Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 78 - 99)




  78. Welcome to the Committee. We have received your notes which we have found very useful indeed. Can I begin with the point you make about frivolous and vexatious complaints and that there are situations where the Committee dismiss these or issue mild rebukes for quite trivial matters but these are made a great deal of in the press and in the media which is to the disadvantage of the Member. A great deal of what you say seems to take account of this. Would like to elaborate on that, please.
  (Mr Clarke) I suppose that was the main point that I made in my letter; I am rather surprised that you have asked me to come and give evidence upon it but it is something on which I do have clears views and I rely mainly on the letter I have sent to this Committee to express them. My concern is that this Committee was set up in order to protect the reputation of the House but also to protect the actual conduct of the House as well, to make sure that our proceedings were not tainted by misconduct by Members. Unfortunately, I think that by and large most of its time is taken up with complaints of very little substance or even very little importance, but these are all regarded as quite newsworthy by the outside world and they are reported in a fairly dramatic way. If you look at the list of Members who have been complained against, it is a list of just about every well known Member of the House whose name is likely to arouse public interest. I feel that the reporting of these frequent complaints and the formal inquiry and the publication of reports has fed an impression that this House is now riddled with sleaze and impropriety and I do not think it is. I am one of those politicians who no doubt will be accused of complacency by saying that I think we do have one of the most honest systems in the world. You have to look to Scandinavia for a rival. However, a recent poll showed that I think 47 per cent of the public thought that the Labour Party was riddled with sleaze and only 49 per cent now believe that the Conservative Party was. This may be associated with several spectacular scandals where there has been impropriety, but actually I think it is an exaggerated notion and it is fed by the constant sequence of complaints against people which turn out to be made for party political reasons, made by someone who is actually in collusion with the newspaper that wants to have the right to produce it and which just gives rise to a flurry of excitement about nothing. One suggestion that I put forward in my letter for dealing with this would be that where the allegation appears, the Committee could begin by saying, "Even if true, does this have a bearing on this Member of Parliament's conduct in the House of Commons? Were the allegation true, do we believe that the Member's voice or his vote might sensibly be regarded as influenced by this?" If the answer is "No", then it does not seem to me to be a complaint that goes to the underlying point of this Committee and it should not be taken up. In my letter—I cite too that I have tried to be bipartisan—I think the complaint against William Hague on the use of a gymnasium was completely ridiculous. Who on earth thinks that William changes his political views because of his gymnasium? The complaint against John Prescott about the fact that he had a flat which I and every other Member of Parliament has known about for as long as he has been in the House of Commons I think does not imply that John Prescott's political views are formed by a sense of obligation to the National Union of Seamen. I could add more and I do refer to the one which actually did not cause me any damage when I was linked with Tony Blair when we were mildly rebuked by the Committee for not declaring that we had not paid a hotel bill at a political conference a few years ago, a conference to which I had paid my own air fare, so I had spent hundreds of pounds attending this conference. I do recall that, at first, neither Tony Blair nor myself found it easy to remember whether we had actually paid for the accommodation or not when we had been there, but both of us were separately investigated. That is not my prime motive, my mild indignation on that occasion rapidly passed and I did not make any protest at the time, but I was lucky that I was a minor victim; I think the others have been held up to public ridicule by complaints which were actually groundless and had not the slightest relationship to their behaviour as Members of Parliament.

  79. Or course there is a great deal of tit-for-tat in all of this. I was expecting rather more in the run-up to the General Election but I hope that that expectation is not going to be realised.
  (Mr Clarke) I am keeping away from the Michael Portillo case because that is obviously partisan and it is obviously a pre-Election one but that is the one current in the press at the moment. Again, I am not going to intrude upon the Committee's role of deciding whether or not they are going to investigate it but, amongst the reports of the allegation that Michael Portillo has not made proper disclosure of his relationship with an oil exploration company, I have seen at least two references to the suggestion that perhaps he advocated a reduction in the fuel tax last year because of his connection with an oil exploration company which, so far as I am aware, actually possesses no petrol stations. I do not think that the Members of Parliament who made that allegation believed it for a moment. I do not think the newspapers who reported it believed it for a moment. Unless it does actually come within the rules bearing on the conduct of Members, I do not think that Michael Portillo is any more obliged than any other Member of Parliament to give full disclosure of all his outside interests and outside earnings. It was never the intention when this Committee was set up and, since time immemorial, the House of Commons has been full of people with outside interests and outside earnings.

  80. A number of matters which you deal with concern failure to register. If these are not terribly important, how do you believe that we should try and achieve some consistency in this?
  (Mr Clarke) I think that a letter from someone acting on behalf of the Committee saying that this has been drawn to the Committee's attention and the advice is that it should be registered would suffice in most cases. If the Member argues that it should not be registered, then you have a debate but that should normally be conducted in private. Again, unless it is suggested that the failure to register could seriously be regarded as a Member trying to keep secret something which is influencing his activities as a Member of Parliament, the whole idea of the Register and the whole idea of the enforcement of these rules on Members has surely been to make sure that no one speaks in the House of Commons without people being aware that he may have some private interest affecting his views on the subject. If it does not bear on that, the fact that he has not satisfied public curiosity about his outside activities or earnings seems to me to have very little to do with the House of Commons or this Committee.

  81. The trouble is that failure to register is often put to the Commissioner and then at the same time is given to the press which makes a great deal of it, so any damage done to the Member is at that stage even before it is dismissed or dealt with in a more cursory way, but there is no solution for that.
  (Mr Clarke) There is no solution for that. I think the experience of most of the Members of Parliament against whom complaints have been made—and it is becoming a fairly honourable list; the more publicity conscious of our colleagues will soon be disappointed that they have not yet appeared in this list of people complained against—is that they first realise they have been complained about when they read about the complaint in the newspaper. There is nothing you can do about that but the story runs if it is followed up by the fact that a solemn inquiry is to be held and the Member is to appear before the Committee and so on, and eventually a report with these imposing blue covers appears solemnly analysing the conduct of the Member. If it turns out that he has technically failed to register something that he should have registered, then a minor reproof is issued that the Member was technically at fault. In some cases, this minor reproof is written up in a fairly racy way outside. Strangely enough, the Member for whom I had most sympathy was Ken Livingstone who was accused of a failure to register. As far as I could see in the report, he was actually being made subject to new rules rather than the established ones and he was subjected to blazing publicity about his alleged fall from standards of conduct on complaints which turned out to be made in the name of a man who did not know he had complained at the volition of Ken Livingstone's then political opponents.

Mr Williams

  82. Could I follow up on this topic of frivolous and vexatious. As a Committee, we are desperately worried about this because there is no doubt that there has been to a lesser extent frivolous but more importantly vexatious and deliberately malicious references. Our problem has been that, when we discuses it internally, we keep running across the argument that of course one of the most fundamental rights of the House of Commons is the right to free speech. It seems to me that to identify frivolous, a lesser problem, and vexatious, a very serious problem, is not to stop people exercising their freedom of speech, it is subsequently, having used their freedom of speech, to face the consequences if they have misused their freedom of speech. What is your view—I suspect that you have already implied it—and what do you think should be done where, a Member having used the privileges of this House to say what he wishes to say—and right we are to protect it—is then found to have done so under one or other of these categories?
  (Mr Clarke) In the case of a complaint against the conduct of another Member which is trying to provoke a hearing before this Committee, if it is obvious that it is frivolous and vexatious and I would include, on a quite bipartisan basis, if it is obvious that it is solely motivated by party politics and by no serious belief that there has been any breach of conduct on behalf of a Member, then it should be the complainant who gets the mild reproof from this Committee in the form of a short one line response saying that it has considered the complaint, that it regards it as of no serious foundation and that it believes it was unwise for the Member to make the complaint. I am not sure whether you are trying to get me to the wider question which is a problem for this House, which is what I regard as the growing abuse of privilege on the floor of the House. There are people who get up and make personal attacks on non-politicians sometimes, again sometimes at the request of a newspaper in order to justify safe publication outside, of allegations against individuals. That annoys people and I have occasionally myself become annoyed at listening to people doing it. That is a much bigger question which I would probably like more notice of. The problem is that there are occasions when Members use that privilege in the public interest. There are occasions when some scoundrel outside has silenced every critic and only a Member of Parliament can safely make the allegation. The use of that privilege against Robert Maxwell, for example, at the right time might have led to avoiding a great deal of public damage. So, I would not want to stop Members of Parliament having the privilege. Occasionally, I think Members should be reproved when it is obvious that they have done it clearly frivolously, sometimes in the course of some private squabble of their own with the person they are attacking.

  83. I was not looking at the wider question though I am not saying that that is something that should not be looked at. In our context, we are aware of the fact that we are used as a stepping stone, in some cases, for journalists to be able to make allegations because the fact of a reference having been made is itself reportable.
  (Mr Clarke) As is the nature of the allegation.

  84. When they report that fact, they are getting legal cover from the reality that it is a factual event. This has been a quandary for us and it is a particular quandary for the Commissioner as to how to deal with it because she wants, on the one hand, to be open with the press about the fact and, at the same time, she does not want to damage Members unnecessarily. However, as long as you can get someone to refer a case on the minimum of evidence to this Committee and as long as you can get corroboration that it has been referred, then although often it is trivial—sleaze headlines start this escalation in the use of language and sleaze applies to anything, even something mildly wrong in the view of some people—my personal opinion is that we do have to act against Members who do this deliberately without due evidence and without back-up evidence, though some of my colleagues hold different views on that. I turn to another matter because I want to ask the question of you that I asked of John Major, something which has been at the heart of some of the misunderstandings that have occurred in relation to cases we have dealt with in the last two years. It goes back to the original Nolan Report. Nolan effectively laid down the ten commandments of good conduct for Members, one of which the Commissioner has referred to on various occasions which is the requirement to be open and honest. Obviously we all hope that we are open and honest, but there are occasions when people might quite rightly not be. According to Nolan, that applies to the whole area of an MP's life, not just his conduct in relation to the House of Commons, which has led to a situation where there has been a difference of interpretations. To take something that is not a real case and the one that I put to John Major, if I rent a car and do not disclose to the owner of the car that I have a bad record of car accidents—touch wood I do not—to my mind, that is dishonest and certainly not open but it is also not a matter for this Committee, it is a matter for the hirer, the court, the lawyers, the police and the individual concerned. It is not a matter for this Committee. However, when we went back to the Neill Committee because many of us were concerned about this absolutely all-embracing interpretation of purity which few in this country could aspire to, to my surprise, the reply came back from the Neill Committee that they meant it to be as wide as that. To my mind that is unrealistic and it leads to a great deal of tension between this Committee and the Back-Benchers because we are now having to work to a set of rules which encompassed conduct beyond conduct as Members of Parliament. Would you regard that wide interpretation as being a realistic or a proper rule in relation to judging Members' conduct or would you relate it more closely to work in relation to Parliament?
  (Mr Clarke) I have had a chance of reading the first transcript of the exchange you had on this yesterday with John Major and it came as a new point to me and I shared your surprise that Lord Neill himself had given the advice that he had. I tend to agree with the point you were making as you asked the question. It seems to me that we are going very wide here. The question arises as to whether it is an illegal act; it may be seriously illegal, seriously criminal, or it may be something like a traffic offence. There is every range in between. It seems to me that, when an allegation is made against a Member, it is for the prosecuting authorities, the police and the relevant authorities, to make an inquiry. I do not see how this Committee can be expected to do anything until they have come to a conclusion. If a Member is successfully convicted or loses a civil action in circumstances which cast very serious doubts about his honesty and his behaviour or perhaps even his misuse or attempted misuse of his position as an MP, I think that should come straight before the Committee. Members have been suspended or expelled in the past once they have been convicted of dishonest behaviour and I suppose that, in modern circumstances, this Committee would be the first place where that would be considered and then this Committee would make some recommendation to the House about how the Member should be treated. I do not know whether Lord Neill really intended what he appears to have said, but it seems to me that anybody who has complaints about the personal conduct and behaviour of a Member of Parliament on any occasion is going to start turning up and complaining to this Committee which may mean that somebody with a personal quarrel or some neighbour who objects to the way that the Member keeps his garden or someone who has been in an altercation with a Member of Parliament in a public house seems to be almost invited to come along and use this Committee to embarrass his celebrity enemy. Lord Neill's advice seems suddenly to go through an amazingly broad brush interpretation of general standard of open honesty. Hitherto, the difficulty has been that we then go back to the words of the rules with amazing pedantic, sometimes commonsense-free detail in the way we apply some of the rules Lord Nolan laid down. My view is the same as yours that the sort of things that get anybody into trouble outside should first of all be dealt with by the people outside who normally deal with those things. Then, if a serious blot on the reputation of the Member has emerged, this Committee should decide what steps the House should take once it has discovered what sort of Member it has in its midst.

Mr Levitt

  85. I think that, under normal circumstances, everyone on this Committee would agree with you that the idea that a leader of the opposition would indeed be influenced by the occasional free use of a gym would be absurd. In this particular case, we were talking about the provider of a service by someone who is seeking his party's nomination for a high office, so therefore there may have been the perception of a desire to wish to influence the leader of the opposition. Would it be wrong to take those circumstances into account and, in that case, to actually take up the case and investigate it?
  (Mr Clarke) I think so because I do not agree with that interpretation. These people were all very well known and they were political colleagues, they were in the same political party, so for one member of a political party to let a Member of Parliament have the use of his gym is, I suspect, the kind of thing that goes on all the time. If you were to search the House of Commons—and it does not apply to me, I hasten to say—I should think you would find that some Member of Parliament has, on some occasion, lent a holiday home to another Member of Parliament. The idea that this might be seeking some political advantage is very far-fetched. Whether or not Jeffrey Archer was going to get the nomination as Conservative candidate for mayor, I do not think depended on the fact that he lent his gym to the leader of the Conservative Party occasionally and I do not think that any sensible person in this House could possibly have imagined that it would and I do not think that any reasonable member of the public would. However, it was written up by those who either dislike Jeffrey Archer or dislike William Hague or both as if there were some sinister connection here revealed by vigilant journalists. That was one which I am afraid I personally regarded as just silly.

  86. That leads me to my second question which is, at the moment, a serious allegation will be of course investigated but should we put an onus on those making allegations that they should provide a threshold of evidence for those allegations? At the moment, if the allegation is serious enough, an investigation may well follow.
  (Mr Clarke) I suppose you could apply the test of whether there is any prima facie evidence or any evidence to support this allegation and I imagine that the Committee do throw out cases where you are met with a vehement denial from the Member of Parliament and where there is no indication whatsoever of there being anything to support the allegation. I do not remember one happening quite like that where someone has been accused of something without there apparently being the slightest grounds. The ones I had in mind were where the allegation, so called, is probably true but the answer that most politicians and most sensible Members of Parliament would give is, "So what? What influence can this possibly have had on the conduct of a Member of Parliament if what you say is true?" I hesitate to go on about my own case but that was my reaction to the allegations against me. The only reason that anybody knew that I had not paid my hotel bill was because somebody wrote to me asking what I had paid for. The Bilderberg conference is surrounded by slightly green ink conspiracy theories so people write to you about it and somebody asked me the question and I wrote back saying that I had paid my own air fare and then discovered that some Greek sponsors, whom I could not recall, turned out to have paid the hotel bill for everybody so that, when I came to pay my hotel bill, it had been paid and I left. If you like, that was true. I think the Committee should have said, "So? What has this unknown Greek done that has somehow possibly led to political advantage being obtained with Tony Blair and Ken Clarke when they found that, fortunately, this conference was sponsored and they did not have to pay for the hotel?" Especially when certainly I had paid my own air fare to get there in the first place. I had attended a political conference and flown home again. I had done nothing else. I did not even know the identity of the company, no doubt, which had paid the hotel bill.

  87. I think the reason why you do not hear of the most trivial complaints is because they do not actually reach this Committee because the Commissioner filters them out before they even reach us. I am sure a proportion of them are indeed written in green ink, but some of them do originate not from Members of Parliament but from journalists and people in the media and we have a scenario where we are carrying out sometimes highly complex investigations and a running commentary on those investigations is carrying on to a greater or lesser degree of informed sources in the press at the time and clearly that can be very frustrating for this Committee, particularly when the commentary that is going on is wrong. Is there anything that we can do about that?
  (Mr Clarke) You will get in terrible trouble with the press if you started trying to invoke some privilege on behalf of the Committee that this was to be regarded as sub judice and not liable to comment until you report it. The only answer that I suggested in my letter and the only answer that occurs to me still is that, in cases of that kind where it is plain on the whole that the process is being used by somebody outside for political or personal advantage to themselves by attacking some politician they wish to damage, if the Committee could nip it off at the bud quicker so that really there is no point in continuing to consider this, that would be fine. I am not submitting this with regard to all these complaints; I have a list in front of me of all the reports you have issued. Obviously there have been several complaints in this Parliament which are quite serious if true, particularly the classic ones of people failing to disclose that they have a personal or financial interest in an issue which they keep taking up and they do not disclose it. For as long as you and I have been in this House, Chairman, people have been at times thrown out for that, certainly when they have canvassed the interest in question before going in to the House of Commons and raising the issue. I remember that at least one Member was expelled for doing that. You can have very serious ones but the range is now so ridiculous and most of the complaints are, in my opinion, frivolous or unimportant and, if they could be nipped off quickly, you would avoid this running saga of garbled accounts of the investigation constantly implying that some leading political figure is under suspicion of misconduct.

  Mr Levitt: It would certainly be our desire to deal with them quickly in many cases.

Mr Lewis

  88. Talking there about nipping it in the bud and asking the Committee to do that, where vexatious complaints are being made by Members of Members, do you see a role for the two Front Benches or indeed the Whips Office usual channels or whatever to actually do the nipping in the bud before it reaches the Commissioner?
  (Mr Clarke) I would hope that they would both try; it would make a great deal of sense if the two Front Benches agreed that they were not going to make party political points. Half the outside world would then suspect that some monster conspiracy was taking place again because I am afraid that we have reached the situation where there are people outside who believe that some Augean stable exists here that has to be cleaned out, so to be told that the two Front Benches have agreed that they are not going to take on complaints against the Cabinet or the Shadow Cabinet would instantly give rise to conspiracy theories of a ridiculous kind but, in so far as they had an influence, if they could stop the more maverick Back-Benchers on both sides thinking it gives great party political advantage to their party by hurling some absurd allegation against a leading figure on the other side, that would help. Every party around this table knows which of our colleagues on our own side are perfectly capable of making frivolous complaints for party political purposes and it should not be difficult for the two Front-Benchers to do their best to sit on such people.

  89. It is not just the leading Members who are the subject of the frivolous and, more worryingly, the vexatious complaints, so taking your point that it could look as though we are off the scales a little, I think there is a very real possibility that the real problem could be put out by the advice that I am suggesting.
  (Mr Clarke) I certainly do not want to sound elitist. It is true that there should not be one rule for leading figures on both sides and one for everybody else, but I think it is the party politics which leads because, if you look at this list of people who have been complained about, practically all of them are on the Front Bench and an awful lot of Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet Members are involved simply because there is more party advantage if you can embarrass somebody who is a large public figure and you can get a bigger splash in the newspapers if you attack some large figure. There are also some Back-Benchers who have been subject to some extremely unfair and frivolous complaints.

Mr Bell

  90. We know that so many of the complaints are from Labour MPs against Conservative MPs or vice-versa, but Lib Dems do not seem to be involved and Independents are not on the roll of honour at all. It is surely not that the rules are too tightly drawn or that the Commissioner is being too zealous because she is not, it is just the nature of party politics, but something could surely be achieved by a Whip cease-fire, could it not?
  (Mr Clarke) I hope so. All of us have views on the nature of contemporary party politics. I think that nowadays a great deal of it is imitating American-type politics with the belief that negative campaigning is the only effective campaigning. That became all pervasive in the 1990s as a belief held by many people on both sides. I actually think that it is wrong and one of the few sensible things that happened in the recent American presidential election was that both candidates appear to have cottoned onto the fact that there was no evidence that the public really did enjoy negative campaigning as much as it was thought. In some of the smaller states in America in the 1990s, it reached the stage that anybody running for office was going to face personal allegations about his private life and his financial affairs from his opponents, in the case of America, whether or not there was the slightest foundation for them or not. There was a slight tendency in the atmosphere here in the mid-1990s for that to creep over here. Do not get me wrong, in case somebody makes a party point against me, there were problems of sleaze in the last Parliament and you are the obvious person to ask the question, but even that became ridiculous. The serious sleaze which was not dealt with adequately was why this Committee was set up and why we have a Commissioner. She has subsequently been asked to deal with all kinds of ridiculous minor non-sleaze and a kind of open season on most MPs and I trust that the Committee is trying to pull back from that now.

  91. Do you think there is any sleaze in this Parliament?
  (Mr Clarke) There has been sleaze in Parliament for as long as I have been in it and I expect there has been sleaze since the days of Simon de Montfort. I actually think there is a remarkably small quantity of it. I think if you look at the experience of most political public bodies in other parts of the world, there is probably less here than almost anywhere. The only other countries that has ever struck me as producing extraordinarily high standards of public conduct are the Scandinavian countries, but even they have had their moments. I also think it is important that we do not become complacent. If we are lucky enough to have fairly sleaze-free politics, that could easily and rapidly change. My worry is that, in America for example, it has now become so habitual to accuse everybody of being a crook that you get the serious situation where no honest man or woman will embark upon a career because they know they are going to be accused of being a crook and only the more shameless crooks run for office in some of the backwaters of American politics.

  92. Would you accept that the public will forgive us if they perceive our procedures are too rigorous but not if they are not rigorous enough?
  (Mr Clarke) I would hope so but I am not sure that this discussion is one that takes place amongst many members of the public and I began by quoting a recent opinion poll which we all recall. I think that, at the moment for a whole variety of reasons, the public are more apathetic about and more cynical towards politics than at any time I recall. There is a whole raft of reasons for that. It has a great deal to do with the nature of our political debate and all kinds of things. I think this problem of allegations of misconduct has contributed to some extent to that and this party political exchange of allegations does not give anybody party advantage. It just leads a number of the members of the public to say, "They are all the same", by which they mean they are all on the make and none of them are there for any reasons of genuine political conviction.

Mr Bottomley

  93. Having read the confidential arguments about MPs' financial interests in 1950 and having read the book, "MPs for Hire", I do not think our problems started in the last Parliament and I do not think they are finished. Taking it as a foundation that there need to be some rules for openness, what is more important is that we should know what an MP has been involved in rather than that he should necessarily be stopped from doing something and that we should leave it to the electorate to decide if they want an MP providing they have the basic knowledge but is it reasonable to assume that it is all right for somebody like Jimmy Goldsmith to fund election candidates all around the country because, if they were elected, we would know not whose pocket they were in but whose views they shared and whose money they used to get there?
  (Mr Clarke) Yes but we have taken that too far. On your first point, there is nothing new and we will not dwell on history any further, but it is certainly the case that, when I was elected, there were some people who behaved seriously badly on both sides of the House of Commons—not many but there were some. Parliament used to work on the basis that the Bar worked on when I practised as a barrister in that, as a young member, you were rapidly informed by your colleagues who the crooks were and I see Alan Williams nodding his head. Everybody knew who the scoundrels were and every young member was advised to keep well away from them and, if they made a mistake and were caught, they were thrown out. The Chairman nods as well. That was a tremendously British, self-policing sort of club-like atmosphere which is now completely and utterly impossible. Now you have to have proper procedures. The general requirement is to be open and that we should know everything and then it will all look after itself. That everybody should share the clubland knowledge that only Members of Parliament had before is attractive in a way but I think it is rapidly being turned—and once again this has happened in America—so that, if you go into politics, you have no real right to privacy and, in the interests of protecting against abuse, everybody should be entitled to read about anything they wish to know about your sex life, your financial affairs, what you do outside the House of Commons and so on, and a great deal of the drive for more information about politicians is fed by the desire of the media in this highly competitive age to get more information of that kind because there is no doubt that what the public like to read about sportsmen, politicians and other celebrities is all about their sex lives, how much money they are earning and what their private activities are. I say that there has to be some approach to openness and information which concentrates on what is the legitimate public interest, not what is satisfying public curiosity.

  When it comes to support from people outside and donations to candidates, yes, I think we should all know about that, but the recent rule saying that everybody who gives more than £200 to a political party should have it declared is giving rise to an immense paper chase as all these things are doing and they will put people off from giving ordinary donations because again the construction behind it is that people only give money to political parties to get some personal advantage and that to give money to political parties is a slightly shady/dishonest thing to do. I think big donations should be revealed. On the other hand, we brought that upon ourselves because the political parties have spent so much time trying to kill each other's source of funds. It is now impossible for a publicly quoted company to give money to a political party and it is virtually impossible for a trade union to give as much as they used to, so that politics has become a game for very rich people who give large donations. The public disapprove of that but give no indication of having any idea as to how they expect their democracy to be paid for. It does not only involve a number of rich men giving large donations. It has gone right down and I have just read some advice saying that, in the forthcoming Election, anybody who gives more than £200 has to be listed and revealed and we have to tell all these people that they will be listed and revealed and vast amounts of paperwork will be produced and the local papers will no doubt go through trying to find any of them who is some kind of a scoundrel.

  94. The point is that you do not think someone openly funding a number of candidates ought to be prohibited because I think you would probably agree that if someone secretly spent £25 million funding candidates all around the place, the candidate or the donor ought to reveal it.
  (Mr Clarke) I think the candidate should reveal any particularly large donation and then the public can judge for themselves whether the candidate was right to take money from a large donor like Mr Goldsmith or Paul Sykes who made it a condition that the candidate changed his views on a particular subject before giving them money. That happened in the last election and had quite a lot of publicity at the time. My understanding is that the old rules about lobbies spending money at elections have been changed by a ruling of the court so that a number of animal welfare, environmental and other groups are now free to spend money for or against a candidate without having the permission of the candidate or his agent. I am in favour of the strict spending rules in constituencies, although they are sometimes too strict in that I think the amount should be eased a little more regularly than it has been. It would be a rather bizarre situation if the candidates themselves are confined to a limit which is very strict and have to disclose all their donations but their constituency is full of posters by some interest group visibly denouncing them with no spending limits whatever and no obligation to disclose who has given them money for it. I have not checked that before coming but I think that is correct. So, you will have europhiles, eurosceptics, pro-life, pro-abortion rights, environmental, animal welfare and other groups perfectly free to target Dale Campbell-Savours and decide that they disapprove of his views and they are going to spend a great deal of money trying to get him out. That is deplorable and, if they are allowed to do that without anybody knowing who has put the money up for the attack on Dale Campbell-Savours, in my opinion it will be unfortunate. I do not know why I chose Dale Campbell-Savours.

  95. Perhaps the only answer is to stand on the line of `I cannot be bribed'. Would you now deal with the question of the press that comes up every now and again. Would you agree that the role of the press is to suck up all the dirt, try to sort out what matters and then to make it available? There is no defence against the role of the press.
  (Mr Clarke) Every politician attacks the press and I always claim that I attack them less than other politicians. It is always an unedifying spectacle when one hears another politician attacking the press. They are there to be a nuisance and they are there, actually, to err on the side of making sure that politicians/governments are not held in an excessive degree of awe or respect. I think they could be more responsible. I sense, in the run-up to this Election, that our press, if anything, is going to be even more partisan on both sides and even more likely to regard themselves as campaigning for their particular cause, sometimes in a far less attractive way than the parties would campaign themselves if they were left on their own, and that we are going to have more of this going in, throwing mud and everything else because it also has the effect of selling newspapers, if you have the scoop and you are the first one to allege that some leading figure has actually been up to no good. Unscrupulous newspapers, if that is the approach they are adopting, will of course save these things for the day before the Election.

  96. It is probably better to have a system with the Commissioner looking into an allegation where there is some evidence to justify it rather than to have trial by press and then reach the single final verdict.
  (Mr Clarke) I would certainly agree with that but I am not quite sure how you would achieve that. Trial by jury is now having to compete with trial by the press quite frequently. People are acquitted but are named as guilty and people are found guilty but are immediately acquitted by the press and all the old rules about sub judice and so on appear to be very, very relaxed now in criminal and civil cases.

Mr Campbell-Savours

  97. When you give a speech, what would it be about?
  (Mr Clarke) If I give a speech for a fee?

  98. Yes; very briefly, just a heading.
  (Mr Clarke) Usually, if I have not been misled about what they want which has happened once or twice, the speeches where I charge a fee are where I am giving my views on the economy, international economy and finance. The circumstances where I would expect a fee are where I am addressing an audience assembled by some firm of accountants or a bank where I am addressing people who are themselves bankers, treasurers or investment fund managers and they wish to hear me talk about my views on the global economy or the British economy or the European economy or about the financial markets. Usually, you find yourself on a card where other alleged experts and pundits are appearing, all of whom are being paid a fee for preparing a speech or lecture and coming along.

  99. Could you very briefly—and we are short of time—say if the contents of speeches for which you are able to charge a fee in any way relates to your membership of the House of Commons, your activities in the House of Commons, matters and knowledge that you have acquired as a Member of Parliament or which might be deemed as connected in any way with Parliament.
  (Mr Clarke) I do not think, as you will have seen from my letter and I have conducted this argument for some time along with quite a number of other Members of the Panel, I am there in my capacity as a Member of Parliament. I do not think I am giving parliamentary advice and I am not acting in my capacity as a Member of Parliament.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 23 March 2001