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9.37 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold): As the Parliamentary Secretary was kind enough to give me advance warning that he would cite my case, perhaps I should begin by declaring my farming and agricultural interest, as recorded in the Register of Members' Interests, which led to a recommendation of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I thank you, Mr. Speaker, for your role in my case; I also thank the Committee Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) and members of the Committee for looking at the evidence that I submitted, considering it impartially and coming up with recommendations in the report to change the rules on initiation and advocacy.

It is worth putting on the record what happened to me, as it is an example of the way in which a rule drafted too restrictively can have unintended consequences. When the leader of the Opposition asked me to become a Front-Bench spokesman on agriculture, part of his reason for doing so, I believe, was my first-hand knowledge of the farming industry. While I was aware that under the rules on the declaration of Members' interests and advocacy there might be a problem, I had no idea of the scale of the difficulty that would confront me. With that in mind, to prepare for Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions on 18 October 2001, and to be certain that I had complied with the rules correctly, I sought advice on 17 October from David Doig, the then Registrar of Members' Interests. In summary, his advice was that my first oral question would have to be preceded by a full declaration of my interests; let me say straight away that I have no problem whatsoever with making a full and absolute declaration of my interests at every opportunity. Although it was not an absolute requirement in the rules, David Doig strongly recommended—with a general caveat that all farming issues are inter-related—that any subsequent question that I asked, particularly one relating to arable farming, should be accompanied by a similar declaration.

The parallel set of rules, the advocacy rules, stated at that time that

As you are aware from my subsequent letter and meeting with you, Mr. Speaker, that would have prevented me at the time from signing any Opposition motion or amendment, proposing or opening any debate or tabling any written question—not just a written question with an

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"R" by my name, but any written question. Given that I am not just a farmer but represent a large rural constituency with many farming interests, the rules would effectively have prevented me from asking questions on behalf of my constituents.

In my letter to you, Mr. Speaker, I went on:

Mr. Dalyell: Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: If I may complete the quote from my letter to the Speaker, I shall happily give way to the hon. Gentleman.

My letter continued:

I cannot believe that when the rules were drafted, that was the intended consequence. I fully accept that there must be a balance between Members' declaration of interests and public confidence in the integrity of Members of Parliament. However, I do not believe that with that interpretation of the rules as they stood at that time the balance was correct.

I give way to the Father of the House.

Mr. Dalyell: How did the rules put the hon. Gentleman in that position, but allow Michael Jopling to be an Agriculture Minister?

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I have pondered that question. I am not sure whether the rules were the same at the time, but that is the advice that I got from the Registrar of Members' Interests concerning the interpretation of the rules in the case of somebody in my position who had a pecuniary interest in farming. I was informed by the registrar that, with the rules as they stood, the same restrictions on initiation and advocacy would have applied to a practising doctor taking a job as a health spokesman, or to a teacher taking a job as an education spokesman.

Mr. Levitt: The hon. Gentleman is performing a service by reminding the House of the reasons behind the change in the rules. I think I am right in saying that the present rules date back to 1996, so they would not have caught the Jopling case. It is also worth putting it on record that the Sheldon case at about this time last year was at the front of our minds when we were formulating the recommendations, which, as the hon. Gentleman said, were prompted by his experience.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. The position was as I suggested to the Father of the House.

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Having put on record what the problem was, I wrote to you, Mr. Speaker, and you kindly asked me to come and see you. We had a full and frank discussion about the matter, and you asked me to write in the same terms to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, which I did. The Committee examined the matter, considered my first evidence and my subsequent evidence, and came up with two possibilities. One was the disproportionate benefit rule, and the other the less onerous exclusive benefit rule, which, as the Chairman said, would prevent a Member from seeking to confer a benefit exclusively on a body in which he had or expected to have a pecuniary interest.

I suspect that the House will return to that definition, as its precise meaning is still unclear. In my case, would I fall foul of it if I were to ask from the Front Bench for a subsidy for arable farmers from which I would benefit, even if a large number of my constituents would also benefit and had been asking me to lobby for such a measure? I am not certain about that and I think that the House will need to revisit the subject, although it is clearer than it was. To that extent, I am grateful to the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee.

Why have I raised this subject? A fundamental matter of principle is involved, and it was raised earlier, during the previous debate. What do we want in this House? Do we want to be bumbling amateurs or do we want people to come into the House who have real knowledge of the outside world? I suggest that we want Members to come into the House with real knowledge of the outside world. That serves Parliament and this country well. I do not think that we want professional politicians who do not have experience of the outside world. One of the great strengths of the other place is that whatever it is debating, there are people of nationally—if not internationally—renowned reputation in the field in question. That is what enhances and gives quality to debates in the other place.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): The word "exclusive" refers to whether an exclusive benefit would be conferred in terms of the interest that the hon. Member in question had found to be personally registrable. It would not apply to a generic group including all arable farmers. That is the difference. There is a paradox that we have not addressed and which I regard as nonsensical: hon. Members could speak against their own interest, but if they had not declared it, they would be in breach of the rules. Even though they had spoken against their interest, they would be in breach of the rules for having spoken about it at all.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for trying to clarify the matter, but let me throw the issue back at him. Suppose I was a member of the National Farmers Union as a farmer with a pecuniary interest in farming, and was advocating a specific topic on which the union had lobbied me and which would confer an "exclusive benefit" on a trade or body, to use the words of the report. Would I fall foul or not?

Mr. Williams rose

Mr. Clifton-Brown: It appears that the right hon. Gentleman is going to tell me.

Mr. Williams: If the Member was the sole operator in the trade, the answer would be yes; if he was not the sole operator, the answer would be no.

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Mr. Clifton-Brown: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that clarification. When people get into problems subsequently, they may look back at his words, which might help to provide clarification.

I think that I have adequately described my situation. If the House accepts the report and the change on rules and initiation, it will be doing the country and our constituents a service. I recommend and endorse the change and thank the Chairman and his Committee.

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