Select Committee on Standards and Privileges Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 100 - 114)



  100. In what capacity are you there?
  (Mr Clarke) The difficulty is—and it has been argued against me, as it were, and other members like me—that my career has been based on 30 years as a Member of Parliament and the reason I am invited, I have no doubt, is because people know that I was Chancellor of the Exchequer and they know I have been Minister for a long time. So, it is that which gives me the base from which I pontificate on these matters to a reasonably expert audience. I think it is slightly absurd if that is regarded as still acting as an MP. If I had retired from the House at the last election, I still think I would have had most of these invitations because, as a recent Chancellor of the Exchequer and someone who is still in business, I would have got onto these platforms.

  101. Of course, you would not be a Member of Parliament then.
  (Mr Clarke) That is true but everybody, when they go into this world, bases what they do upon their own personal experience and to say that because someone has attained celebrity or even expertise because of spending their past career as a Minister and an MP amnd therefore every time they make a speech on anything in public they are acting as an MP strikes me as odd.

  102. You say that you have been very comprehensive in what you have registered, but do you feel it was fair or unfair to place a requirement on you to make the registrations you did in relation to fees for speeches you gave?
  (Mr Clarke) I have done that because I cannot see any great objection to it, that I should list who I have spoken to and list them all where I receive more than £500. I decided not to make an argument about it. I cannot, for the life of me, see what bearing that is meant to have on my activity as a Member of Parliament, but I also could not quite see any reason to get too burnt up about it. What I was arguing about, along with everybody, was the idea that I should start filing employment agreements with people with whom I had accepted speaking engagements which struck me as a bizarre use of the English language.

  103. Can I move you on to another area which is to do with the pressing problem that exists in terms of perception of how the Committee operates. You know that there are two reports: the report of the Committee which is usually a very small report and then there is the report of the Commissioner. The Commissioner's report includes material whether the case is upheld or not. Do you feel that where a case is not upheld, all the material we currently publish in the Commissioner's report should be made available publicly?
  (Mr Clarke) I have not thought about it a great deal, but my off the cuff reply would be that the Committee's report should suffice because there have not been many occasions yet—there will be occasions, there are bound to be—when the Committee does not accept the Commissioner's recommendation. When the Committee takes such a decision, its decision is completely undermined by people preferring, if that is what they do prefer, the unfavourable report of the Commissioner. That is the way round it is always likely to be because I do not think this Committee will often uphold a complaint against a Member where their Commissioner has advised them that there is no foundation for it. It will only work the other way round. All that happens is that the Committee's decision is totally disregarded and everybody goes to the Commissioner's report. It also means that everybody dealing with the Commissioner has to do so walking on eggshells regarding what they disclose and so on because whether or not it is going to be remotely held against them by the Committee, an awful lot of hostile people outside are going to go through the Commissioner's report seeing if there is anything they can use against the Member of Parliament who has been disclosing all this.

  104. Do you not accept that it is the Commissioner's report against which people outside might legitimately wish to test to what extent the Committee has properly done its job and properly found and made its findings and that it is only by looking at the Commissioner's report that they will be able to establish whether we are being political or whether we are being straightforward?
  (Mr Clarke) This goes back to whether the House should not have sorted all this out by controlling itself properly in the first place.

  105. That is another matter.
  (Mr Clarke) I personally think in the end that the Committee is the way in which the House polices itself and it is for the House itself to ensure that it has a Committee which does not act on party political grounds and is reasonably capable of carrying confidence. The implication when you publish a second report rather reminds me of when people wanted to publish all the advice to Ministers when Ministers took a decision. Of course the argument is that this enables you to judge the Minister's decision better, but what it actually does is say that the silly old Minister can be set aside because the official must be right and what the Department of Education or what the Treasury were advising the Minister to do must have been correct and we need to know whether the Minister, for nefarious political reasons, did not take this obvious and sensible advice. The decision is the Minister's; it is the Minister's decision that should be published; it is the Minister who should be answerable; if the Minister has it wrong, it is his neck that should be subjected to appropriate treatment. I think it is for the Committee to take the decision; it is for the Committee to issue its report; and it is neck of the Committee that is answerable if people start suggesting that this has been biased.

  106. I am sure you understand that it would be impossible for us not to publish Commissioner reports. The question I am asking you is to what extent you feel that the complete report of the Commissioner should be published in conditions where a complaint is made that is not upheld. (Mr Clarke) You are going to be in even more difficulty if you produce an edited version of the Commissioner's report. I am not sure why it is impossible for you not to issue the Commissioner's report. The Commissioner was not meant to be a public figure, the Commissioner's authority derives from the Committee.

  107. That was the point of the question I was asking you originally. This whole structure was set up to insert an element of independence in consideration of complaints whereby the Committee of Privileges would then not stand accused of being political in its judgment. You may say that it is not for us to be political but, even under this new structure, we have been accused of being political when in fact we have not been. Therefore, I cannot see how it is possible not to put reports which are deemed as independent ... I am pushing you towards to what extent you would be prepared to see them qualified, although you said they should not be edited, and if the Commissioner herself were to say, "I do not believe, in the light of that complaint not being upheld, that all this information should necessarily go into the public domain." We do not want in any way to interfere and we do not interfere with her reports, her reports are completely her reports, she produces them independently, but the problem we find is that when the Commissioner's material goes into the public domain, very often because it includes a lot of material which is very controversial, even in situations where complaints have not been upheld, then it can be extremely embarrassing for Members and that is what troubles me about this procedure.
  (Mr Clarke) I am probably going towards what you described as the impossible which is not to publish the Commissioner's report. The old process was that the House just governed itself and it has to be said, not just in recent years but you can go back a long way to find that the House sometimes behaved in a very party political way in doing that though in modern times, I think less than say in the 19th century. The Marconi scandal in 1912 was considered by a committee which voted on purely political lines. We had one Member expelled and we had a whole lot of Members subject to a vote on the floor of the house 20 years ago when people were not voting and acting on party political lines. The House must answer to itself; it is accused of being political. What the new system has done is introduce a more structured way of inquiring. There is a proper investigation; there is considered independent advice that goes to a Committee when a serious allegation is made. It is true, if you look back, that it was all rather public school clubish and Members knew what they knew or did not know what they did not know and the eventual votes could be a little haphazard. What you now have is a committee that is charged with considering the advice of an independent commissioner, which I assume it would usually follow but sometimes disagree with. I am not sure it is a good idea that you have the Commissioner's report published every time even where the complaint has been dismissed because if the Commissioner's advice is really what everybody outside is interested in, what is the point of having a committee? Why not just have an independent ombudsman?

  108. Can I put it to you that in the event that you were not to publish the Commissioner's report, something which I believe stands at the heart of Nolan reform, is this independent element producing reports which the public could read which was not interfered with by Members of Parliament. Members of Parliament make their own judgments and I keep coming back to the case, if only, where complaints are upheld, we could find a way of qualifying material which is currently put into the public doman in its entirety apart from where we sideline where we believe we are getting into personal issues. You seem to be arguing to go all the way but I feel that will completely undermine the Nolan reform.
  (Mr Clarke) I suppose we could have what you are suggesting is a situation where the Commissioner agrees that parts of his or her report are not really relevant to the complaint being dismissed and there is no public interest in seeing all this detail. I would not think that many of those would arise.

  109. You could draw a distinction between her conclusions on the evidence perhaps in cases where a complaint was not upheld. You will know that the body of her report is essentially evidence.
  (Mr Clarke) Yes. I had not thought about it enough and one would need to look at some practical examples. The one that occurs to me, and it does bear on one of the more eccentric events that happened in this Committee in this Parliament, is where part of the evidence against a Member who was criticised severely at the end bore on whether or not her marriage was in a decent state at the time of particular events and whether she was or was not separated or living apart from her husband. It is arguable that all that could have been left out but I did not follow the details of that. My own impression of the detail was that there was an awful lot of rather bizarre features of both the complaints and the investigation in that case and I have no views about the merits of the outcome of that which was a bit of a one-off, I think.

  110. In that case, the Commissioner did go out of her way to exclude material which she thought was extremely embarrassing.
  (Mr Clarke) That is probably sensible.

  111. The problem in that particular case was that this particular arrangement that had been entered into was very relevant to the inquiries that were taking place.
  (Mr Clarke) I can remember that. I am sorry, I should not have remembered one stray thing but there could be other circumstances where the explanation for what appeared to be financial impropriety was some extremely personal matter on which the Member was entitled to privacy, some peculiar family problem that occurred. One could normally rely on the Commissioner to try to leave that out but, if it is evidence, the Committee could actually suggest that it is all left out. I quite agree that the example I gave is not a good example of the point.

  112. I have one final question. As I have said to you in my questioning, we are ever seeking to protect the independence of the Commissioner yet, at the same time, balance that against the need, in the publication of her reports, not to prejudice people's human rights which is one of the issues that has been raised. Do you see the role perhaps of the Chairman of the Committee being greater in terms of deciding upon which inquiry to proceed, particularly if the Chairman carries the confidence of the House, because the Commissioner at the moment is bound by the rules of Parliament. If you were to question her, why are you proceeding with this case? She would say, "There is a rule and I am satisfied, on the basis of the evidence I have seen and my preliminary inquiries, that there is a prima facie case which would allow me to further proceed", and it is at that particular point where it could be argued that the Chairman might express a view. Do you see anything in that?
  (Mr Clarke) I do. I would expect, given the way that Parliament works, that the Chairman would play quite a role in that. Firstly, the Commissioner might well consult the Chairman and see what his view is—whether it should be nipped in the bud and treated as a minimal matter and not one that justifies a full inquiry—and a sensible Chairman would then consult the members of the Committee and form his own view and go round the members to make sure that there was no member of the Committee who was all burnt up with a different opinion who thought it ought to be investigated. The role of the Chairman, apart from presiding over the proceedings, would lend itself to that, I would have thought. He would be the first person to whom the Commissioner would turn for some initial steer as to what he thought were the merits or otherwise of investigating this—but then the Chairman would almost certainly consult the members of his Committee.

  113. Could I put to you that that would be a problem? I am only identifying the Chairman but the point is that we are trying to avoid a system whereby members themselves are seen to be involved in deciding upon where one should proceed because of the problem of politics. If you confine it to the Chairman in his relationship with the Commissioner, then, in the view of certainly myself—or some of us perhaps, it is possible that you would restrain the possibility of journalists misunderstanding or misrepresenting what was happening?
  (Mr Clarke) I am probably less sensitive than you are about the need to keep the politics out. Most of this is political and I think at least half these allegations that have been investigated have been brought for political reasons. The newspaper or the member of Parliament bringing the allegation is acting in an extremely partisan fashion so for the Committee to go the other way and say "We cannot allow any political judgment to enter into any of this" is going too far. The Committee is selective because, amongst 650 or whatever political figures, this Committee is regarded as reasonably capable of rising above the political fray—regarded as independent people likely to be able, in discussion with each other, to reach fairly non-partisan views. That will include occasionally judging that other people are being too partisan and too political and dismissing complaints brought by some fervent supporter of one's own political party and saying, "This is really not sensibly what should be happening and this is only going to damage Parliament and politics as a whole".


  114. Thank you very much for your evidence today which I found very interesting.
  (Mr Clarke) Thank you for having me along.

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