Parliament's most un-sung hero deserves an opera of praise.
(After this point I was marooned in my block of flats by snow - without access to WiFi. Still the comments continue without my intervention)
Gordon relentlessly pursued Jonathan Aitken. In his auto-biography, Jonathan recalls the persistent Business Question by Gordon on whether Jonathan's's perjury had an influence. The issue could not be quietly forgotten as many establishment figures hoped.
Gordon often apologised to fellow members of the Public Administration Committee because he was determined to complain for the umpteenth time about the Lords Laidlaw and Ashcroft. Their absentee status and their lavish (possibly illegal ) contributions to the Conservative party, was his constant theme. All witnesses with any possible influence on action were grilled by Gordon at the Select Committee. Hardly a week went by, without Gordon raisng the issue in the Chamber of committee rooms. He has outstanding inquiries under Freedom of Information. Now a bill has emerged from the LibDems in the Lords that are based on Gordon's campaigning.
He was prominent in the exposure of the problems of lobbying and pressed for action yesterday.
Here are main points from the lively debate yesterday on Parliamentary Standards.
That this House believes that the United Kingdom needs and deserves a Parliament that is fit for purpose and free from the taint of partial interests; is dismayed by the slow pace of reform which has failed to deal effectively with the opportunities for abuse; welcomes the suggestions from Liberal Democrat members of the House of Lords to introduce powers to suspend and expel Members of that House, require Peers to declare any interest in all legislation, make all Members of that House resident in the United Kingdom for tax purposes, put the Lords Appointments Commission on a statutory basis, bring Members of both Houses into the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and tighten up on the issuing of passes to Parliament; believes however that there is now an urgent need to bring forward plans for an elected House as agreed by a majority of hon. Members; is concerned at the lack of progress on the Prime Minister’s constitutional renewal programme; is disappointed that current legislation fails to provide for limits on donations or spending by political parties; calls for urgent and effective action to reduce parties’ dependence on large donors and trade union interests; believes that comprehensive reform of the procedures of the House is essential to enable it to scrutinise Government and the spending of taxpayers’ money more effectively; and recognises the need for urgent action to restore the trust of the British public in Parliament as an institution and in politics as a profession.
The past fortnight has been a bad couple of weeks for parliamentary politics. We had the aborted attempt to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the revelations about the activities of certain peers and a reminder, in the Standards and Privileges Committee’s report, of the actions of one hon. Member. A week ago, when we discussed the freedom of information provisions, perhaps in a genuflection to Burns, I asked colleagues to try to see themselves as others see us. I despair at what those outside the House who are struggling to keep their jobs and to keep a roof over their heads think when they read in their newspapers of people asking for £10,000, £20,000 or up to £100,000 to affect legislation by the exercise of whatever influence they believe they have. This cannot go on, and it is time that we took action.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: Lord Laidlaw is a self-confessed tax exile and he gave more than £100,000 to the Conservative party last year. Is it not inappropriate for any political party to accept donations from someone who is a self-confessed tax exile?
Mr. Heath: I believe the hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct in saying that the gentleman in question has made no secret of the fact that he lives outside this country—he lives in Monaco, as I understand it—so I do not think we are in a contentious area there.
There is also the view that peers should be brought under the supervision of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. We have improved self-regulation in this House; it is not perfect, but it is better, and one of the reasons for that is the existence of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. It is extraordinary that self-policing is considered to be a sufficiency elsewhere, and I believe that all Members of Parliament should be brought within the remit of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, which brings me to the third reason and the core problem with the Government—timidity. The Government are afraid to put their neck out and do those things. They like to hint and suggest; they like to form all-party Committees to spend a lot of time looking at things—I have sat on two of them—but when it comes to putting legislation before Parliament and pushing it through they are not prepared to act.
Mr. Gordon Prentice: Given what has been reported over the past few weeks, should we not embrace what the Public Administration Committee’s suggestion and introduce a mandatory register of lobbyists, giving details of the lobbyist and those whom they are lobbying?
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend makes an interesting suggestion, but it is important to understand what counts as a lobbyist, not least because one of our constituents’ ancient rights is to come to the Lobby and demand to see us as their Members of Parliament. Obviously, nothing should undermine that, but my colleagues will want to reflect on the interesting point that he makes.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be fatal to many of the sensible proposals made by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) to link them to the question of elections? The reason reform of the House of Lords has eluded us for 100 years is that we keep opting for “big bang” solutions rather than concentrating on the issues on which we all agree….
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend is a recent adornment to the Front Bench. I am very pleased that he was appointed to be part of the Government, but he did enter the House a little later than most of us, and he will not recall that we were being told in those first years that now—or, rather, then—was not the time for Lords reform. A time would come, and we would know when it was. Now we are being told that it is too late. What has happened? Why has my hon. Friend lost his radicalism in his transfer from the Back Benches to the Front Bench?
Kelvin Hopkins: I agree strongly that there is a danger that Parliament is held in disrepute by the electorate, and that is a serious danger because it is when external forces—the street—take over. We are not far away from such a situation now. Indeed, we saw such a situation today when the three Front Benches were all patting each other on the back and agreeing about the particular economic model that has caused the problem. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that differences in Parliament are healthy for democracy? When all the Front Benches speak the same language, that is not good for democracy. Some good research shows that the only thing that correlates with low and decreasing turnout at elections is the growing similarity between the philosophies of the political parties. That is a fundamental problem that we have not addressed, and it is up to the parties, as much as Parliament, to do something about it. Does the hon. Gentleman agree?
Mr. Vara: The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point about overseas issues. He will, of course, be aware that the noble Lord Paul, who more or less agreed to underwrite the general election campaign that never was about a year or so ago, is non-domiciled. I accept that overseas issues to do with Members of the other Chamber cut across both sides of the House. That needs to be looked at. I suggest that he refrains from trying to score cheap political points and perhaps does his homework a little bit in future.
Kelvin Hopkins: Will the hon. Gentleman make a good start by sending back the Ashcroft cheques now?
Andrew Mackinlay (
Earlier, I said that the Labour Government’s hallmark in respect of constitutional reform is deeply conservative. Let me share something that grates on me. I left school at 16, and many contemporaries of mine have turned up on the Labour Front Bench over the past 12 years
Andrew Mackinlay: Absolutely. If I may return to the historical point, some hon. Members may remember the late John P. Mackintosh, the Member of Parliament for Berwick and East Lothian. I am a disciple of John P. Mackintosh, who produced a programme for the devolution of Britain to make all the parts of the United Kingdom much more coherent, and to allow greater scrutiny at local level where decisions are taken at local level.
The big states—the big players around the world—are federal. The Bundestag, the Parliaments in Ottawa and in Canberra, and the United States Congress deal with defence, foreign affairs and broad macro-economic social policy, but the rest is left to the states, the provinces or the Länder. Here we try and do too much, and we do it badly. That needs to be addressed with some dispatch.
We are constrained tonight, for obvious reasons. If Parliament were in charge of our timetable, the subject matter that we are discussing tonight would be debated at much greater length. Clearly, there is a demand among hon. Members to talk more fully about constitutional reform.
I am deeply concerned that senior civil servants almost automatically become peers. It is offensive and it is a reward for those who know where the political bodies are buried. Lord Jay, who incidentally is presiding over the appointment of people’s peers, was head of the Foreign Office. He is the man who stopped Jeremy Greenstock publishing his memoirs and tried to stop the former United Kingdom ambassador to Washington publishing his memoirs, but he was prepared to take a peerage and what is more, was elevated to decide who is appropriate to be appointed under—I think it is called the House of Lords Commission, but I call it people’s peers. That is the kind of cosy thing that goes on. There was a man who presided over a disaster in the national health service. He was immediately dismissed, but he also got to sit in the House of Lords. The bigger the mess up, the greater the rewards in this country, and that has to stop.