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Mr. Clifton-Brown: The hon. Gentleman is trying to excuse the Government's spinning by comparison with the Conservative Government, but it is incontrovertible that the Labour Government make numerous announcements to the press before making them to Parliament. For example, today an important announcement on the abolition of the
Mr. Soley: It is not as black and white as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but there is certainly a problem that we need to work on. I am saying not that the Government are wholly innocent but that if every single item has to be announced in the House, the Government, of whatever party, will spend all their time on announcements here. One needs to decide what to announce here and what to announce outside.
Mrs. May: The hon. Gentleman says that the issue of announcements being made to the House or to the press is not black and white. Does he think it right that advisers at the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions made available to the press the minutes of the meeting on 25 July between the chairman of Railtrack and the Secretary of State nearly two hours before they were made available to the Select Committee?
Mr. Soley: Because it depends on what the papers are and what the decision is. The primary issue is whether we feel that the papers should be made available to the public, after which there is a decision about whether that is done through Parliament or through a public statement. It might be perfectly in order to choose the latter. As I understand it, the Speaker normally expects major statementsnot all statementsto be made in the House first. If every announcement had to be made here, the Government would never issue a press release on anything. It is not clear cut. One has to draw a line.
Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): Does my hon. Friend agree that it seems somewhat strange for the Opposition to complain on the one hand that everything is being covered up and kept from them and on the other that the Government are too keen to give information to the press and the public?
Mr. Soley: Indeed. There is a constant tug of war. We are being asked to give more and more information. That is right. We should have open government. I am surprised that we have not made more progress with the Freedom of Information Bill, but the motion does not mention that. The motion is a mess, frankly. There is a case for giving the public more information, but how we do it depends on the nature of the information and the situation at the time. There is a difficult judgment for the Speaker on whether it should have been given to the House first.
I have dealt with the press over many years and recently wrote a book on the subject. We need to step back from the argument about news management and take a long, hard look at it. Spinning has gone on since time immemorial. Let us be honest: no one is going to say, "Here's a bad story about me. I want to issue it now to get maximum publicity." If any politician or party wants to kid anyone that they do anything other than try to manage the news, no one will believe them. It is not an
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale says that we should stop news management and simply issue the stories as they emerge. Can anyone imagine people in the Tory party eagerly issuing a story that humiliates them in time for the evening television news and the next day's press? Of course not, although at certain points over the past few years, it seemed that they were indeed doing thatbut I always put it down to political incompetence rather than moral purity.
Any organisation will try to present itself in the best light. We must be as honest as possible about the news and recognise that it is important not to lieand there are even exceptions to that, as we all know: at times, in war or on crucial economic issues, politicians find themselves in the difficult position of having to cover something up in order to prevent a worse disaster. The use of troops is perhaps the time-honoured example.
Mr. Soley: It can be, although I would not want to say so categorically. Bernard Ingham was the equivalent of Alastair Campbell, and the two were both effective at operating the relationship between the media and politics for their respective political parties. We should be honest and say that we know that it happens.
The second issue concerns the media, members of which often talk as though it is only the politicians who spin. The reality is that the media spin too. All Members of Parliament will know that journalists often say, "Do not use that story first" and then give a reason why it should not be used yet. Or a journalist might suggest developing another part of the argument first. We know that that happens. What matters in the end is that the relationship between the media and politics is robust enough to withstand the rows and disagreements, and for the media to expose what the politicians are trying to hide. However, no one should believe that either side is pure, in some moral sense. Indeed, it was the late Enoch Powell who said that for politicians to complain about the press was like sailors complaining about the sea. That is equally true the other way round, and the media and politicians should recognise the need to co-operate on stories at times, as well trying to conceal them from each other. I could give several examples, but I shall move on.
The motion also mentions the way in which we use Parliament. During both the Falklands war and the Gulf war, I cannot remember how many debates we had, but the number was minimal. During the present situation in Afghanistan, we have had on average a debate a fortnight. We never had that under the previous Government, and it is one of several areas in which we have been much more open.
The legislation on party funding causes problems for all of us. It is difficult to find people to be the local party secretary, because they discover that it is a criminal offence not to reveal certain information about how much money the party receives. We have never asked voluntary organisations to bear that burden before, but that is what political parties now have to do. That is a huge jump forward for political accountability and integrity, and the public know that. No party will be wholly clean, because people slip up and a few are just dishonest. They are in a minority, however, and we should keep it that way. In any case, for the Conservative party to table a motion that suggests that standards have deteriorated is plain wrong.
The motion is a mess and tries to cover too many issues. We are using Parliament better to hold Ministers to account, but we still have not got it right. The standard of integrity for MPs is better than it was and is still improving. The Conservatives know that they must never again get into the mess they got into in the 1990s. However, we still have not resolved the problem of the relationships between political parties and civil servants. We expect our Ministers to have political advisersthey are necessary in a complex modern Parliamentbut at the same time, they must be accommodated in the system, not in a way that makes them civil servants but that recognises the importance of their job.
The Government are broadly on the right track in terms of restoring honesty and integrity to Parliament and to public life generally. We are also reforming Parliament and making Ministers and the Government more accountable. The debate on spin between media and politicians is alive and well, as it will probably still be in 100 years time. We should exercise some common sense about the issues, instead of trying to focus on one aspect. It is a complex area, but the standards being set now are an improvement and the Conservatives would do well to remember that. If they really want to vote on this weird motion, they can do so, but they will not win the vote and even if they did, I doubt that they would know what it meant anyway.