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5.20 pm

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): As I did not take part in the previous debate, may I congratulate the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee on

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the fairness and objectivity with which he presented the case on behalf of the Committee? It is no more than any of us would have expected of him.

I join others in endorsing the nomination of Mr. Mawer. I do not know him, but what I have heard of him suggests that he has every prospect of being able to take on a job which has certain fundamental flaws within it. The first flaw was touched on by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley).

In the opening speech of the afternoon, there was a comment about the rules written by the commissioner. The rules were not written by the commissioner; they were written by the House of Commons. The problem for the House of Commons and for the commissioner was that when the House of Commons approved them, it did not understand the severity and tightness of the rules that it had introduced. The commissioner therefore bore much of the blame for carrying out the new standards and rules that the House, perhaps unwittingly, had determined. She should not be blamed for that.

The rules post-Nolan were made much tighter than many people realised. Indeed, we have made recommendations for a slight loosening of the rules, which I hope will be brought before the House in the near future.

The second flaw is the system. That was the point that I made when my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) was kind enough to let me intervene on his speech. As I said, I do not see that there is any problem with the commissioner speaking about her job. The allegation was of leaks.

As I was saying, the second flaw is the system itself. Within the system, anyone—too many people have been playing games in the House, as we know, with tit-for-tat referrals—can refer any colleague, or any outsider can refer any Member, and tell a journalist that he has done so. If that journalist then contacts the commissioner's office to confirm that the letter has been received, the next thing that we see is a headline "Sleaze inquiry against local Member".

Mrs. Browning: I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. There are occasions when a matter comes into the public domain and is commented on in the Chamber. It is then put to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards to investigate. However, when Members of Parliament decide to refer a matter to the commissioner for investigation, it is incumbent on them to wait for the conclusion of that process before notifying the world at large. I have made only one such referral to the commissioner, and I abided religiously by that rule. It would have been most unfair to have made the matter public before the commissioner had had a chance to conclude it. It is inevitable that the commissioner will be asked by the press if the matter goes the other way.

Mr. Williams: May I embarrass the hon. Lady by saying that I am sorry she gave me that prompt, because I was going to commend the way in which she dealt with the matter? The referrals that she made were based on a misinterpretation by the press of certain circumstances, and she could have tried to get easy publicity out of the situation. The referrals were then rejected by the commissioner, who never made any public comment on them. Since receiving that rebuttal, the hon. Lady has not attempted to make any political capital out of the matter.

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That is how it should be done. I promise her that she was already in my mind because the case happened so recently.

Many of the so-called leaks were, for no reason, attributed to the commissioner. No one has ever been able to prove that against her. The person making the allegation has only to give the press the information that he has given the commissioner, which the commissioner may have shown to the witness, and the press can run a story based on the allegation without having got any information or endorsement from the commissioner.

David Winnick: Has there ever been a case in which Labour, Conservative or Liberal Members have made such allegations to the commissioner without telling the press what is going on? Being politicians, that is the first thing that they are likely to do. Why should anyone be surprised about that, given the nature of this place?

Mr. Williams: My hon. Friend is putting the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning) in a most embarrassing position—her halo is positively glistening. She is genuinely one of whom I can say—

David Winnick: One exception.

Mr. Williams: She is the one who comes to mind, but there have probably been others. Indeed, there must have been, because the commissioner has often said, "I have had five or six referrals", and we have seen nothing about them in the press. Some hon. Members show integrity; others, unfortunately, cannot resist a headline and do not care what malicious damage they do to parliamentary colleagues by exploiting the situation.

Mrs. Browning: In the run-up to a general election, it has been the practice of some hon. Members spuriously to refer a case involving another Member to the commissioner so that they can say in their election literature that that Member is under inquiry by the commissioner, in the knowledge that there is insufficient time for the matter to be properly explored. Looking below me down the Gangway, I can see Liberal Democrat Members nodding; they know what I am talking about. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we must try to ensure that that does not happen?

Mr. Williams: The hon. Lady is absolutely correct, and I do not exonerate Members of any party from that practice. The tragedy is that Members who have been so self-indulgent have not recognised that they damage not only the Member against whom they make the allegation, but—cumulatively, along with others who are doing the same—the House of Commons by giving the impression that it is sleaze-ridden. In fact, most of the referrals of the past five years did not deal with what would in the past have been described as sleaze.

Whispers are a reality of the House of Commons—that is a systemic problem—and some may be malevolent or malicious. It is a function of the way in which the House works. One has to come in here every day—the Whips make sure of that.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): Quite right, too.

Mr. Williams: Well, sometimes we listen to them. Day in, day out, we have to carry on working with friends—

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or, worse, people who are not friends—who are aware that investigations are going on. It is understandable, if we are locked in here from 10 o'clock in the morning until 10 o'clock at night and we want to get something off our chest, that we go and talk to our colleagues. A lot of the so-called whispering is what I would call self-exoneration, or trying to explain things away. Cumulatively, however—because in many cases the exoneration was not endorsed by the Committee—that also damaged the commissioner because it gave, perhaps inadvertently, the impression of unreasonableness.

My next point goes off at a tangent, in a way, but it follows on from my complimenting the Chairman of the Committee. During the last Parliament, I stood in as Chairman when my parliamentary colleague, now Lord Sheldon, was ill. It is correct that we are now doing in this Committee what we have always done in the Public Accounts Committee. All Committees in this House have a Government majority. In Committees dealing with standards—the PAC deals with standards of financial propriety; this Committee deals with standards of behaviour—and those that deal not with Government matters but with House of Commons matters, it is important that there should be certainty in their independence.

We have always accepted that the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee should be a member of the Opposition; that created a good precedent. I hope that that will be sustained by future Governments of whichever party, and that the Chair of the Standards Committee will also always be from the Opposition. That would help to get rid of the nonsensical arguments that arise when unanimous decisions are made in the Committee, yet people in the lobby write, "Government majority on Committee dragoons its members and forces them into decisions."

Peter Bottomley: I want to add a footnote in case any historians look at this. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there was no suggestion that Robert Sheldon, who chaired the Committee during the previous Parliament, behaved any differently—although he was a Labour MP—from the way in which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has? The right hon. Gentleman's point about the appearance of greater impartiality is a good one, however.

Mr. Williams: I am not impugning anyone in any way. In this Committee so much depends on perception and on people outside believing in what we do, instead of doubting what we do. I am going to say something now that will offend two of my colleagues—I had not intended to say it—but it is not meant to, because they are excellent members of the Committee. However, in this Committee more than any other, its members have to make a choice. They should either be a Parliamentary Private Secretary and not be on the Committee, or vice versa. This Committee must be as detached as possible in every way from the Executive.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) for saying that, because his legal advice has made an invaluable contribution to the Committee over the last five years, particularly in the last Parliament, when lawyers—I apologise to my hon. and

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learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) here—did not abound in the Committee as they now do. That expertise was most welcome, and I hope that he will choose to stay on the Committee. However, I think that most hon. Members would understand if he felt that he had to keep one eye on his career prospects. Perhaps the Leader of the House could reassure him that if he made the right decision it would in no way undermine his prospects.

I have spoken for too long already, but this is my final point. As one who has worked as an acting Chairman with the present commissioner, I pay tribute to her assiduity, her determination and her meticulousness. Those qualities were a nuisance if one had something to hide; they ceased to be a nuisance if one had nothing to hide. The qualities she showed in investigating cases were of the highest standard, and I wish her well in whatever job she goes to.

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