Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 20 - 39)

WEDNESDAY 14 FEBRUARY 2001

THE RT HON JOHN MAJOR

  20. That is my view.
  (Mr Major)—in many respects but I just have an unease about saying to a particular constituency that, "Your Member of Parliament may not stand up in the House of Commons and represent your view." Who knows, that may be the week in which he or she has a large redundancy in his or her constituency. I just do not like it. I have not given any thought to a range of alternative sanctions though I would have thought that the thing a Member would least like would be a formal arraignment at the bar of the House for misconduct.

Mr Levitt

  21. Mr Major, I want to come back to the question of lawyers on the Committee as MPs. You talked about the preference for having a smaller Committee and that would imply a far greater proportion of lawyers on it than we have at present. Do you not see an argument for having a Committee of a standard size which reflects the political balance within the House and is also big enough to reflect the different experiences both in time and in the outside world that Members have had before joining this Committee? Added to that, no other Select Committee specifies any sort of qualification, as far as I understand, for Members. So is not this arrangement that we have at present a better one?
  (Mr Major) I do not think they specify it but I rather fancy the "usual channels" look quite carefully at who is nominated for particular committees, so there may be no formal specification but I think suitability for a committee is often lurking in the back of the mind of those who are responsible for encouraging people to be nominated for a particular Committee. As to the size of the Committee, I do not feel very strongly about this but it just seems to me that this is quite a large Committee. I think the workload that exists on Members of Parliament in many ways is growing. I think that is one reason for not having large committees over a particular size. Why should one be stuck with a particularly rigid size of Committee? If the Committee is delving into the private life in many ways of a Member of Parliament, the more discreetly that is done by a representative number of Members the better, and I do not necessarily see why it should be done by a large committee. I personally think it might be done equally effectively by a smaller one. This is not one of the important points I made. I just think on balance there are occasions, we all know occasions, where this Committee is going to be delving with very great detail into the activities of a Member of Parliament, the Member of Parliament may be called upon to give evidence, and that may be very detailed evidence in many ways, and I think a small committee might have something to commend it in those particular circumstances. As to the balance of the Committee, if you have more lawyers -and you do not seem to have too many at the moment so I do not think you are too out of kilter. I am not sure whether you are representative of the House of Commons as a whole in terms of the number of lawyers in the House and the number of lawyers you have proportionately on this Committee. Possibly not. A very distinguished lot lawyers and a lot of them are in the House of Commons. So it is a matter of choice and you cannot be certain who is right. I would have a slightly smaller committee and I would ensure that it was a little more peppered with lawyers than you are at present. I may be the only person in the country speaking up for lawyers; I feel rather isolated.

  22. I would not want Michael Foster to believe I was criticising him in any way! On the question of trivial complaints we only discuss a relatively small proportion of the complaints that the Commissioner receives because there is that filtering process that goes on there, so therefore the very trivial ones or the ones that miss the mark completely in terms of not being in the terms of reference of this Committee do not come to us at all. Is there a danger, looking back, having been part of the process of setting up this Committee, that we act as a magnet for complaints? Do you think complaints are generated because there is a system for registering those complaints?
  (Mr Major) Quite possibly. We are caught on the horns of a dilemma there. Either you have no independent investigative procedure and we revert to the pre-Nolan situation, or you do have an investigative procedure and there is the possibility that it will act as a magnet for complaints. Yes, of course, that must be the case; it might well do.

  23. One of the things that frustrates us, although it is something we have to live with, is the fact that not only MPs but anyone can give a complaint to this Committee. We have been particularly frustrated with some complaints that have come to us sourcing from journalists who tend to give a running commentary over the weeks for those complaints without knowing what is going on in this Committee, based entirely on speculation and the case which they themselves have brought. Clearly we have discussed ways of admonishing Members for bringing trivial complaints. Do you think there is any way we can get the fifth estate to exercise more restraint in the way they cover the activities of the Committee?
  (Mr Major) I never managed to persuade them to exercise restraint. I failed dismally in that. Though I bow to no-one of course in my admiration for journalism, I utterly failed in any endeavour to persuade them to exercise constraint in any way. This is a problem; I do not have a solution for it. I can think of one instance of one prominent Member of this House who had a complaint levied against him by a backbench Member who was invited to do so by a newspaper and I dare say that is not an isolated incident. Of course once the complaint had been made, it being a prominent Member, it then produced a very large amount of publicity simply because of the identity of the complainee. That plainly is an abuse of good journalism. I do not know how you stop it; I wish I did.

  24. My final question, chair, is on the question of what should be declared to try and get round this problem of speeches which is clearly at the back of your mind throughout the writing of your contribution to this Committee. There are some people within the House who would like to see all Members' income declared even that which is not directly related to the membership of this House. This Committee does not share that view but nevertheless it is a view which exists. I think there are grey areas within the definition of what relates to income relating to one's membership in Parliament as opposed to advocacy which is easier to define, and clearly your own case did raise those issues, as you said yourself. I think if we are in the position where we have to look at the content of people's speeches as opposed to just their earnings from them to decide whether advocacy is going on or not, we are right to err on the side of saying that income from speeches that do result as a result of having held office within this House should be included. Can you accept that following your own argument from earlier on that it would involve looking at the content of the speeches to find out whether they were advocacy or not or stemming from membership or not, and we really do not want to get into that?
  (Mr Major) Advocacy primarily is advocacy to Ministers and the House of Commons on behalf of a special interest. If you are speaking to a special interest group, you are hardly advocating something directly to Ministers or the House of Commons, so I think to a certain extent there is a misconception there. As far as declaration of income is concerned, let us take two MPs, one of them (since we are much concentrating on lawyers) is a lawyer; the other one is not, the other one is a silver-tongued Mayor of London, to take a purely dispassionate example. The Member of Parliament who is a lawyer declares (of course because it is publicly known) his parliamentary income. He does not declare his income from his legal activities. The MP who is a silver-tongued Mayor of London does declare his income, self-evidently for it is known being a Member of Parliament, but if he makes three speeches a year apparently on behalf of the same agency he must declare what he earns from that agency, which I believe is a misinterpretation of parliamentary resolutions but I think that was what this Committee ruled in that particular case. Where is the difference between the MP making three speeches at the request of a particular agency and a lawyer taking three cases from the same clerk or the same chambers? Where is the difference? I do not see any difference in that. I see none at all. The fact of the matter is, if I can examine the point of the MP with his speeches yet again, he may have taken three speeches from the same agency that arranged them but they were not to the same audience, they were not on the same subject and they did not involve advocacy. Because we have slipped down the route with regular newspaper columns into speeches, I think we have over-interpreted what the original parliamentary resolution said. I know this Committee took that view and I believe this Committee was wrong to take that view, but that does not matter. What does matter now is whether we can have a consistency of rules. There ought to be a consistency between an MP who is a lawyer and his activities and an MP who happens to be silver-tongued and is in demand for speeches in his activities. The question in both cases should be are they using their position as a Member of Parliament to advocate (presumably to the Government and Ministers) particular courses of events, in which case it is an abuse of their position in the House of Commons. That is the test.

  25. I think where this Committee might disagree with that is that the silver-tongued person, whether Mayor of London or ex-Prime Minister, is being asked to do that speech because he is a Member of Parliament. The lawyer is being asked to take on a case irrespective of whether he is a Member of Parliament but perhaps we should let it lie there.
  (Mr Major) I tried to deal with that point earlier. If I am trying to undertake speeches because I am a Member of Parliament, why are my speeches stretching long beyond my membership of this House and why are my speeches to audiences abroad most of whom can have no interest in any advocacy I did make in this House (although I make none) and to audiences who do not even know I am a Member of Parliament. There is a danger of getting too narrow a definition. If you circumscribe Members of Parliament too harshly, apart from any other consideration, you are going to restrict the numbers of people who come to this House. I think that would be a loss. I do not think we wish to do that. I think the test should be are they abusing their position as a Member of Parliament? Are they using their position as Member of Parliament and abusing it? I think that should be the test that should concern the House of Commons.

Shona McIsaac

  26. Thank you for your contribution, Mr Major, it is very helpful, but I do want clarification on some of the points you have raised. I would like to know your views on how this Committee or the House would come up with a definition that would, with clarity and no ambiguity, enshrine what activities come directly from membership of the House? How on earth could we come up with that?
  (Mr Major) If you cannot how can a Member know whether he is abusing his position or not? That is the question. If you cannot tell the House of Commons what is an abuse of their position how and why should a Member be held up to castigation if he does not know? You define exactly the point at issue; if they do not know, how can they be held up to public rebuke because they did not believe they were misbehaving and a subsequent interpretation post-event suggests that they were? That is what we need to avoid because that is not only grotesquely unfair to you, if it happened to you, but it is very damaging to the House of Commons. With respect to you, that is the bigger issue, if you continually have these references in the House of Commons and it is then adjudged that a Member has misbehaved, the perception of the world outside is that Members of Parliament are abusing their position, behaving badly. This is not good for Government—it does not matter who is in office—and it is not good for the reputation of the House of Commons. You have got to have clarity to diminish that. I do not suppose you will ever end it—I concede that—but you can certainly diminish it. We frame complex legislation every day of the week; that is what we are here for, so we ought to be able to frame rules for our own conduct.

  27. Do you believe Members understand the rules relating to the registering of interests, the Code of Conduct?
  (Mr Major) You would know the answer to that better than I do, but I think in some cases they have not. I think there have been genuine misunderstandings as to what is registerable. I forget who said earlier that they were complex. Actually you said they were complex, now I come to think of it, in paragraph 2 of your consultation document which is here somewhere. I think you say "the rules relating to the conduct of Members are detailed and stringent"; clearly they are.

  28. They certainly are but would you also agree that there are many examples in the world outside Parliament where ignorance of rules is not considered an adequate defence? You are suggesting that ignorance—
  (Mr Major) "ignorantia juris non excusat" is the motto you are searching for.

  29. I am not a scholar of Latin.
  (Mr Major) It is about the only one I know so thank you for giving me the opportunity of using it. I would of course use it after the press have gone! There is a lawyer present who will correct me. I think that is the legal term for ignorance of the law. I think that is right, but we have to set out rules to minimise the danger of ignorance. I do not think we have at the moment. It is possible to enshrine in straightforward resolutions the broad conclusions this Committee has reached over the last five years, if it is felt right to do so, so that they are perfectly clear. For example, when a reference is first made (I should have mentioned this point earlier) the complainant should indicate to the Commissioner and to the Member about whom they are complaining which Parliamentary resolution they believe they have infringed. When the Commissioner decides to take up a case, as a matter of course the Member of Parliament should be told which particular resolution they have infringed and I think that should be absolutely clear and apparent.

  30. You feel this should be done right at the beginning?
  (Mr Major) Members need to know what they have done. If it is unclear what they have done then it is pretty difficult to pursue them and pretty unfair to pursue them.

  31. Of course it is not just us interpreting the rules but the Commissioner.
  (Mr Major) Of course, but if the Member complaining cannot tell you what rule he thinks you have infringed, why is he complaining? I am complaining about you, let us say, if I cannot tell you what you have done wrong, I think you would be quite right to think that I was playing a silly, partisan political game. I think it is equally right when the Commissioner takes up the case which says you or I have misbehaved that they say, "We think you may have failed to acknowledge resolution whatever it may be passed by the House on such-and-such a date." Let there be clarity about that. I bet if you were to ask some of the Members who have had their cases referred to you, they would not be clear about exactly what it was they were supposed to have done wrong and I think that could be amended relatively easily and should be, and with advantage should be.

  32. I have also said that you are concerned about the intrusive nature of some of the investigations that have been conducted, but on the other hand you acknowledge that when investigations are underway quite often somebody's private life has to be gone into in quite considerable detail.
  (Mr Major) That is why I am quite keen to knock out those that are not relevant. Forgive me for using a personal case but I will; when my own particular case was referred to this Committee, it was known from the outset that the then Registrar had advised me on the entry and had agreed the entry when I submitted it, and that was known not because I said so but because the Registrar immediately said so himself. It was an awful long time before my case was finally determined. I was grateful for the determination the Committee reached but it took a long time for it to happen. In the intervening period there was a vast weight of extremely unpleasant publicity. The concept that having been referred to the Committee and it being examined and therefore there was something wrong, the presumption of innocence until being found guilty of misconduct worked precisely in the opposite way and that is a danger. In my case it turned out perfectly alright. It did involve a huge amount of time and trouble for me and for the Commissioner and no doubt for this Committee. I think we need to try and avoid that. If a Member has been advised clearly—and the Commissioner was generous enough in her report to this Committee to make it clear that I had accepted the Registrar's advice in all respects—and I think where that occurs in future, if that occurs in future, even if it is deemed that the Registrar of the day, heaven forfend, might have made a mistake, then I think straightaway the complaint ought to be dismissed and the Commissioner should say, "We think the Registrar made a mistake. Next time you submit a registration do X, Y and Z." This Committee need not then be bothered with that.

  33. You said it took quite a long time for your case to be determined. How long was it?
  (Mr Major) Quite a few months.

  34. A few months and you feel that was because of the amount of detail that was gone into?
  (Mr Major) I do not know, I am not a member of the Committee.

  35. You were the one under investigation.
  (Mr Major) You may have a queue and if you have a queue and you deal with them in that respect then another Member against whom a complaint has been registered stays at the back of that queue until the matter is determined.

  36. Can I clarify one other point you brought up in the course of our discussions. Are you saying you feel that the private lives of Members of Parliament should be excluded from investigation because, of course, as I think Mr Williams said, the rules do talk about "openness", "honesty", "integrity".
  (Mr Major) I would stand on the answer I gave Alan Williams earlier that the inquiry should relate to the breach of a parliamentary resolution, no less and no more.

  37. So to take using somebody's gym as an example you would consider that as not relating to their membership of the House?
  (Mr Major) It does not seem to me that that is a very serious offence in any event, hardly worthy of the attention of this Committee.

  38. Forgetting to register an event you went to?
  (Mr Major) I think that is a relatively trivial thing too. In that sort of instance I think the Commissioner should be empowered—maybe she is I do not know—to say, "You should have registered it. I do not think we need to bother the Committee about this. I have spoken to the Chairman. Just register." She is nodding so I see that she does, excellent, that is what should happen.

Mr Bottomley

  39. Can I just clear one thing out of the way. Most of the requirements which would apply to you are not exactly onerous; is that right?
  (Mr Major) Can you define "onerous"?


 
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