Examination of Witness (Questions 1 -
WEDNESDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2001
1. Mr Major, you are very welcome. In your very
useful letter you kindly said that you would be prepared to give
oral evidence and we have taken you up on that offer. I believe
that you would like to make an opening statement which we would
welcome and to amplify points raised in your letter.
(Mr Major) Thank you, Chairman. I shall not speak
at length because I suspect that the Committee may have questions
about the written evidence that I have submitted. I just want
to make a couple of general comments before we move on to the
detail. I do not want to make a lengthy opening statement incorporating
the detail. I welcome the consultation document. It is timely
and it is a good idea to review the system now that it has been
operating for a while. I also add that, as the Committee will
be aware, I propose to leave Parliament, I suspect at a date in
the next few weeks. I do not intend to go to the House of Lords.
I make that point simply to indicate that neither in this place
or in the other place do I have an axe to grind about the system,
except one. I have a wish to ensure that a fair system of regulation
is put in place for subsequent parliaments, building on what we
have learned over the past few years. We have come a long way,
but we can include and refine what we have. I hope that that will
emerge from the consultation document. I have a second interest
in that I suppose in one rather abstruse sense, I am the founder
of this Committee. I established the Nolan Committee some time
ago and Nolan spawned Neill which spawned this Committee. So I
have a fatherly interest in your deliberations and in the success
of the way in which the Committee operates. Perhaps I can recap
on why I did that. In essence, I wished to ensure that a system
was in place that would safeguard the reputation of Parliament
against charges whether founded or unfounded. If founded they
should be dealt with; if unfounded they should be dismissed. I
thought at the time that an extremely unhealthy situation existed.
There were charges of the most extraordinary kind that were beginning
to seep into the political atmosphere on a regular basis, many
of which were baseless and all of which, whether justified or
baseless, were damaging to the reputation of the House of Commons.
That is why, against my instincts of some years ago, I put in
place something that I had been thinking about for some time by
asking Lord Nolan to sit with his committee and examine what we
may do. That was set up to safeguard the reputation of Parliament.
However, I am concerned that the system that we have set up to
safeguard the reputation of Parliament and which exists for that
purpose can be abused, in a fashion, that does harm to the reputation
of Parliament rather than safeguarding it. That is a real concern
that I have and many on this Committee may share that view. I
believe that we can deal with it in this consultation document.
I do not believe it will be a surprise to this Committee to know
that every time the register appears, examining registration entries
is now a spectator sport. Everyone knows of instances where registration
entries have been abused for political and other reasons after
the register has been published. In addition to justifiable references
on serious issues, your Committee has had to deal with a significant
number of frivolous references; we have had great public speculation.
In the case of some Members, we have had grotesquely unfair speculation
that has hurt them, their families and their constituencies as
well as the reputation of Parliament and we have put the Commissioner
in the position in which she has to make investigationsoften
invasiveof a sort that with the right reforms to the procedures
could be dismissed speedily at a very early stage. Some of the
trivial breaches that we have seen have been simple errors or
misunderstandings by the Member concerned and they have been held
up to public gaze. Anyone who has seen the broad publicity about
that will realise that it is presented to the world as though
the Member concerned was maliciously attempting to conceal information.
The fact is that Members of Parliament can make mistakes like
anybody else and, from time to time, do so. My concern is not
so much with the impact that that has on the Member concerned,
but with the collective impact that that has on the institution
of Parliament itself. The way in which we have established the
system and the way in which the system operates at present tends
to increase public suspicion of Parliament rather than to lay
to rest the belief that Parliament is not behaving properly. I
believe that it is and we need to make it clear that it is. I
accept without qualificationas I should, for I set it upthat
we need a system to safeguard Parliament. That remains necessary.
I am absolutely sure of that. However, I believe that we can now
refine it on the basis of a few years' experience. We need to
find a way of ensuring that we safeguard the reputation of Parliament
without it having the perverse effect of damaging Parliament.
That is why this consultation, and the decisions that I hope that
this Committee reach on it, can play a big role. What do we need?
In broad terms I think that we need two things. We need clarification
of the rules so that they are unambiguously clear to every Member
of Parliament. At the moment I do not believe that they are. Some
of the definition that has emerged from parliamentary resolutions
and from subsequent reports are open to more than one interpretation.
I think that, on experience, we should make them sufficiently
clear so that a different interpretation is highly unlikely. Secondly,
I think it is time for some reforms to the procedures. We need
procedures and we need examinations, but we need to reform them.
I have submitted some ideas in writing to the Committee. I did
not intend to elaborate on them now, because it may be better
if I respond to your questions. Perhaps I can say one more thing.
When I said that some of the definitions are unclear and capable
of more than one interpretation, a key definition is "in
their capacity as a Member of Parliament" and that has appeared
repeatedly. It is capable of more than one interpretation. Members
need to know exactly what is covered by that. The House of Commons'
resolutions need to set out what is covered by that. Then there
is the question of Members "offering advice about parliamentary
matters". We need to be absolutely clear, clearer than I
and most Members are, about exactly what is incorporated within
that definition. Those are two of the areas where we need to look
carefully. There are a number of others. I have broadly set them
out in my letter. If your Committee agrees, it may be best if
I let you ask questions and I shall elaborate on them as a result
of those questions.
2. Thank you very much, Mr Major. We are grateful
to you. When I took on this job I hoped to see that the general
perception of Members of Parliament would be rather better by
the end of this Parliament than at the end of the previous Parliament.
We have become bogged down in a great amount of detail. That is
one reason why we have put the matter out for consultation. I
want to refer to the arrangements for getting the registration
of the agreements for the provision of services. You have suggested
that Members registering speeches should declare that they do
not offer consultancy services or parliamentary advocacy. If there
were that provision, that would separate out such matters. Would
you like to expand upon that?
(Mr Major) This is a key point. This may take a moment
and may prompt some follow-up questions. The original rules, as
I recall, required Members at the time to submit copies of agreements
to provide services "in their capacity as a Member of Parliament".
The target that was setit was the right targetwas
so-called consultancies, which I think were being abused by Members
of Parliament. Members were lobbying on behalf of special interests
and using Parliament not always in the way that it was intended.
I think those consultancies were a legitimate target. Personally,
I think that it is perfectly satisfactory for Members of Parliament
to lobby and on many occasions that is their function, but it
ought to be clear to the House as a whole upon whose behalf they
are lobbying. I think registrations is right and I think consultancies
as a target was absolutely right. Then the rules were changed
in mid-1996I think July 1996. Again I quote, "The
new arrangement with employment agreements to be put in writing
will apply principally to any arrangement whereby a Member may
offer advice about parliamentary matters". I think that made
it unambiguously clear that the target was consultancies and I
welcome that. However, the wording itself is not as clear as it
should be because it is open to different interpretations. I refer
to the two points that I mentioned a moment ago: what does "in
their capacity as a Member of Parliament" entail, what does
it really mean, and what does "may offer advice about parliamentary
matters" actually mean? When you examine that beyond the
superficial it is not at all clear. At a later stage this Committee
extended the need for written agreements to newspaper columns
and to television programmes. Although plainly there may have
been advocacy of one sort or another, there was no lobbying of
Ministers. Subsequently, speeches were added, the point that you
have made in the report about Ken Livingstone. In many cases,
speeches do not relate to the speaker's capacity as a Member of
Parliament and they do not offer advice about parliamentary matters.
Let me illustrate this by citing my own case. I make a great number
of speechessome at home and the majority abroadbut
they do not involve advocacy of any sort. They tend to be about
international, economic, political and foreign policy events and
mostly I speak overseas. In relation to my capacity as an MP,
firstly, most audiences in the United States do not know that
I am still in Parliament. They assume that our system works pretty
much the same as theirs. When a President of the United States
leaves office he is not a member of the Senate or any of their
legislature and they are rather surprised when they find out that
a former Prime Minister is still a Member of the House of Commons.
Secondly, in relation to my capacity as an MP, so little is that
in fact the caseI do not wish to give details as that would
not be relevantthat I have a large number of speeches scheduled
for long after the end date of this Parliament, even if it were
not to end in the next couple of months. In any real terms, that
hardly relates to my capacity as an MP. Equally relevant is the
fact that I have never been asked, in this country, in the United
States or anywhere else in the world, as a result of a speech,
to undertake any parliamentary action. And nor would I. I am puzzled
as to how such speeches can be considered a parliamentary service
because I do not think that they are. I do not think that they
can be considered to be lobbying as they self-evidently are not,
and they do not relate to my present capacity as an MP, although
the interest is there, in part, because of my past position as
a Prime Minister, but certainly it does not in any sense relate
to my present responsibilities as a Member of Parliament. I do
not suggest that ex-Prime Ministers are entirely typical, but
a lot of ex-Ministers can find themselves in the same position.
As this Committee knows, that is so and it will be after future
changes of government as well. One reason that I suspect that
this Committee decided to include speeches in the way that it
didyou may or may not comment on whether this is accurate,
but I have reason to believe that it isis that Members
of the Committee and perhaps the Committee as a whole, thought
that the registration of such speeches was in some cases a device
for masking a consultation agreement. If that is so, I understand
why the Committee reached the decision on speeches that it did.
But I do not believe that generally that is the case. If the decision
is taken for that reason, many people not remotely involved in
consultation are being caught by a regulation aimed at people
who are, in practice, submitting a dishonest entry to the register.
That is why I made the suggestion to which you have referred.
I think that Members registering speeches should be asked to make
a specific and clear-cut declaration, firstly, that they do not
offer consultation services as a result of such a speech and,
secondly, that they will not be offering any parliamentary advocacy
of any kind as a result of such a speech. If that is the case,
I believe that that would obviate the difficulty that I have faced,
that the Commissioner has faced and that you have faced, of seeking
employment agreements where there is not really an employment
arrangement between Members making a speech and an audience receiving
a one-off speech. If we made that distinction I believe that we
could remove the need for the so-called "employment agreements".
I appreciate that they are not strictly intended to be employment
agreements but that would remove it. If the worry is that people
are apparently being paid for speeches when in reality they were
being paid for consultation, I think the specific proposal that
I would suggest would meet the point. If the Member then is found
to be conducting consultation, after having made a specific statement
to the contrary, this Committee would know what action to take
when that became apparent. I am sorry that that was such a lengthy
3. That is very clear. Colleagues may wish to
pursue that further. I turn now to the suggestion that you make
in your letter that Members should have access to legal advice.
Some Members have incurred considerable expenses. I can think
of one or two cases where very large levels of expenses have been
incurred in trying to deal with some of the accusations made against
them. What suggestions do you have for dealing with that?
(Mr Major) You touch on the reason why I made the
suggestion. At present, if a complaint is made, unless it is so
frivolous as to be immediately dismissable, the Commissioner and
this Committee have little choice but to investigate it. That
takes up a lot of time. Once an investigation is put in hand there
is often a feeling among the general public that as the House
of Commons has launched an investigation there must, therefore,
be something in it. It is the old "no smoke without fire"
argument. A great deal of unsavoury publicity, often within the
constituency concerned arises that is often used by the political
opponents of the Member concerned. I make no party distinction.
It does not matter whether the person complained about is Labour,
Liberal Democrat or Tory, their opponents will tend to use it
in the constituency. Not only is their reputation at stake, but
as it often takes a long time to conduct these investigations,
their parliamentary seat may be at stake, with the sort of publicity
that is generated in the constituency over a lengthy period of
time. That concerns me and because that is the case many Members
have had to resort to legal advice because they believe that their
reputation is at stake and because they believe that their seat
may be at stake. That is particularly true of Members in marginal
seats. Not all Members of Parliament can afford that. I can think
of one who has run up a five figure bill, as of some time ago.
4. There are a number of those.
(Mr Major) I am sure there are a number. Therefore,
if such a matter is being investigated by the House of Commons
we ought to have retained legal advice to which a Member who is
the subject of a complaint may turn and may receive assistance
in presenting his or her case to this Committee. Perhaps they
should make a contribution towards the cost. Some of us are fortunate
enough to be able to pay the full cost but others are not and
because some cannot I do not think that they should be put at
a disadvantage. Legal advice is available to this Committee which
investigates on behalf of the House of Commons against a Member;
I believe it would be equitable to provide a similar opportunity
for the Member concerned to get legal advice in protecting his
5. On the matter of frivolous or vexatious complaints,
you quite rightly mentioned that the Commissioner should have
power to dismiss such a complaint, as in many cases she does.
I have a point on the definition. Could a failure to register
be a trivial complaint? Should a reminder be issued that they
have failed to do that or should it be investigated more fully?
(Mr Major) I suggest something very straightforward.
As a matter of courtesy, I find it rather offensive that one Member
of this House will refer the entry of another Member of this House
to the Committee and to the Commissioner without informing the
Member concerned that they have done so. I actually think that
that is discourteous. As a matter of parliamentary practice, I
think that this Committee should recommend that any Member making
a reference about a colleague in the House should, as a matter
of courtesy, inform that colleague and give that colleague an
opportunity to speak to them and to persuade them that the reference
was unnecessary. I make that general point as a possible recommendation
for the Committee to look at. Secondly, if a complaint is registered,
in the first instance, I think the Commissioner should inform
the Member privately that such a complaint has been made, offer
the Member the opportunity to meet the Commissioner and if it
looks as though it is something worth following upwe can
all think of examples of senior politicians not registering a
flight when they have gone abroad to speak, the use of a gym or
whateverthe Commissioner should informally say, "I
think it is better that this is registered". Then an amended
entry can be taken with no investigation whatever. The whole thing
can be closed down without the Committee, with no panoply and
no delay and hopefully no undesirable publicity. I think it is
very undesirable when Members make references about colleagues
and run straight to the media because that exposes them, quite
disgracefully, to comment before they have had any chance to defend
themselves at all. Therefore, it would be useful if this Committee
indicated to Members of Parliament that until such time as the
Commissioner has decided that there is something worth investigating,
they would regard, with disapproval, the activities of any Member
who informed the press. You cannot stop them doing it, but that
may be a sanction if it was felt that this Committee decided that
that was bad practice. With relatively small issues, if the Commissioner
thinks that they can be speedily dealt with, perhaps in consultation
with the Chairman, rather than bothering the Committee as a whole,
that would be fine. I think the Committee as a whole should be
bothered with more serious issues that arise, sadly, from time
to time and not with relatively trivial ones, where it seems likely
that the Member has just made a stupid error or has misunderstood
the rules. If that is the case, let it be dealt with speedily,
not just in the interests of the Member, but also in the interests
of the House of Commons.
6. Perhaps I can take you back to the beginning
of your written representation where you talk about the composition
of this Committee. You refer to the need for more legal expertise.
Perhaps I can declare an interest as the only lawyer on the Committee.
Can you suggest what you have in mind? Do you have particular
Members in mind? Do you think that seniority is important? In
relation to the make-up of the Committee, what would improve it?
At what point do you believe that legal advice should be sought
when we get into our deliberations?
(Mr Major) On the latter point, on when should legal
advice be sought, that would depend on the nature of the complaint.
I think legal advice would probably be sought the moment that
the Commissioner has decided that something is not frivolous and
requires an investigation. If it is a matter that can be solved
face-to-face with the Commissioner who says, "Yes, you have
made a bit of a mess of this, you should have registered it",
and the Member says, "Sorry, it was unintentional, I will
make a registration immediately", you do not need legal advice.
On the other hand, if there is a dispute and a Member says, "I
do not believe that I have failed to register properly",
or it is a serious matter and the Commissioner begins an investigation,
at that stage it is probably right to turn to legal advice. On
the composition of the Committee, I had in mind the old adage
that someone is innocent until proven guilty and I wanted more
people on the Committee with legal backgrounds prepared to examine
the actual definitions of the parliamentary resolutions. There
have been one or two occasions where the interpretation of the
resolution went wider than was the common perception among Members
of Parliament. That is why I want it to be unambiguously clear.
I had in mind that point when I said that there should be more
legal expertise among the Members of the Committee. I suppose
that the other question is whether the Committee needs to be so
large. That is not a matter for me; it is a matter for the House.
I do not advocate that it should be just be in the old style of
four senior Privy Counsellors. I think that the Membership of
the House is more widespread and broader than that. However, I
believe that there should be a tilt towards people with legal
experience who would look, firstly, at the interpretation of the
rules very carefully and, secondly, perhaps in their professional
life they would have had more experience than I, for example,
would have had, of how people get themselves into scrapes inadvertently.
7. That is clear, thank you. Turning to the
nature of the advice that you believe that an independent adviser
should give, would that be simply on the interpretation of the
rules as to whether it fitted within a breach of the rules or
would you envisage the legal adviser having a more comprehensive
(Mr Major) No. In the experience that I have had and
from Members to whom I have spoken, I believe it would be to determine
whether the legal advice to the Member concurs with the view that
they have breached the rules. I think that they should get legal
advice as to what the rules may say. If the rules are so unambiguously
set out in the House of Commons resolutions that they are unmistakably
clear, which is the ideal, then legal advice may not be necessary,
but at the moment we are not in that position. Given the variety
of events that can occur, we cannot be certain that we would always
be in that position. I would not envisage that legal advice would
often be needed, but in some complex cases, the kind of cases
that the Chairman mentioned where Members of Parliament may have
run up very large costs to protect their reputations, I think
that they should have the right to turn independently in the House
of Commons for legal advice as to what the rules may mean and
whether, in the advice of their adviser, they have breached the
rules. If they have, they had better hold up their hands straightaway
and not go through the lengthy procedure that may take this Committee
a long time and which may have unhappy results.
8. On the other side of that advice, namely
the advice that the Committee may seek, would you see a legal
adviser being on the Committee or would the legal adviser simply
advise the Commissioner?
(Mr Major) That is a matter for the Committee. The
Commissioner can turn to the Clerk of the House. No doubt the
Commissioner can seek other legal advice if she feels that she
needs it. That is a matter for the Committee. My representations
concern the Member of Parliament who may have to appear before
the Committee charged with misconduct.
The Committee suspended from 4.42 pm to 4.52
pm for a division in the House.
9. Mr Major, I have one question on the difficult
issue of speech making and contracts. I understand how vexatious
you have found it. Obviously you were not being asked to give
speeches because you are an MP. How would that apply to, say,
a former Chancellor of the Exchequer or a former junior Minister,
or Backbenchers of different degrees of eminence? The difficulty
is that all MPs have to be treated alike. I can see that the publicthe
ultimate verdict will be with the publicwill forgive us
if we are too rigorous and even nit-picking, but if we are not
and make special exemptions for special people they will not forgive
us at all.
(Mr Major) By no means was I askingnor would
Ifor special exemption for the small club of ex-Prime Ministers.
I was making the point that the speeches that I make do not relate
to my capacity as an MP and do not involve advocacy. That would
apply to the vast majority of people who make speeches who were
either in this Government and have left it or who were in the
previous government and have left it. If they were making speeches
on how to make one's way in Parliament, I can see the point. If
they are making perfectly dispassionate speeches on other related
matters because they happen to be a public figure, I do not see
why they should be caught within the rules in the fashion that
it seems likely that they may be post-Livingstone. I simply do
not think that that is correct because they do not infringe any
of the parliamentary resolutions that I quoted to you earlier.
That is true of other Members as well as ex-Prime Ministers.
10. Do you think that the category of speech-making
should be excluded altogether?
(Mr Major) I think that it is perfectly legitimate,
if the House of Commons wishes, for people to indicate that they
are making speeches. I have no objection to that. I have no objection
to them indicating what is the subject of the speech. I do not
see why it is necessary, but I have no objection to indicating
whether the fees are over £500. What I think is wrong is
having to submit an employment agreement when no employment arrangement,
in my view, conceivably arises. In relation to the speeches that
one makes, the only arrangement that is made is an agency agreement.
There is an agency agreement if you have someone finding the speeches
for you or acting on your behalf, as I do. The only arrangement
entered into is for the speech-maker, whether an ex-Prime Minister
or anyone else, to turn up and to deliver a speech to a particular
audience on a particular subject. There is no other arrangement
made. I do not see how that involves anything that ought to concern
the House of Commons. If they wish to be informed of it so that
they can make their own judgment that is fine. Patently, no "employment
agreement" arises. The problem has arisen in regard to agencies
arranging speeches. That was the consideration that you had in
the case of Ken Livingstone some time ago. That was an agency
agreement. I have people in America to whom I refer requests for
my speeches and they make the travel arrangements and arrange
other speeches for me as well. That is the arrangement. I employ
the agency; they do not employ me. My contract is not with them,
but with the people who wish me to make the speech, the Daughters
of the Revolution in West Texas or whoever it may be. That does
not seem to me to be a registrable matter.
11. Mr Major, you said that you felt that we
ought to make available legal advice through a panel of lawyers.
If we go down that road, do you not think that we shall move away
from the idea of self-regulation?
(Mr Major) We have a choice. I have some sympathy
with that view. We can do two things. I can tell you which I would
prefer. The first is that we can simplify the rules to such an
extent that they are so unambiguously clear that the matter of
lawyers does not arise at all. That is obviously the first prize.
If we are to do that, that unambiguous clarity needs to be enshrined
in parliamentary resolution so that one knows precisely what is
meant by the sort of terms that I quoted to you. That is infinitely
the best idea for precisely the reason that you set out. If we
continue along the way we have gone for the past five years or
so, where the rules are revised and become steadily more complicated
and, therefore, investigations become increasingly more complicated,
in the interests of equity to Members who face charges, but who
may be entirely innocent of those charges, we have no alternative
but to offer them proper assistance in defending their reputation.
I would infinitely prefer that that was not necessary. I advocate
that only as a second resort; my first piece of advocacy would
undoubtedly be to make the rules sufficiently simple so that the
involvement of lawyers is not required. I do not know how many
lawyers there are sitting around the table. Earlier I suggested
that perhaps there are not enough, so I had better say nothing
nasty about lawyers. I believe it is better if lawyers are not
involved. I believe that that is infinitely the best outcome exactly
for the reason that you have put to me.
12. There was a debate about this in the House
in relation to the Teresa Gorman case. She had raised this concern.
One problem is that a Member knowing that legal advice is available
could deliberately complicate the response in order to set up
a long, drawn-out legal process. I entirely accept the obligation
on the Committee is to operate in such a way that makes it difficult
to justify that. You expressed concern about how some complaints
were dealt with and the fact that people could abuse the Committee
by using the press. The fact that a complaint is lodged means
that there is a story attached. Is there any way in which we could
deal with that? You suggested a procedure that Members should
follow. The difficulty is that if the procedure of notifying a
Member is not followed, effectively the complaint would fall,
at least from that source. I do not know how it would be enforceable.
Is there any way in which we can deal with that?
(Mr Major) I think you can make a presumption of that.
The danger that may existif I can think my way through
that thoughtis that if you had a Member who was guilty
of something and he rushes off to the press to leak it before
anyone has looked at the matter, and there is then no investigation,
he would avoid it. That is a bit machiavellian, but it is possible
that in a House of 659 Members there may be the odd Machiavelli.
Perhaps there should be a presumption that there would be a rebuke
for a Member who leaked such a matter. One can never be certain
who did such a thing but often one can be sure because they are
quoted subsequently in the newspaper article saying, "I referred
this matter because", and so on, and if this Committee were
to rebuke them for doing that, I believe they would cease to do
it. Instead of the Member at fault being rebuked, if they found
themselves hauled before the Committee and asked to explain why
they were speaking to the press upon a matter that the Commissioner
had not yet decided was worthy of investigation, they may be less
inclined to do it. You may have a point there.
13. Thank you for your points of view on these
matters. Perhaps I can address two fundamental points. You are
aware that this Committee is, in a way, entrapped by the code
that the House of Commons imposed upon it. We can tinker at the
edges, but the rules to which we have to work, whether we like
them or not, are the rules that the House has laid down. Until
the House has a will to change them, we are bound by the rules
that the House has given us. We start from that point. In the
Nolan phase, considering the atmosphere at the time, we are left
with an inheritance from Nolan that frankly is a misinterpretation
of the role of the Committee. This is a personal view, but it
is strongly held, that the rules, as we have them at the moment,
lay down that Members of Parliament must be honest and open. We
hope that Members of Parliament are honest and open. The question
is, what is the scope of this Committee in relation to whether
they are honest and open? Is it purely in so far as their activities
as Members of Parliament are concerned, and in relation to how
their official duties are affected, or do you see it in the wider
role, which means that we are keepers of the public conscience
on matters of morality and general conduct? I shall try to draw
a parallel rather than refer to a specific case. If I went along
to rent a car and said that I had never had an accident, when
in fact I had, and that fact became public, would the interpretation
that some people are putting on "open and honest" mean
that that is something that would be referred to this Committee?
To my mind that is ludicrous. That is a matter for the law in
relation to the individual and in relation to the people with
whom he has a contract. That is fundamental because it explains
the width of many of the inquiries that we have had. At my behest
we took that back to Nolan because I felt that having looked at
the first draft and the final draft of the report that he meant
the first, but it became the second. Back came the advice that
it was the wider interpretation that was intended. I think that
that is a wrong interpretation of the role of the Committee of
Standards and Privileges and its duty to the House. If an individual
has marital problems or contractual problems outside, they must
be dealt with in the appropriate manner rather than referring
them to this Committee. On which side would you come down in relation
to this argument? Should we be the general keeper of the public
conscience or should we be an in-house committee ensuring that
the Members abide by the rules of the House?
(Mr Major) I think that this Committee should be the
arbiter of the rules set out by this House. I do not see how the
Committee can justifiably go beyond that. It will get itself into
a terrible mess if it goes beyond that. You referred to morality.
I do not know what aspect of morality you had in mind, but I can
see some pretty unusual cases coming before you if you go wider
than just the rules set out by the House. I hope that there are
some resolutions that the House is not inclined to frame. It would
be very difficult to enforce them. As far as you being bound by
the code is concerned, of course that is right. This Committee,
which is a powerful committee and which has had more experience
than anybody else in the House, can express dissatisfaction with
the rules as they are at present. I hope that you will. I think
that with experience the rules that have been promulgated by the
House are inadequate and in some cases downright misleading. Members
of Parliament have been misled and as a result you have had cases
referred to you that ought not to have been referred to you and
no good has been done either to the Member concerned or to the
House of Commons as a whole as a result. I hope that the primary
thing that will come out of your consultation will be not the
ending of the system of safeguarding the reputation of Parliament
by having an independent investigationI agree with thatbut
I hope that we shall see a revision of the rules so that they
are clearer than they have been hitherto and that the scope for
misunderstanding and downright malice is correspondingly reduced.
That is what I hope will come out of it. I entirely agree with
your interpretation of what the rules are. You must interpret
only those regulations and resolutions set out before the House
of Commons and abide by them.
14. I am delighted to find us in complete agreement
on that. Unfortunately, the rules as laid down do not take that
view. I will not bother to go into the detail. The other problem
is that Nolan was set up, quite rightlyI think you made
a wise decision in saying that someone other than Members of Parliament
should decide what the rules should bebut no one takes
into account the fact that Nolan is fallible, Nolan included.
Our problem as a committee is that so soon after it, we have to
be very careful that we tinker at the edges rather than trying
anything fundamental because that will look as though Members
of this House are trying to set aside Nolan. Addressing the problems
that increasingly we are identifying is a serious problem for
(Mr Major) My only regret about Nolan is that I wish
that I had followed my instincts and set up something like Nolan
several years before I did. I wish I had done so, but I did not
and in the event I thought that the swirling tide of the ludicrous
allegations, peppered occasionally with true allegations, made
it necessary in the interests of Parliament to do it. Unless pressed,
I shall not go into the details, but if pressed I certainly shall.
I rather regret that I did not do it earlier. Of course NolanI
mean the Committee and not Lord Nolan personallyNeill,
this Committee, the House of Commons and all of us concur. As
far as tinkering at the edges is concerned, I think it would be
perfectly proper, at the end of each parliament when there has
been a parliament's experience of how the rules operate, for this
Committee to examine fundamentally what changes need to be made
and make recommendations to that effect. Whichever government
may follow the subsequent general election should look at those
rules and lay down fresh resolutions before the House. Things
change. The problem that originally caused all this difficulty
was consultancies. At some stage there may be a different problem
that we have not foreseen. I do not worry about people saying,
"We are tearing up old rules". I think we should look
afresh, in each parliament, and ideally set rules for a parliament.
If those rules are enshrined in more comprehensive resolutions
than before, I do not think that we shall run into some of the
difficulties that we have had with interpretation in the past,
and they should be reviewed again at the end of the parliament
in the light of deficiencies found in those rules and amended
for the subsequent parliament. I would like to see it work in
that way. That may have its own fallibilities, but I think it
would be clear and certain. Certainty, if we are to have equity
and justice, we need clarity in the rules.
15. Ambiguous law is bad law, as I think we
would all agree. The duty is clearly on this Committee that where
we find ambiguities we should try to address them. There is another
problem with the Nolan format. Please do not think that I am knocking
the Nolan Committee as such because it did a marvellous job at
that time in convincing the public that we were trying to put
our house in order. However, what has emerged is a set of rules
of unbelievable complexity. It is difficult for even a long-serving
Member to be absolutely sure of the details of the rules; it must
be virtually impossible for a brand new Member. We have a practical
problem here. Like yourself, we have started giving more detailed
definition to some of our findings. If you are not careful, clarity
in itself can add to complexity. We have the most complex system.
We have documents that we send around. In fairness to the Commissioner,
she has tried to prepare simplified versions, but it is difficult
for Members to remember all the rules all the time. How do we
reconcile the need to have rules that the public will agree ensure
proper control in the House of Commons and at the same time avoid
leaving out areas that need control?
(Mr Major) I think we have to sit back
for a moment and ask ourselves what is the objective of the rules?
What is the purpose of having the rules? I suggest that that is
most straightforward. The purpose of having such rules is to prevent
a Member of Parliament abusing his position as a Member of Parliament
in one form or another. That is perfectly straightforward. One
needs to look at the way in which people have abused their position
as a Member of Parliament. I believe that the way in which some
of the consultancies worked was an abuse. I was quite shocked
at all that I discovered about the way the consultancies were
operating. You need to go backI was about to say you need
to go back to basics, but perhaps that is not the best illustration.
Perhaps I may add that the "back to basics" that I set
out in a conference speech some years ago bore no relationship
to what people subsequently thought "back to basics"
meant. It was certainly not about sex. That is absolutely clear.
I did not expressly exclude it because it never occurred to me
to include it. But it was not about sex. Perhaps I can make the
point that as a standard work of reference, sex was not discovered
by Conservatives in the previous Parliament, nor was it wholly
their prerogative. I think the purpose of the rules is to set
out abuses of parliamentary behaviour and to caution MPs that
they may not do certain things and if they do they must answer
for the consequences. If we go back to that basic matter, it becomes
a little easier. The danger arises when there is individual case
law, which is the way in which we have always operated, from Nolan
onwards. Bits get added on and bits added on fit one particular
case, but often it is a poor template for other cases. Yet, without
consistency the Committee is then hooked upon its first judgment.
That is something about which we need to be very careful. That
is the second reason why I think that the rules should be set
for a parliament and reviewed at the end of the parliament in
the light of deficiencies that have become apparent during the
course of this Committee's investigations in the term of any one
parliament. 16. Referring to the point that you have made about
legal representation on the Committee, most of us recognise that
it is important that one has legal representation. At the risk
of upsetting him, it has been very valuable having Michael Foster
on the Committee because he is the one lawyer on the Committee.
When I was on the predecessor committee at the time of the "cash
for questions" matter, we had the Attorney General and the
shadow attorney general attending in an advisory role. I felt
that it was an advantage to have them in attendance. The Attorney
General's role is recognised as being a non-political role and
having the shadow attorney general present as well was helpful.
This may be an unfair question to put to you on the spur of the
moment, but do you think that it would be advantageous to revert
to that system, to have a senior law officer and a senior shadow
law officer involved in the proceedings so that they can take
an objective legal view of what is going on?
(Mr Major) That may be quite a burden for them. I
do not know how many hours in a parliamentary session this Committee
would sit, but I suspect that it would be quite a number. Certainly
under the present system I think it would be quite a lot. Perhaps
I could revise your suggestion. On complex issues I do not see
any reason why the Commissioner or the Chairman should not have
the right to seek private advice from the Attorney General or
the shadow attorney general if they wish, but I would be a little
wary of trying to suggest that they should join the Committee
on each occasion. I believe that that would be quite a burden.
I am glad that you agree that it is useful to have lawyers.
17. It hurt, but I recognise that.
(Mr Major) I am sorry it hurt. They have a degree
of dispassionate experience in the kind of matters that this Committee
must inevitably look at which will be useful to the Committee,
particularly when you often look at matters that may have happened
some time before. You mentioned "cash for questions".
It is not a widely recognised point, but the substantive "cash
for questions" problem actually occurred in the 1980s. It
became public in the 1990s, but it actually related to the 1980s.
Were this Committee to examine that kind of issue, it would be
examining something that happened many years before.
18. You referred to the pain for us, and doubly
so for the Commissioner, of the frivolous complaints. We have
seen, as I think it is recognised, tit-for-tat references where
some people set themselves up as experts on referring cases to
the Commissioner which then produce a response. We considered
frivolous complaints and whether they should become a disciplinary
issue. We ran up against the fundamental right, which is so basic
to the operations of the House of Commonsunderstandably
we were reluctant to damage itthe fundamental right of
every Member of Parliament to free speech in his activities as
a Member of Parliament. Can you see a way of cutting the knot
so that one can do something effective to deter frivolous references
without damaging the fundamental freedom that we all protect?
(Mr Major) Members of Parliament are free spirits.
If I had been able, in my own time, to stop people doing stupid
things undoubtedly I would have done so. It is not always possible
to do that. It is even possible for a clot to be elected as a
Member of Parliament, so he may then behave in a "clottish"
fashion. You cannot predetermine that people will not do things.
The only suggestion I can make is that if you get frivolous representations,
the Committee, in its report, should make it clear that they are
frivolous. That would be quite a deterrent. No doubt if a Member
of Parliament were told by this Committee that he had behaved
like a two-year old in making a frivolous or stupidly partisan
complaint, and if that happened once or twice, with the attendant
publicity in his constituency, he would be warned off. Since those
frivolous complaints put other Members' reputations at risk, I
would have no hesitation in suggesting that if the Commissioner
so advises that it is frivolous, that this Committee should make
that absolutely clear in any report that it issues or directly
from the Chairman to the Member concerned. I do not have a better
suggestion than that. Saying publicly that they have behaved like
a clot is the only sanction that credibly we are likely to have
19. On sanctions, our armoury of sanctions is
somewhat limited. We can reprimand, we can require an apology
and we can suspend. I confess to being among a very small minority
on the Committee in what I suggest. It seems to me logical that
as suspension means that constituents are deprived of the parliamentary
services of a Member of Parliament for say, two, three or four
weeks, that we should embrace a system of fines as an intermediate
way and that suspension should be seen as a very severe punishment.
When a Member is suspended he loses his salary for that period
anyway so a fine is built into the system. Therefore I do not
see any intellectual argument against having a fine capability
(free-standing as well as implicit) in the final stage which is
the suspension with loss of pay. What would you feel about us
having a fine system?
(Mr Major) I may be in an even bigger minority than
you, though not being a member of the Committee I will not know
this. I do not agree with suspensions from the House of Commons,
even if a Member of Parliament has behaved badly, they are there
to represent their constituents, they are sent there by their
constituents not by us. I do not as a matter of principle like
to see a Member of Parliament who has been properly elected suspended
from his responsibilities whatever he or she may have done. If
you wish to look at a wider range of sanctions and someone has
behaved quite appallingly, then I would have thought an arraignment
at the bar of the House would be better than suspension. I think
that would make the point just as well, but I do not like suspension
because I think we are taking away from a constituency the right
to be represented. That may be more theoretical than real