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The hon. Member for East Devon (Mr. Swire) referred to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, and to whether the Justice Secretary had referred the Bill to the that committees chairman. I have to say, again, that the
Bill is entirely separate from the work of the Kelly committee. We are still a sovereign Parliament for a sovereign people, and it is up to us in this House to set the framework. Within that framework, the Kelly committee can respond and give us its recommendations, but it is up to this House to approve or not to approve those resolutions. All three main party leaders have said that they will support them when the time comes. We hope and expect them to be appropriate; we expect them to be transparent and to take into account the public interest; and, therefore, we hope that we are in the process of supporting them.
The reason why I think so many of us have given evidence to the committee, notwithstanding the point that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) made about his wife and two others not being able to sit on it at this time, is that we are there to educate the committee, to tell it about the feelings of the House and of Members and to explain to it the things that we think are significant to this House. It is a two-way process with the Kelly committee, and I had no difficulties with my evidence and the evidence that others in the House gave last week.
The shadow Leader of the House said that if we get the Bill wrong we can always reverse it. The Justice Secretary said that we got the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 wrongpossiblybut we have not amended it. This House is sovereign, and if the Bill is not right there will be time to change it; but we have three days for consideration, which is quite a period in which to discuss the Bill not only on Second Reading but in Committee. It is therefore up to this House, as it is doing tonight, to hold the Executive to accountit is a Government Billand to press, probe and see whether there is a response. Up to now, the Justice Secretary has responded. He has listened carefully to Members, and he is still listening. We are in listening mode.
This is a matter for the House of Commons. This is about how we put to the people of our country a new framework for dealing with our expenses and allowances through an alternative fees office, and to get rid of a cosy, incestuous relationship. We must be careful, however, not to show a kind of parliamentary dragsome Members still say, We should be in charge of our salaries, expenses and allowances; we should not give them to a quango. Those days are over, as any of us who speaks to the public will know. We have ceded our authority on such issues, and we should accept that; I hope that all in the House fully accept it.
The hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell) referred to the Kelly committee, and I refer to it again now. The Secretary of State went through the various stages of reform that the House has seen over many years. During my years in opposition, the noble Lady Thatcher never reformed the House of Commons. She reformed many things, including the judiciary and the legal profession, but she never touched the House. Now we are reforming the Housein the interests not of MPs, but of the people of our country.
The Secretary of State is perfectly right not to extend measures to the House of Lords at this time. Many years ago, Richard Crossman wanted to reform the House of Lords. He saw the then Leader of the Opposition, Edward Heath, and made his reform dependent on reform of the Commonsbut we never got reform of the Commons or the Lords. If we wait for the House of
Lords to come on board, we will never get the reform here. It is important that we reform here first; the House of Lords can follow. I am sure that it would wish to, for the sake of its reputation.
I fully support the Bill. I have argued for it; I have argued for the Fees Office to be independent from Members of Parliament. I cast no aspersions over members of the Fees Office and how they work and have helped us over the years, but it is in their and our interests that the separation should take place. I echo the words of the Prime Minister himself. He said that the Bill will end the system of self-regulation and that we would have independent statutory regulation. He went on:
That will mean the immediate creation of a new Parliamentary Standards Authority, which will have delegated power to regulate the system of allowances. No more can Westminster operate in ways reminiscent of the last century, whereby Members make up the rules and operate them among themselves.
The proposed new authority would take over the role of the Fees Office in authorising Members claims, oversee the new allowance system, following proposals from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, maintain the Register of Members Interests, and disallow claims, require repayment and apply firm and appropriate sanctions in cases of financial irregularity.[ Official Report, 10 June 2009; Vol. 493, c. 796.]
The Bill is a major step forward in restoring the reputation of the House and in carrying the institution forward. It is the institution that has suffered, although Members of Parliament might be severely damaged in their constituencies. I give the Bill my full support, because I want the reputation of the House to be restored.
Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): The Secretary of State started by explaining the absence of the Leader of the House; I should explain that in the normal course of events my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) would speak for my party in this debate. However, he is elsewhere on parliamentary business, so the pleasure falls to me. I hope that Members will accept me, although as an inadequate substitute.
The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill, although with significant qualifications to which I shall turn in a moment. As we debate it, it is important for us to be mindful of its political and public context. As the Secretary of State and others have said, there has been a substantial effort among all the parties to move forward by broad consensus, and that has a lot to recommend it as a modus operandi. The Bill provides for the contracting out of the administrative functions of the Fees Office and the removal of ourselves from the invidious position of being judges of our own cause in respect of pay and allowances. To that extent, it is uncontroversial.
Unfortunately, however, there is a great deal more to the Bill than that, and others have already aired their concerns in that regard. I have particular concerns about the timetabling of the Bill. Towards the end of last week, we were favoured with a helpful memorandum from the Clerk of the House, who is to give evidence to the Justice Committee tomorrow. An effort is being made to enable his evidence to be available to Members the following morning. I have heard word that the Joint
Committee on Human Rights may have something to say on the Bill in the next day or two. As always, its intervention would be welcome.
Given all that, why is it so urgent to force the Bill through by Wednesday? I do not say that two days are not sufficient, but why do the Committee and other stages have to take place on two consecutive days? There is no reason why we could not deal with them on Monday or other days next week.
Mr. Carmichael: The House rises on 22 July; if necessaryI hope that my wife does not read thiswe could stay here until 23 or 24 July, or later. Substantial issues of great constitutional importance are at stake; to say that the stages have to take place in this way for the convenience of timetabling is, I fear, somewhat inadequate.
Mr. Llwyd: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, does he not think it would be even better if there were a draft Bill and proper pre-legislative scrutiny, with the calling of witnesses such as experts in administrative and constitutional law, the Clerk of the House and others? In that way, we could make absolutely sure that we did not make a monumental foul-up of the whole thing.
Mr. Carmichael: From one point of view, that would be an eminently sensible procedure to follow. However, I have to say that my experience of pre-legislative scrutiny is that even when we have it, the Government have a propensity to disregard the whole lot and bring forward a Bill that deals with the press release of the day rather than with the substantial body of work that has already been done. The Leader of the House is particularly culpable in that respect.
I shall now gladden the heart of the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). In the short time that I had to acquaint myself with the issues, I looked at the report published in 1999 by the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege, on which he sat. It is a formidable piece of work and its conclusions are exceptionally well argued. However, the report has sat here since 1999 and now, in three days, we have to pass a Bill that deals with substantive issues of privilege. The issues should have been dealt with years ago, as part of a much more measured process.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I am exceptionally grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for what he said about the Committees report. This is not emergency legislation such as that relating to terrorism. Without necessarily going down the route of pre-legislative scrutiny, we could quite easily complete the stages of the Bill in October when we come back. Then every Member would have the chance to read the report.
Sir Alan Beith: If the Government avoided proceeding with the parts of the Bill that get into the parliamentary privileges issue and left in place the parts that set up the body and enabled it to start work, perhaps some of the timetabling issues would go away.
Mr. Swire: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to ask for more time to go through the provisions in greater detail, but is that not rather at odds with his own party leader, who has been saying that we should accept the recommendations of the Kelly report without even knowing what is in it?
Mr. Carmichael: That is an entirely different point; the hon. Gentleman seeks to conflate two separate issues. I remind him that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) is on record as sayinghe was not greatly supported in many parts of the Chamberthat the House should sit until all the necessary work had been done. This is a prime example of something that, if necessary, we could have sat through until we got it right.
In my intervention on the Secretary of State, I asked him whether he was satisfied that the provisions of the Bill would comply with article 6 of the European convention on human rights, and he replied by reference to the declaration in the Bill concerning compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998. I have no doubt that that was not a difficult declaration for him to make, because of course the Human Rights Act does not apply to Parliament. The fact remains, however, that offences under the Bill and any processes that flow from them would have to comply with article 6 of the convention. That point was dealt with in the report by the Joint Committee in 1999. Paragraph 283, on page 75, refers to the case of Demicola v. Malta, in which the editors of a satirical magazine had been found guilty of contempt of Parliament. It was held by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that they had not been given a fair process. The Court observed that
the person charged with contempt was a non-member
but it would be unwise to assume that the requirements of fairness would be significantly less for members.
Mr. Dismore: Although section 6 of the Human Rights Act excludes its operation as regards Parliament, we cannot exclude Strasbourg jurisdiction under article 6 of the convention. It is therefore inevitable that, sooner or later, a Member who is not treated fairly will take their case to Strasbourg. In this respect, we have not brought human rights home for Members of Parliament, although we may have done for the general public.
Mr. Carmichael: The Committee goes on to make that point at some length in paragraph 284. I would say to the hon. Gentleman and to the Secretary of State that if there is one thing that is more dangerous than this House not acting, it is this House acting in a way that is seen to be deficient and is subsequently open to challenge.
The interface that we reach between judicial and parliamentary proceedings is absolutely fascinating, and the Clerk of the House deals with it in his memorandum to Members. Let me draw the Houses attention to his observations on clause 10:
Clause 10(c) allows any evidence of proceedings in Parliament to be admissible in proceedings for an offence under clause 9. This is a very wide qualification of the principle under Article IX of the Bill of Rights that such evidence is not admitted. It would mean that the words of Members generally, the evidence given by witnesses (including non-Members) before committees and advice given by House officials on questions, amendments and other House business could be admitted as evidence in criminal proceedings. This could have a chilling effect on the freedom of speech of Members and of witnesses before committees and would hamper the ability of House officials to give advice to Members.
One must therefore imagine that if the procedures that flow from the implementation of offences under clause 9 are to be in accordance with the normal principles of fairness in relation to admissibility of evidence, it will not be the case, for example, that somebody who is being investigated by the parliamentary authorities will be given a caution. Will they be told that they are not required to say anything before they answer questions from the parliamentary authorities?
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): I think it would be helpful to get some clarification from the Liberal Democrats on the issue of offences. This House, with the support of the Liberal Democrats, supported the Scotland Act 1998, from which several of the offences that are now part of the Bill were lifted. Is the hon. Gentleman concerned about their inclusion in relation to the House of Commons, and not the Scottish Parliament, or does he think that they operate in completely different ways?
Mr. Carmichael: The hon. Gentleman allows me an opportunity to explain. I am not arguing against the offences per seoffences of this sort may be very necessarybut their creation has a particular implication for the operation of parliamentary privilege. That comes back to another point made by the Clerk in his memorandum: the 1999 report gave us an opportunity to take a holistic approach to dealing with questions of privilege. The draft Bribery Bill is before the HouseI sit on the Joint Committee that is scrutinising itand now we have this Bill. We are taking what the Clerk terms a piecemeal approach to privilege, and that is where the danger lies.
The hon. Gentleman may agree with me about two things. First, the offence under clause 9(1), which is the general offence of providing information to make a claim that is known to be misleading in a
material respect, does not, as far as I am awarehe may be able to confirm thisapply in Scotland, where people are subject to the general law, whereas the Bill applies a particular law to this House. Secondly, as regards the prohibition on paid advocacy being turned into an offence, it is a little strange that this is happening just as the Bribery Bill is going through the House, whereby a great deal of attention is being paid to parliamentary privilege and it seems that paid advocacy and bribery are almost synonymous. In those circumstances, why should this particular offence be required without the safeguards that are being debated in respect of the other Bill?
Mr. Carmichael: With regard to the latter point, yes, what the hon. and learned Gentleman says has an undeniable logic that reinforces the argument about the piecemeal approach to reforming the law of privilege. With regard to his first point, as he says, clause 9(1) does not apply in Scotland. Neither does the Theft Act 1968or the Fraud Act 2006; I cannot remember which. In any event, we have a very different body of law. Scots law is a quasi-Roman principle-based system, and we do not concern ourselves with the need for things like theft Acts and fraud Acts. I declare a fascination with that principle, and I commend it to other parts of the United Kingdom.
I have one final concern that I wish to bring to the Houses attention, which again relates to the rather piecemeal approach that is being taken. Yet another body is being created that will concern itself with one small area of parliamentary activity. We already have the Standards and Privileges Committee, the House of Commons Commission, the Members Estimate Committee, the Members Allowances Committee, of which I am a member, the Administration Committee and the Public Administration Committee.
As a member of the Members Allowances Committee, it was apparent to me in the days following the early disclosures of our expenses by The Daily Telegraph that there were already a large number of fishers in a rather small pond. I fear that the creation of IPSA will mean another body fishing in that pond. Perhaps the Secretary of State and the Leader of the House should have considered the existence of all those different bodies, which overlap slightly although they have different jurisdictions, to see whether the time had come to rationalise them and make them more logical and coherent.
Todays debate is just the start of our proceedings, and we will have opportunities to speak about some matters in greater depth in the course of the next 48 hours. As far as Second Reading is concerned, should there be a Division my party will do nothing to impede the Bills further progress.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), because if an opportunity arises, I will vote against the measure, and I wish to use this short contribution to explain why.
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