an appeals procedure must be introduced.

I draw the attention of the House to the 21st report of the Standards and Privileges Committee, which was agreed unanimously in the 1997-98 Session. The report provides exactly for such a court of appeal, in effect. I was

20 Mar 2001 : Column 214

concerned about the case of my predecessor as the Member of Parliament for Tatton. I believe that Sir Gordon Downey was thorough and fair in his investigations.

I believe, too, that the Committee did its best. I was not a member at the time, but I believe that it could stand by its report. However, an appeal procedure was not available. The commissioner is not a prosecutor and the Committee is not a court of law, but the effect of my predecessor's condemnation was akin to a criminal conviction: as he put it at the time, he was condemned to a life of penury and unemployment. That is why it is necessary for a suitable procedure to be put in place.

I very much hope that, between now and the end of the Session, the House will consider and adopt the suggestions made in the Bill. However, the emphasis must be on restoring public trust in public life. My goodness, we have a long way to go: I am not altogether convinced that this Parliament is held in higher esteem by the public at large than was the previous Parliament.

In the end, the answer lies not with commissioners, Committees and tribunals, but with ourselves. We hon. Members should register our interests. When in doubt, we should ask the commissioner, whom I believe to be one of the outstanding public servants of our time, and the registrar. We should not resort to lawyers, except for basic advice. We should certainly not resort to lawyers to obstruct the work of the Committee and the commission.

I think that the public will forgive us if we are too rigorous, and even nitpicking, in how we deal with these matters. People will not forgive us if we are not rigorous enough.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Teresa Gorman, Mr. Douglas Hogg, Sir Teddy Taylor, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. David Amess, Mr. Christopher Gill, Mr. Austin Mitchell, Mr. Patrick Nicholls and Sir Richard Body.

Next Section

IndexHome Page