Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 60 - 77)



  60. Yes.
  (Mr Major) And I understand that concern, but I am not entirely sure I share it. I am trying to remember whether it was Oscar Wilde or not who asked a lady whether she would spend the night with him for £1 million and she wondered about it—

Mr Levitt

  61. George Bernard Shaw.
  (Mr Major) He then asked a similar question for a much lesser sum, sixpence let us say, at which point the lady was outraged and said, "What do you think I am?" "Well, we know what you are," said Shaw, "all we are haggling about is the price." The analogy I would draw from that is that this House has the right to know that such speeches are being made and whether he is being paid sixpence or more seems to be less relevant than the fact that such speeches are being made should be known. The key again turns upon what the subject is. Was it arising from his membership of the House or was it arising from his general public profile which preceded his membership of the House? That is not clear. I think it is at least as arguable that it is the former as it is the latter. I think in the case of former Ministers that is equally the case, not necessarily just Prime Ministers but former Ministers. There are former Ministers on both sides of the House and former senior members of the Liberal Democratic Party as well who make such speeches. I am perfectly sanguine about the effect of that being known but I do not see why they should have to declare the amounts and be caught under the relatively artificial ambit of an "employment agreement", and again I put that in inverted commas. If they are earning extra money doing something additional so are lawyers and so are many other people. We are not asked to declare, nor should we in my judgment, how much we earn. I keep coming back to the crucial point. The point at issue is are they abusing their membership of the House? I do not think that they are. I think that is the crucial issue. I think there is a danger of over-regulation and there is a danger of asking for such information—I know some people feel strongly about it and I dare say you do—but there is a general disadvantage to the House of Commons if we get ourselves into that position. I would not like to discourage people from coming to this House because we have got a system of regulation that begins to become too invasive.

Mr Campbell-Savours

  62. In the case of the lawyer, the fees he charges for representing someone in court relate a client. It is a matter between the client and lawyer. Surely you cannot compare that with a Member of Parliament who can go out and earn hundreds of thousands of pounds on this speaking circuit, when almost entirely (certainly in the case of the Mayor of London) all that income arose out of discussing matters relating to the House of Commons and activities in the House of Commons.
  (Mr Major) But you have just raised a new dimension in the content of the speeches. Speeches that many other people make bear no relationship to their work as a Member of Parliament. The rules at the moment state quite clearly are they "providing services in their capacity as an MP"? It is arguable if they are making speeches about currently political matters in this country that they are, that is arguable, but if they are making speeches unrelated to domestic political affairs in the United Kingdom as they currently are, if they are talking about historical matters or foreign affairs or international economics, then they plainly are not providing a service in the form of a speech in their capacity as an MP. I come back to the point I made at the outset; one has to be clear what the definition means. Some people may fall within the definition—and as you have re-described it perhaps that case does—but in other cases it certainly does not. If your point clarifies anything, it clarifies the need for the rules to be unambiguous and to state what qualifies as a "service in their capacity as a Member of Parliament". For example, suppose the person concerned, a mythical MP, is not talking about current political events but about something utterly unconnected with politics—I happen to spend a lot of my time (not in paid speeches, I hasten to add) talking about the Magna Carta, it is a particular interest of mine, I know a certain amount about it—unless he has been a Member of Parliament since 1215 it unlikely to relate in any way to his membership of the House of Commons.

  63. John, to my mind you have set up a compartment in which what you do somehow is unrelated to Westminster.
  (Mr Major) It would be improper to give you names but I could give you, and so could the Commissioner, the names of ten other Members who fall into that sort of capacity, maybe more.

  64. Ken Clarke may be in this box as well that you are seeking to erect. I cannot see how you can separate foreign affairs, economics, whether it is domestic or international, and perhaps even the Magna Carta from the very institution of Parliament. We are not talking here about nuclear physics or engineering or aspects of chemistry which clearly are totally unrelated. What you are talking about in your speeches are matters deriving directly from your activities as a Member of Parliament and formerly Prime Minister.
  (Mr Major) What does "in their capacity as an MP" mean? What does "may offer advice about parliamentary matters" mean? That is what the rules say. That is the rule you are trying to link onto these miscellaneous Members of Parliament. Are they offering advice about Parliamentary matters if they discuss the Magna Carta? Certainly not contemporary, that is for certain sure. Are they doing it in their capacity as an MP? MPs have lives outside the House of Commons as well. The point where I agree with you is if they are making speeches that involve advocacy of one sort of another relating to current political or economic events under consideration by the House of Commons and Ministers, then you are plainly right, but if they are not I think you are catching people that ought not to be caught. In order to deal with a few you are catching the many.

  65. If we take the nuclear engineer who does the "rubber chicken" circuit—
  (Mr Major) We must get you a few more invitations and then you will know what is it is called.

  66. If we take a nuclear physicist I could understand you putting that case, but you are not; you are putting the case for you and a number of your colleagues—
  (Mr Major) Let's be quite clear about that, I said expressly earlier that ex-Prime Ministers do fall into a different category—

  67. I withdraw that.
  (Mr Major) I have not come here to plead my particular case. After all I am leaving the House of Commons. The next ex-Prime Minister may have this problem—who knows when—but I am not going to have it.

  68. You are putting the case for a group of Members who will perhaps come later but they will all be talking on matters which relate to matters which are dealt with in Parliament such as foreign affairs. They are those sorts of areas, they are political areas. Would you be doing this circuit if you were not a Member of Parliament?
  (Mr Major) Yes, and I will be doing it when I am not a Member of Parliament.

  69. On what basis? If you had not been—
  (Mr Major) That is a different question—if I had not been a Member of Parliament. Are you suggesting that I should register when I am no longer here? Of course you are not because I will not be making representations, and nor am I now—exactly my point.

  70. What I am saying to you is if you had not been a Member of Parliament and had not been Prime Minister (which arose out of you being a Member of Parliament) you would not be invited to make all these speeches on matters relating to economics and international politics. Whereas the nuclear engineer would have been in a completely different category because he would have been a nuclear engineer before he was elected.
  (Mr Major) You are forgetting what the rules are for and you are forgetting from whence the rules came. The rules were built up because of a distaste for paid advocacy and consultancies. That is where the rules came from. I think you have battened onto it your puritanical distaste for people making large sums of money out of making speeches.

  71. No.
  (Mr Major) Maybe not.

  72. They can earn it but they should reveal it.
  (Mr Major) What you should batten onto it is the idea that they have to submit copies of "employment agreements" because they are providing services in their capacity as an MP. They are not doing it in their capacity as an MP and neither, in my judgement, are they offering advice about Parliamentary matters. If their speeches are offering advice about Parliamentary matters, then you are right, but I think in many cases they are not. I think the generalist rule that they all necessarily are because they happen to be a Member of Parliament is not sustainable.

  73. I can only finally say that you are arguing that in the case of the Mayor of London—
  (Mr Major) Forget the Mayor of London. I do not know the details of that case. It was a flippant illustration which I am beginning to regret. It is the general principle not the Mayor of London case. You dealt with that case, not me.

  74. In the case covered by the Seventh Report of this Committee, the fact he earned £220,000 in 18 months should not necessarily be made public?
  (Mr Major) It depends what the speeches were about.

  75. They were about Parliament.
  (Mr Major) I do not know that. If you mean on the general principle that a Member of Parliament makes money by making speeches, should they necessarily declare the amount, I would say only if that money directly relates from services they have offered relevant to their membership of the House of Commons. If they relate to other matters the fact that they made speeches, fine, but it is too invasive to ask them to declare the amounts and I refer back, thanks to my erudite colleagues on my right, to the George Bernard Shaw illustration.

Mr Williams

  76. Can I make a point of clarification, Chairman. John, you referred to the fact that you had been given wrong advice—
  (Mr Major) No, I do not think I was.

  77. At one stage what you said was that where wrong advice was given that should not be held against an individual. Do bear in mind that when we dealt with the reference of your case, it so happened that when it arrived in the Committee I was temporarily chairing it—and no doubt the Chairman would have given exactly the same ruling—and a rule was given straightaway that where a Member had acted in good faith on wrong advice then this Committee would never find a Member guilty.
  (Mr Major) That was specifically set out in the Committee's report, but I do not think I was given the wrong advice because the Committee upheld the advice I was given by the previous Registrar, but the danger exists that that could happen. That was probably the point I was making. I cannot remember at this distance in time. I have no criticism of Roger Willoughby, I think he gave me good advice and I think the Commissioner confirmed he gave me good advice in her report, and this Committee acknowledged it. It did set down the useful principle that Members would not be criticised if they acted in good faith, which I think is a wise principle.

  Chairman: We are very grateful to you for your valuable evidence.

  Mr Bottomley: I think I should point out that while Mr Major was giving evidence about the Magna Carta the debate in the House of Lords was about the role of Parliament in calling government to account, which is not quite Magna Carta but it is getting close.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

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