Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. If you have people who are acting as your agents to arrange speaking engagements there is a written record to inform the Registrar—and I am not getting at you personally—if there is a requirement and in a reasonably well-organised office this information can be provided to the Registrar on a reasonably regular basis?
  (Mr Major) If it is deemed to be relevant; it is not onerous in that sense. The question is is it relevant and is it necessary for the purpose for which these rules were originally intended to operate? That is the question. There are all sorts of things that can be done that are not onerous but are not necessary either. The point is not whether they are onerous; the point is whether they are necessary.

  41. It was an ambiguous question. In terms of the sausage machine of fulfilling a requirement, right or wrong, is not the complication in this case; it is whether it is an appropriate requirement to put on somebody. "Onerous" in that sense, I am willing to accept. If I turn it the other way round and think of one of my experiences as a Minister when I had a Member of Parliament who was persistently pushing, privately and publicly, in the Commons and in my office, for something which, first of all, I thought was unjustified on the facts and, secondly, I thought he had an improper relationship with a trade association, and if he was barred from taking money for advocacy, which he now would be, I am interested in the various ways that the interests behind him could get money to him evading the rules. I think to myself they could say to him, "You write a book and we will pay you £200,000 for the book", and the man goes on pushing and pushing at the thing that may be of interest to the people behind him. Or I could think they may say, "We can give you gifts up to £235 without registering them. Why don't we give you these gifts two or three times a week and hope there is not a catch-all?" Or they may say, "Why don't you come and talk to an associated firm involved in something totally different and we will do it that way." I ask the question: should we try to have the rules so that that kind of thing could be investigated (because it is clearly an abuse of what the Nolan principles of openness and therefore no paid advocacy are) or do we say, "The rules are simple, abide by simplistic rules, we cannot touch you"?
  (Mr Major) On the book issue you would not be touched. There is nothing, as far as I am aware, in the rules to pick up that sort of thing were it to happen. I think it would be fairly unusual. It is quite an onerous proposition to write a book in any event, as I can inform the Committee from personal experience. I do not think that would be caught by the rules now. If people continue to get £235 perhaps this is an occasion where people should be told if their collective gifts of that sort exceed a certain amount during any calendar year they should register them, so that if they did not they would be guilty of abuse. As far as getting speeches from an associated firm is concerned, as I said earlier, I think that is probably why this Committee decided to register the question of speeches. But I wonder how frequently that would happen. Very rarely. I can think of a lot of Members of this House who make speeches without any paid advocacy because of their experience in public affairs or whatever, and many of them ex-Ministers from both of the major parties. I have suggested already a way in which we could cope with that by them making a clear-cut declaration in the register that their speeches are utterly unconnected with advocacy or active work in the House of Commons as a Member of Parliament. I think we should ask them to make that declaration. I advocate that; I think that is the right thing to do. If it turns out then that they have received money for that then they are guilty of a very serious breach of the rules and this Committee would deal with them no doubt very severely. I think that is a better way than setting out a rule on the off-chance that somebody may abuse the system that catches a very large number of people that are not abusing the system. The simpler we keep these rules the better. The more complex we make these rules the more impossible we make the job of the Commissioner, and I do not think that is in anyone's interests.

  42. Can I switch subject to lawyers, not lawyers on the Committee which you have talked about. Would I have your agreement that if Members find themselves being asked questions by the Commissioner the Member both has a duty and will help themselves if they give frank answers to the Commissioner as soon as they can rather than doing it through the intermediary of a lawyer who may find all sorts of reasons to delay or create a fog?
  (Mr Major) I think that is the right thing to do, yes of course. That does not mean that you might not benefit from the dispassionate advice of a lawyer in how to reply to be sure that your reply is honest and straightforward and not open to misconception because the questions the Commissioner asks legitimately may require quite complex answers. It is the duty of the Member to make sure his answer is as unambiguous as I am suggesting the rules should be in the first place. The reason I took legal advice was to make sure that the answers I gave to questions the Commissioner was bound to put to me because of the reference were clear and were accurate, and I did not through ignorance, or through any other reason, provide a misleading reply to the Commissioner. I went to a lawyer for that reason and no other reason.

  43. To use you as an example in this case, you sent your own letters to the Commissioner having taken advice and you applied the Nolan principles to your answers which is that you were open and you were transparent and you were helpful?
  (Mr Major) I hope I was. Thank you. The Commissioner says yes, so I am happy to confirm the Commissioner's judgment.

  44. Moving on to the suggestion about MPs where it has become a convention of the House if an MP is thinking of referring another MP to the Commissioner, that makes a lot of sense, but on the other side of it there is no difficulty in a Member of Parliament saying, "Here is a complaint that ought to be made about this MP, I do not want to do it myself, I will pass it to an ordinary member of the public or a journalist." That would be a way round it, would it not?
  (Mr Major) Yes, it would. Except that there would be one difference, I think. If a complaint was made by a member of the public to this Committee it is unlikely to generate the same newspaper coverage as a complaint by a fellow Member of Parliament.

Shona McIsaac

  45. Yes it does.
  (Mr Major) You may have practical experience of it. I am surprised that is the case.

Mr Bottomley

  46. Can I put a final point. I want to put it to you that part of the job of the media is to gather up all the dirt, sort it out, try to work out what matters, and then make available to all what is known to a few. That is a process which can be pretty damaging and damning, but I am right in thinking it is not a process one should try to interfere with?
  (Mr Major) I do not know how one can interfere with it. It is extremely painful for the people on the sharp end of the publicity that follows but it is difficult to know how you can deal with it. I certainly never found a way and I have not discovered a way post-office any more than I did in office. I am open to suggestions.

  Mr Bottomley: Just to say as a way of winding up, many of the cases of injustice I have fought, some right, some wrong, some successful, some not, were because a journalist had bothered to look into something and made it available, and I think the same thing has applied in some cases where Members of Parliament have rightly been held to account for things they have done but which most people did not know about.

Mr Campbell-Savours

  47. I have been on the Committee since 1983 and I have seen a lot of changes over the years. The biggest changes have come in recent years following reform which you effectively introduced and I am convinced you were right to change the way we worked. Can I ask you about the question of the lawyer to whom you referred. At one stage earlier on you referred to him being "in-house". Does that mean you foresee some sort of lawyer who would be available to Members coming before the Committee who would be retained by the House authorities and would always be the same lawyer so he would have a developing expertise as to how the system worked? Is that what you are advocating?
  (Mr Major) That is what I was advocating as the least bad option.

  48. That is fair enough. I just wanted to get that on the record. Secondly, you also said earlier on that lawyers were appointed to deal with interpretation of the rules. Is that what you said before?
  (Mr Major) Whether I used those words that was certainly the sense of what I had in mind, yes.

  49. Could I put it to you that in my experience lawyers are being employed because they believe that the proceedings of the Committee are such that very often the person being complained about feels that their human rights are being infringed and they are questioning the whole legal proceedings and the basis on which we proceed in this Committee. Have you come across that in your experience?
  (Mr Major) I have heard that some Members feel that; that was not my concern.

  50. That was not your concern?
  (Mr Major) No, that was not the concern that I was raising. My concern was on the narrower point. The House of Commons have set out resolutions. There is sometimes a lack of clarity about those resolutions and subsequent decisions taken on the basis of those resolutions and I was not entirely clear when I looked at some of them and I know other Members were not. I needed the advice of lawyers (and I believe others did) to discuss with me the interpretation of the rules as set out by the House of Commons. It is was on that narrow point that I was operating. I was not suggesting that they needed the wider advice that you referred to in terms of human rights.

  51. Can I in defence of the Commissioner—
  (Mr Major) I was not attacking the Commissioner; you do not need to defend the Commissioner.

  52. On the question of the gym, which was one of the Commissioner's inquiries, whilst you can be sure there was a lot debate about that matter, the reason why it was filed was because Archer was applying to be Mayor of London and that was one of the reasons why it was felt there may be a connection. I can tell you there was a lot of discussion about that particular issue in the Committee. Can I turn to the question of reports. You have talked about the damage to Members and you will know that in the case of some reports where the complaint has not been upheld, following the publication of the Commissioner's report, and with all the detail in that report, Members have felt that they have been damaged. Do you have any view as to whether in circumstances where a complaint is not upheld that the Commissioner's report that the Committee publish should be abbreviated in any way, that there should be an abbreviated version of that report perhaps excluding some of the detail if the complaint is not upheld? I am dealing with it in the context of damage to Members.
  (Mr Major) I can think of the reports you have in mind. I had not given that any consideration. I can answer off the top of my head but I cannot honestly say to you that it is a mature judgment, so I start with that qualification. If the Committee chose to exclude some of the detail from the report, I personally think that would be possible. But I see the difficulties the Committee would have in this doing it and I see the problems that would arise subsequently if the Committee did it. Let us take a high profile Member of Parliament who had been referred—and clearly whether one admits it or not the higher the profile of the Member of Parliament the more difficulty this Committee is in if they do not examine it—that is the first problem in terms of the world outside. They examine it, look at lots of details, if then they excluded from their report—

  53. Not their report, the Commissioner's. There are two different reports, the Commissioner's report and the Committee's report.
  (Mr Major) I will draw that distinction.

  54. The Commissioner's report is always published in its entirety even in cases where the complaint was not upheld.
  (Mr Major) I was thinking of the Committee's report. If you are saying do I think there would be some merit in excluding some of the personal detail from the Commissioner's report, I think the Committee should have the opportunity to do that.

  55. In complaints not upheld?
  (Mr Major) In complaints not upheld. I had not thought of that point, but I think it is a good point and I think there would be some justice in that in complaints not upheld.

  56. Why do you think there is justice in it?
  (Mr Major) Because I think once those matters have been made public, even though the complaint has not been upheld, that does not necessarily mean that the information contained in that particular report is not going to be used by the political opponents of the Member concerned or is not going to give rise to further undesirable publicity in the constituency of that particular Member. This Committee may be wholly just but the world is not. However, you would have to make a judgment on the individual cases. Going back to Shona McIsaac's point, I do not think you could have a general rule there. It would depend upon the nature of the information.

  57. Can I move you on to the important questions which were asked by my colleague here, Alan Williams, which have been the subject of endless debate in the Committee, and that is the distinction of the principles of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership set out in the original document produced by the Committee as against resolutions of the House. Can I tell you that it was arising out of your interpretation and, if I might say so, my interpretation of the original intention of the House, and obviously a majority of the Committee as well, that we found ourselves attacked unrelentingly in the press for not finding, if I can use the term, guilt in the case of a particular Cabinet Minister on one part of a complaint because we refused to interpret the rules in that case on the basis of these principles and we were only prepared to accept a resolution of this House. I was at a meeting this morning where a very prominent Member of the House said to me that we were not doing our job properly and that we defended a Cabinet Minister. When I pointed out to him that the reason why it happened was exactly the same reason you today have used in justifying the answer you have given to us, you can see the dilemma that we very often find ourselves in, that we are discredited as a Committee because we seek to implement a resolution of the House and not go further than the remit set by Parliament in those original resolutions, which is a difficult position.
  (Mr Major) Generalist aspirations often sit very uneasily with detailed regulation. Of course, that is the distinction that has caused you the difficulty, but my position is perfectly clear; your job, your responsibility (and you have no choice) is to interpret the resolutions of the House of Commons not the general aspirations of any preamble. I have not the slightest hesitation in that and I would defend the Committee for doing so.

  58. Can I turn to something where I will disagree with you profoundly, certainly at this stage, but who knows as this debate develops. It is this whole question of revealing sums of money as part of an employment agreement.
  (Mr Major) Sorry, I did not catch that.

  59. Revealing sums of money, remuneration, as part of an employment agreement. You referred to the silver-tongued Mayor, and I think you were being jocular when you put it that way, but there was a particular case which involved a person who subsequently did become the Mayor of London. I put it to you—and I am reading now from the Seventh Report of our Committee a sentence which I preface, do you not think the public were entitled to know that "income amounted to £220,992, of which £158,599 was attributable to regular commitments which ought to have been registered"? Do you not think that a member of the public has a right to know that a Member of Parliament is earning sums of money going into hundreds of thousands of pounds where the engagements carried out arose exclusively out of their membership of the House of Commons? They were invited to speak because they were a prominent Member of Parliament. In this case they went to meetings to discuss matters relating to Parliament. Can you not see that the public would want to know that these sums of money were being earned?
  (Mr Major) I think your concern arises because of the amount of money.

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