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9.25 pm

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): Some people think that Members of Parliament should have no outside earnings, and to them the debate might seem beside the point. Although such a rule is not proposed, if it were, it would be impractical. For example, what would happen to a writer or a farmer? Are those people seriously suggesting that the only people who should come into the House of Commons are those who have no continuing interests that they want to maintain? I remember that when Peter Thurnham was out of work, he set up an engineering firm to give him a living. To ask such a person to give up his family-owned firm to become a Member of Parliament strikes me as wrong. Although we need a code of conduct that regulates hon. Members' outside interests, it is also true that many of our non-remunerated interests may cost us quite a lot, and bias us in favour of a particular interest or organisation far more than the possibility of receiving £550, or twice that sum.

The only part of the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) that I would rephrase is the idea that giving advice is a new strategy. It is clear from the second commissioner's words and work that she gave a great deal of advice not only to members of the public who had queries about the behaviour of Members of Parliament and possible complaints, but to Members of Parliament who approached her. The registrar also gave advice to Members of Parliament who requested it.

It was plain from one or two of the cases considered by the Standards and Privileges Committee that if the behaviour of a Member of Parliament could be judged to contradict the code of practice or the requirements of the register, a complaint would not be upheld had he or she taken the advice of the commissioner or the registrar. I am glad that the third commissioner is following that strategy. Sir Gordon Downey created that principle when he was the first commissioner, and he would have wanted it maintained.

Now is not the time to re-run our debate about the appointment of Philip Mawer as commissioner. I note the remarks of the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), but if the House is arguing for a continuation of self-regulation, we should make a change that we regard as sensible, on which we have consulted and received the advice of the Wicks committee, despite the fact that the committee's review is still taking place—not only because it is right in itself, but because the issues that the committee is considering go further than the

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changes to the code of conduct and the advocacy rule. If experience shows that we are right and the Committee on Standards in Public Life is, in our view, wrong, and we maintain our independent regulation, with an independent commissioner to help us, it is important that the committee does not, for example, recommend that we bring in outsiders for a tribunal, including lawyers, because we have already rejected that proposal. It is important that we avoid such repetition.

When the Wicks committee interviewed me, I thought that its members approached the subject with open minds. I must tell the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), that I did not get the idea, either on the day before I gave evidence or on the day that I went before the committee, that its members approached the subject with their minds made up. I may be wrong, but that was my impression.

I told the committee that I have the strong view, as my right hon. Friend spelt out, that neither the commissioner nor the Committee on Standards and Privileges considers criminal action. The procedures of the commissioner and the committee would halt were there to be any serious suggestion of even potential criminal charges. That is one of the reasons why I say clearly to the House that there is no question of Members being asked to incriminate themselves when they are asked or required to assist the commissioner in considering a query or complaint, or when they are helping the Committee on Standards and Privileges in its consideration of a commissioner's report and possible further action.

If there is no crime, there is no incrimination. There is the House of Commons obligation to co-operate with the process from beginning to end, by fulfilling the requirements of the register, which we shall adapt this evening, and by answering questions from the commissioner, whether or not the Member concerned thinks that the commissioner has the right to ask those questions. "Answer the questions" is the best advice that the House can give to any Member involved. The experience of some of our colleagues who have had questions raised, who have co-operated and adjusted their register entry and, in some cases, apologised for getting things wrong—or for not getting them quite right—is that the House, the general public and their constituents have not made much of a fuss about it. We all have to learn from that experience.

Mr. Dalyell: Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is his view that there should be no judgment or leak until a final judgment is arrived at?

Peter Bottomley: Yes, but I disagree with those who have publicly or privately said that the second commissioner or her office leaked information of that nature. Most of the time, when information came out which should not have done, I believe that it came from the Member complained of or from people around him or her. In a number of examples that has been demonstrated to be true, although in some cases one cannot demonstrate it. I have spent some time listening to journalists, especially those few who have watched the standards process, and not one has suggested to me that any information ever came improperly from the commissioner or her office.

The change in the limit to £550 is reasonably sensible. It could have been half that sum, but I do not think it should be much higher. I am glad that we are to sweep

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away the rather ridiculous declarations that one has received £25 from a research organisation, which may then have been passed on to a charity. Such declarations of sums up to £500 are misleading and unnecessary. I would advise hon. Members—this is the only part of my behaviour that I commend to others—that if they are to co-operate with a research organisation, it is far better not to take the money, even to give it to a charity. If we want to help a research organisation, we ought to take 15 minutes or even an hour to do so without any money changing hands at all. It is demeaning for Members of Parliament to give the impression that they will co-operate with research in association with, although not quite on condition of, the payment of such sums. That is unnecessary and sends the wrong signals.

I hope that the standards process becomes pretty dull and uninteresting. A number of the higher profile cases in the past were associated with newspaper investigations, or concerned a Member failing to co-operate with the commissioner's inquires and the Committee on Standards and Privileges. There were also other high profile cases that I do not want to go into this evening.

I have a comment to place on the record that I hope the Prime Minister picks up. The incorporation of the Members' code of conduct into the ministerial code, as announced by the Leader of the House when he appeared in front of the Wicks committee, was welcome and overdue. In many senses, it flatly contradicted the Prime Minister's answer to me during oral questions two or three weeks beforehand. I put the point to him, and he said that if there was a complaint about Ministers it should be put to the normal authorities in the normal way. The Prime Minister is the only person who invigilates the ministerial code, and he ought to have known that. I am sorry that on the spur of the moment he gave an answer that displayed his lack of understanding of the importance of what Ministers do.

I add to that this codicil: if Ministers at any time again fail to co-operate as fully as possible, or if officials of a political party fail to do so, as has happened recently, the Prime Minister, as leader both of his party and of the Government, should sack the Minister without question on the first day. That would enable the commissioner to discharge his or her duties even by working only three days a week—Elizabeth Filkin could have done so—and the House would not have had its reputation besmirched by the impression, which I share, that someone who gets close to people close to the Prime Minister is likely to suffer from whispering and direct action. I wish that I did not have to make that accusation in the House.

9.35 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Instant first-day sacking without the opportunity to examine the facts seems a bit reckless. When I interrupted the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), I said that my impression—it was no more than that—from questions asked by the Wicks committee was that perhaps it was against self-regulation. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) is right; none of us can know exactly how it will report, as it will make that decision in the fullness in time. I have just one question for my hon. Friend the Minister, if I can have his attention for a moment. Why are we debating the code of conduct

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tonight? If I were Sir Nigel Wicks or one of his colleagues, I would be pretty cheesed off about that apparent fait accompli.

In fact, the interrogation conducted by the busy people who serve on the Wicks committee was extremely fascinating, as they asked several questions that had not occurred to many of us who had to try to answer them on the spur on the moment. All credit to them, but can we not keep the subject in cold storage until the committee has reported? We cannot take up the time of the busy, highly pressured members of the Wicks committee when, at the end of the day, they seem to have wasted their time because we have made up our minds anyway.

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