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The House needs to establish its reputation for probity by the way in which it handles such issues, which it must do with continuity, fairness and firmness. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wells was right to warn us of the danger of too much trivia, with too many unimportant cases cluttering up the system and giving the impression that many Members are not as honourable as they should be, which is untrue. With a serious case such as this, we need the help of the DTI to crack it, so that the public can see that we really have got to the bottom of the issue.
Sleaze was a weapon fashioned by Labour in opposition. It is in danger of becoming a boomerang, causing them endless problems as allegations surround Ministers and former Ministers. I urge the Government to clear up those allegations through a full inquiry into the former Maxwell operations, because many of them stem from that awful web of connections between the late Robert Maxwell, his business empire and Ministers past and present.
Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough): It is always a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who made a very seductive and persuasive argument for further inquiries into the Maxwell empire and how it might be linked to the Government or to Ministers. While he did not want to speak too dishonourably of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), he said that the question of the cheque and the proceeds had not been cleared up.
To my recollection, the Department of Trade and Industry spent 10 years investigating the Maxwell empire, and published a report. I cannot see how more reports could possibly be helpful. I have read Tom Bower's books. I declare an interest, because Mr. Maxwell went to his grave owing me £500. I will not detain the House on how that came about. I may have been luckier than many.
From personal knowledge of Maxwell, I know that if ever someone was capable of writing a cheque on the Friday and letting it bounce on the Monday, it was he. He reputedly funded the Commonwealth games in
To go back to the point that is relevant to the debate, the fact that a cheque was written out is no proof that it was ever endorsed or cashed. I ask the House to take my hon. Friend's apology in good faith, and to accept in good faith that he did not receive the money. As for the report before the House, I accept that such debates are important for the House and its reputation, but I would not advise the Government to order more investigation by the Department of Trade and Industry.
Mr. Redwood: I was drawing attention to the fact that the Committee could not wholeheartedly resolve the issue; that is why it needs clearing up. If things are as the hon. Gentleman suggests, we have to explain why the accounts seem to imply otherwiseand we need to know what other items in those accounts are misleading.
Mr. Bell: Again, questions about the accounts go wider, because we are talking about the activities of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West, and the particular question before the Committee on Standards and Privileges. How the auditors did their work is something different. All that I am telling the House is that Mr. Maxwell had a reputation for issuing cheques on a Friday that bounced on a Monday. Therefore the House should accept my hon. Friend's apology and statement in good faith, accept the Select Committee's report, and leave the matter where it is.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): I should declare an interest at the outset, in that I was at one time Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), the distinguished Chairman of the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I salute him for the work that he has done, and I am delighted that he has taken over that role. I was not paid by himor by anybody else, sadlywhen I was his PPS, but I must tell the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Levitt) that a very strong convention applied when we were in government, that a PPS was part of the payroll, even if not actually on it, and did not participate in House of Commons matters except formally. I am surprised to see that the hon. Gentleman is still serving on the Committee.
I shall now take up a point first made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire and then taken up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory). We run a risk of allowing trivial cases, however defined, to gain currency outside the House and give the impression that this House is made up of a great number of people who are venal and do not take their parliamentary responsibilities seriously.
Rightly or wrongly, there has emerged the ideaand in some people's view the debate may reflect itthat we are engaged in party political point-scoring over reports from the Committee on Standards and Privileges. I have said to Labour Members, some of whom hold high office in this Government and some of whom are no longer in the House, that in my view the Committee has in the past been partisan in favour of the Labour party, and that if we are to have a Committee that works, and does not merely feed stories to the newspapers with which to undermine public confidence in this place, they will have to act responsibly and resist the opportunity to make partisan accusations.
I am sorry that the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) is not now in his place, but I merely wish to say that, as he knows, in the last Parliament I complained that he had complained to Mrs. Filkin about John Major and said that the former Prime Minister had received remuneration for undertaking speaking tours in the United States. I make that point because the report raises issues of comparative treatment. My right hon. Friend the Member for NorthWest Hampshire mentioned general points that arise from the report, and I hope therefore that what I am saying bears on those remarks.
The House must resist the temptation to be partisan in these matters, because the only institution that will be damaged is Parliament and the only beneficiary will be the media, which like to write salacious stories about our activities. They write no salacious stories about their activities and their private lives would not stand the scrutiny of a candle, let alone a searchlight.
Mr. Michael Jabez Foster: Members of the Committee may be offended by the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that they are partisan in their quasi-judicial role, especially those who are members of the legal profession. They would be most offended if it were suggested that they were not capable of fairness in their decision-making. How can the decisions be partisan when they are unanimous? Or does the hon. Gentleman wish to suggest that Conservative Members on the Committee are so timid that they cannot stand up for themselves?
Mr. Howarth: The idea that lawyers are uniquely virginal in such matters will strike the public as somewhat curious. Any of us who have had any experience of lawyers will know that they are very much part of this world, although some of us may wish that they were part of the next world.
I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will permit me to contrast and compare the treatment of one hon. Member against that of another, because I believe that that is a legitimate approach in a debate on such a report. The hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mr. Foster) is indignant at my suggestion that the Committee is partisan, but I hope that he will accept the following points. In the last Parliament, the Committee did not show the good faith and indulgence that the hon. Gentleman thinks should be shown to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West to my former hon. Friend, Mr. Neil Hamilton. Few hon. Members will be surprised that I mention that name, because the House knows that he is one of my very closest friends. He was served a grave injustice by the Committee, on which several current hon. Members served in the last Parliament.
Evidence was provided for the payment of £200,000 to the hon. Member for Coventry, North-Westthe company accounts and the invoicebut the Committee failed to find any such evidence relating to Mr. Hamilton. The Committee could not determine how much he had received, or how or when he had received it. It effectively convicted that man on the basis of no empirical evidence whatsoever.
Such was the overwhelming case that Neil Hamilton made that the Inland Revenue has accepted entirely his accountants' claim for signing off on his accounts. In other words, there was no money from Fayed. Everyone