Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Tyler: Will the hon. and learned Gentleman address the particular problem that can arise when the hon. Member who is the subject of an investigation decides to bring with him a legal representative? That legal representative may feel that his primary duty is to his client. We have found ourselves in some difficult situations when that has happened.

I was a member of the Joint Committee to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred. We found that, when hon. Members come before their colleagues and peers in a Committee with legal representation, that can cause difficult problems. I appreciate that the hon. and learned Gentleman has considerable legal experience, and perhaps he will be able to comment from both points of view.

Ross Cranston: In most cases, hon. Members will not need to consult lawyers. If an hon. Member answers truthfully the questions put by the commissioner, the case will be disposed of easily, without lawyers. However, as the Joint Committee suggested, hon. Members should have the right to go to lawyers if that is what they want. I do not think that that is necessary in the vast majority of cases, but the right should still exist.

I shall speak briefly about privacy. Hon. Members forfeit much of their privacy when they enter public life. For a start, their financial interests have to be registered, but their behaviour is also a matter for constant scrutiny—by other hon. Members, the press, their constituents and the public in general. Anonymity goes by the board in much of their daily lives, but hon. Members should still be entitled to what I would call a zone of privacy, as long as they do not forfeit that right through their behaviour.

Matters that are not relevant to hon. Members' performance in the job include their family, their relationships with parents, their partners and children, their sexual predilections, and—a theme that arose earlier in the debate—their religious beliefs. Hon. Members are entitled to privacy in those and related matters, unless, as I said, they put those matters into the public arena.

Mr. Mawer must respect that zone of privacy. Members are under a duty to co-operate with him: they must answer his questions and provide him with information. The other side of the coin is that the commissioner must respect a Member's privacy. In most instances, of course, this issue is subsumed by my earlier point about relevance. Rarely will those aspects of the zone of privacy, as I have described it, be relevant to an inquiry. Even if they were, the commissioner should hesitate before intruding.

There have been various references to the press. As I have been provoked into saying something about this, my advice to the commissioner would be "Don't talk to

13 Feb 2002 : Column 253

the press." My hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) and the hon. Member for South Staffordshire took that line. There is no need for the commissioner to confirm or deny that an inquiry is under way. Contacts with the press could lead to allegations of leaking and manipulation. My advice to Mr. Mawer would be "Don't talk to the press. Ultimately, if there is a report, what you say will be public. You stand or fall by that report."

On the statute of limitations, the first commissioner, Sir Gordon Downey, in his valedictory report, said:

He suggested having a seven-year cut-off point. That was endorsed by the Committee in its 19th report, subject to the proviso that the commissioner should be able to go back beyond that point, after consulting the Committee in serious cases. Mr. Mawer should use that seven-year period of limitations. Sir Gordon also alluded to the trawling through of reports and associated documents to launch fresh complaints. As well as a statute of limitations, Mr. Mawer should adopt a fresh evidence rule. It would mean that, if evidence was available at the time of the original inquiry, it should not be used to found a new inquiry.

Too often we fail to recognise how fortunate we are in our public servants. Few countries can match ours in the dedication and integrity of its public servants and the skill and independence of its judiciary. That is not an excuse for complacency; it is not a defence of the status quo. We cannot take our reputation in this House for granted. That is why there is a very heavy burden on the shoulders of the new commissioner. But in our public life there is virtually no major misconduct, and we should be very proud of that.

6.13 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I am pleased to follow the hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston). I thought that some of his structural points about the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards were very important, although he is totally unrealistic in his view of what is possible with the press.

I agree with the hon. Members for Walsall, North (David Winnick), for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) and for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Sedgemore) in their analysis of the situation. Some other Members are in a state of denial about what has happened. The House of Commons has, collectively, engaged in the political assassination of its Standards Commissioner—that is what she believes has happened; she believes she has been undermined. She believes that she was a turbulent Standards Commissioner who was got rid of. What is more, the overwhelming majority of the public believe that Elizabeth Filkin is to be no more because she was ferreting out things without fear or favour. Right hon. or hon. Members, on the Front or Back Benches, who do not appreciate how that adds to the cynicism about politics are living in a different political world from me. There is a seam of discontent about the events of the past few months, which may not be widespread in this place because many Members, to their discredit, take very little interest in this.

At business questions, the Leader of the House is fond of dismissing the number of signatories—49—to the early-day motion that the hon. Member for Worthing,

13 Feb 2002 : Column 254

West tabled expressing confidence in Mrs. Filkin. Thirty Labour Members of Parliament signed it, as did five Conservatives, nine Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru Members, three Liberal Democrats, one independent and one Member of the Social Democratic and Labour party. It did not include the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch, so I suspect that the list is not exclusive. Those Members and others feel a deep discontent and anxiety about what has happened to the present Standards Commissioner.

I have never met Elizabeth Filkin; I have never phoned her, had a postcard or sent her a letter. That is probably the best position to be in—it may even be a fortunate position, all things considered, because I have no axe to grind. However, I have read her reports, which have been meticulous and closely argued. They seem to be properly based and I have detected no political axe-grinding in them. Why, given the excellence with which the representative of the House of Commons Commission told us that she had conducted affairs, has it come to pass that she has, in effect, been constructively dismissed? That is what has happened to one of our employees. Members talk in employment debates about employees' rights, legal protection and European statutes, yet one of our most important employees—the one with the most difficult job of all in regulating us—has been undermined in a despicable fashion.

Structural points might lead to such a situation, almost regardless of who is in post; indeed, the better the person employed, the more likely they are to lead to that situation. The hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch obviously knows Elizabeth Filkin much better than I do. I liked his description of her as being prepared to search for the truth without fear or favour, no matter whose toes she trampled on. Surely that is exactly the sort of person we want in the job.

We have a hybrid system that cannot work. The hon. and learned Member for Dudley, North referred to separating the investigative role from the adjudication role. We have lumped the two roles together. We then have a second-guess system of self-regulation in the Committee on Standards and Privileges and, possibly, a third-guess system on the Floor of the House.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards has issued a report in which she upholds, in meticulous detail, four complaints against a current Minister of the Crown. The Committee on Standards and Privileges has decided today, in six brief paragraphs, to take no action. I do not think that a system in which we appoint an independent Standards Commissioner, or at least one who is meant to be independent and then have a second-guess system of self-regulation, can possibly be sustained. We must go for one or the other. We can adopt an independent system of regulation with a Standards Commissioner reporting, perhaps, to the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. When that idea was mentioned earlier by the hon. Member for Walsall, North, the Leader of the House gave one of his characteristic scoffs. Independent regulation would mean having someone who was genuinely independent and responsible outwith the procedures and processes of this House. If we want self-regulation, we had better understand that it will always be open to the accusation that the Committee matches the make-up of the House, and some people will believe, rightly or wrongly—but, given the events of last

13 Feb 2002 : Column 255

few months, probably rightly—that certain people will receive different treatment from certain other people. That will be the perception.

Next Section

IndexHome Page