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Sir George Young:
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He anticipated the other point that I intended to make. The audit trail is much simpler if the money has gone straight from the Fees Office to the supplier, rather than along the more circuitous route via the Members bank account. No great oratory is needed to make the case. All I seek from the Government is an acceptance of the
amendment or an assurance that the amendment is not necessary because that facility is possible under the Bill as drafted.
Barbara Keeley: The experience of the past few months had taught us that some Members may need to take greater responsibility in future for the allowance claims made in their name. We want to be sure that, as the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) outlined, existing arrangements to pay invoices or standing payments in respect of a Member are transferred to the new scheme. The amendment as drafted may raise some technical issues. We want to capture the point that payments are made for or in respect of a Member. If right hon. and hon. Members will allow, we will give the matter further consideration as the Bill progresses through Parliament and seek to capture the essence of the amendment.
Mr. Grieve: The amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) is sensible. When our allowances were published, a constituent pointed out to me that the system by which we were submitting payments to the Fees Office was costing more money because direct debit arrangements would lead to savings. These are all issues that need to be examined. Given that we are required to provide value for money, and given alsoI take the Ministers pointthat there should be proper scrutiny of what we are claiming for, cost savings could be achieved by direct debit mechanisms, with the money going straight from the Fees Office to the third party.
Sir George Young: The Minister made a helpful reply. I accept the implied rebuke that my drafting is not perfect and that there is somebody somewhere else who thinks they can do a better job. It would be churlish to press the amendment against the undertaking given by the Minister, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Yesterday, to general approbation, I announced that the Government would withdraw clause 6. We should get an opportunity to do that later this evening. My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House attached her name to amendment 83, standing in the names of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides. I also told the House that there would be certain consequential amendments, and these are they. Essentially, they replace the word rules with
a code to be observed by members of the House.
code of conduct relating to financial interests.
Why are we doing that? The Committee could spend the whole evening on this, or no time at all. I recommend the latter. I am sure all Members have studied the code of conduct with great care. In addition to the fact that 33 pages are devoted exclusively to guidance on financial matters, a significant chunk of the code qua code in the earlier pages is also concerned with financial relationships. That will go into the scheme that IPSA would have the responsibility to prepare, but I repeat that it would be subject to decision by the House. Under clause 5(6) it could not come into effect unless it was approved by the House.
There was a suggestion not only from the Government Benches, but from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, for example, that there should be a code. In so far as the public take a close interest in the matter, it makes sense for them to note that the code of conduct will not disappear when, as a House production, it becomes thinner. A large part of it will find its way into that proposed in clause 5.
Mr. Grieve: I am not entirely persuaded by the soft-soaping of that change, which is rather fundamental. We are setting up financial rules and we have a code of conduct. I appreciate that the Government take the view that, at some point in the future, the commissioner might have some conjoined role covering not only standards and privileges, but the investigatory functions in the Bill. However, now does not seem to be the time to run the two together, because it would immediately raise the possibility of our current code of conduct becoming subject to IPSAs remit. Indeed, the Secretary of State seemed at least to hint that a revised code could be produced which would wrap the whole thing up into one. The Bill, however, does not seem to authorise that; we would have to take further decisions. So, for the moment, why not keep the rules separate from the code? If there comes a time when we should join the two together, we can do so later.
Mr. Straw: I was not suggesting that the two codes would run togetherfar from it; I was suggesting that they would be split. The code that relates to the non-financial matters of the House would be pretty thin, and I therefore think it important that the public and Members be able to find that part of the code which is the vast bulk. It would comprise not only the guide to the rules relating to the conduct of Members, but the rules of conduct in the Members current code of conduct, wrapped up in a single word: code. That is all I am saying.
Sir George Young: Is it not the case that we will continue to have the Members current code of conduct, albeit without paragraphs 14 and 16 and the financial bits, and then another code that, if the amendment is agreed to, will be called a code? There is a real risk of confusion, because there will be one code produced by the House, our current code of conduct, and another code produced by another body, covering matters that are tangential but not identical. Would it not be better to have just one code and to stick with what we had until this morning, which was the rest of it being just rules?
Mr. Straw: That is a choice for the Committee, but in my judgment, there are slightly more important issues to get on with. My view is that the amendment would be more sensible. We would have a code that was like the current code but
a code of conduct relating to financial interests,
as spelt out by proposed new subsection (2) in amendment 74. Like the current code, it would have rules and general guidance, too. It would be more than a code and more than the rules, just like the current code, and it would come before the House.
code of conduct relating to financial interests.
Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): In the hope that we can speed on our way through the clause, I wonder whether my right hon. Friend recalls that, yesterday evening, Government Members insisted that it was totally proper that we declare in detail our earnings from other interests, but that we thought unworkable the proposals that we account for the amount of time spent in acquiring those earnings. Has he had further thoughts on that in relation to this clause?
On amendment 16, which my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell) tabled, I shall listen carefully to what he has to say before coming to a view.
Amendment 27, from the Opposition Front-Bench team, would require IPSA to consult Members when preparing and revising Members financial interests, and we will of course accept that.
no member may be required to declare any specified information relating to any source of outside earned income which would place him in breach of a duty of a confidentiality,
and amendment 7 would leave out subsection (8), which is quite a detailed subsection. I want to listen to the debate on those two amendments, but I say to all parts of the Committee that I accept that the drafting of subsection (8) is potentially too onerous and restrictive of Members. I do not mean that it is too narrow; it may be too wide. However, parliamentary counsel are already looking at whether its basic purpose can be captured in far less onerous language.
I think that there is general agreement that any scheme for the registration of interests should be backed by arrangements whereby interests have to be declared. Part 6 of the code of conduct, Registration and Declaration of Interests, says:
Members shall fulfil conscientiously the requirements of the House in respect of...registration...and shall always draw attention to any relevant interest in any proceeding of the House or its Committees.
Paragraph 77 gives further guidance on how declarations of interest should be made, saying that it should be done briefly. I think that we all accept that. I certainly accept that, as the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) said, we are now in the age of Google. Ten years ago, before Google, someone who wanted to find out whether a Member had a declarable interest had to go to the Library or to a public librarythere was no other way of accessing that information. These days everybody can do it, even from a mobile telephone. The fact that the consequences of registration are so ubiquitous should mean that the need for declaration is less onerous.
At the same time, there must be some provision for declaring an interest; otherwise, we would get into some extraordinary situations. Somebody may, perfectly properly, be an adviser to a particular company and wish to say somethingnot paid advocacyin a debate. For example, an adviser to or a director of a defence company may have an interest in speaking generally in a defence debate. There is no reason why they should not do so, but it is important that that is drawn to the Houses attention and that of the Members constituents.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): The Justice Secretary has made some important and practical points. However, what astonishes me is that we are faced with a specific, detailed provision, presumably drawn up by lawyers in consultation with Ministers, and it looks as thoughI welcome thisit is about to fall at the first fence. Why on earth was it introduced in this fashion if the Justice Secretary now accepts that it is a complete load of nonsense? Can he give us some idea of how he expects us to have to deal with this? At the moment we simply say, I refer to my entry in the Register of Members Interests, that reminds the House that the right hon. or hon. Member has an interest, and if anybody wants to look it up, they can do so.
Mr. Straw: Even in Bills that are not brought in with this speed, sometimes Homer nods and they need refreshmentthe language needs to be improvedas one proceeds. That is the purpose of proper scrutiny. There is not a single Bill in which I have been involved in the past 12 yearsit is a huge pile nowthat has not been improved by the process of scrutiny. Sometimes, as a result of amendments being tabled, one discovers things that should be improved. I plead guilty to that.
Sir Patrick Cormack: I am in a great dilemma. Today the current rules come to an end. As from tomorrow, we are supposed to declare all these timings and things, which were so brilliantly exposed as odd by the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) in his speech yesterday; I supported him in the course of my own speech. We now have proposals before us that the Secretary of State accepts are imperfect; I infer from what he says that he wishes to see them altered. The other problem is that Sir Christopher Kelly was specifically asked by the Prime Minister to look at the whole issue and to report on it. We really are in an awful, confused mess. As I have said before, we want clarity, so can we please have some advice from the Justice Secretary? Will the rules that are supposed to come into force tomorrow come into force? How are we affected by what he is saying tonight? Can he give an undertaking that whatever he says tonight will take second place to what Sir Christopher says if he makes different recommendations?
Mr. Straw: The rules that are due to come into force tomorrow will come into force tomorrow, and that has nothing whatever to do with the Bill. Everybody knows that to be the case, because the decision about that preceded the Bills publication. Those rules will stay in force until they are changed by the House in the normal way.
I have sought to answer the hon. Gentlemans point about recommendations from Sir Christopher Kelly, but the Billeven the rather onerous clause 5(8), and clause 5(9), which is linked to itsimply provides a framework into which his recommendations, as accepted, would drop. There is no problem with that, although for belt-and-braces reasons I have spelled out what would happen if there were a problem, so we need not go down that track again now.
Mr. Frank Field: May I bring my right hon. Friend back to the matter of timing? He is correct to say that we approved the rules that are coming into force tomorrow, but when we did so we were given four resolutions that we had to accept or reject in their entirety. One of the four stated that we should declare our earnings, which I am totally in favour of, but it also stated that we should declare how much time we spent on them. Like a lot of people, I did not want to be in the position of seeming to be against declaring our earnings, so we voted it through knowing the time factor involved.
From tomorrow, I will not and cannot fulfil the conditions of the House, because of the principles and practicalities that I outlined yesterday. I shall be fined, but I shall not pay the fine, so we will then be in this ludicrous business of going to prison. Surely that cannot have been the aim.
Mr. Straw: I have known my right hon. Friend for more than 30 years, and when we were both traipsing around in the rain at a shack on the gyratory system in Brixton, waiting to be interviewed by the Effra ward of the Vauxhall constituency Labour party in 1976
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