Speech on Standards & Privileges in Parliament
Category: House of Commons
l want to take this opportunity to bring to the House my concerns about the way in which self-regulation is operating - or, as l would contend, failing to operate - in this important area. It is an important area because if we cannot regulate ourselves in a way that commands confidence, both in this House and among the public at large, we certainly cannot aspire to regulate others.
I believe that the report into the investigation of Neil Hamilton was a travesty - a travesty of natural justice, and the result of a deplorable shambles. It is urgent that we put together proper procedures in this House so we never have that sort of a shambles again. There is general agreement among Members of all parties that the current procedures are inadequate.
First, let me say that l do not criticise the thoroughness with which Sir Gordon Downey carried out his investigation; it would be quite wrong to do so. The report involved the detailed amassing of highly complex evidence, and reports that there was a falling out between Sir Gordon Downey and the Committee are very much exaggerated. I pay tribute to the report that he produced. Nor am I necessarily convinced that Mr. Hamilton was innocent of the main charge - taking cash for questions in brown envelopes from Mohammed Al Fayed. My disquiet over the report has nothing to do with any view that Mr. Hamilton might be innocent. It is straightforwardly that I do not believe I can make a judgment as to whether he was innocent or guilty on the basis of the procedures that were adopted.
It is disturbing that this House, which should set an example of justice and fair dealing, was presented with a report against which Mr. Hamilton had no appeal. My concern would apply to anybody else in such a situation; this is not special pleading for Mr. Hamilton . It is a basic tenet of British justice that there can be an appeal against a guilty verdict. We assume the verdict was guilty because it was indicative of the shambles which occurred that no two members of the Committee were able to agree on what the report was telling the House.
The Chairman said that Sir Gordon's findings stood, which meant that the verdict was guilty; but the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Inverness, West (Mr. Kennedy) told the House that there was no clear verdict, so it was not proven, which was also my understanding of our conclusion. That is why we removed one set of words, saying that we endorsed the findings, and substituted another, saying that we could find no practical way of adding to or subtracting from them. The House was entitled to a clear statement of what we had found, rather than several confused versions from different members of the Committee.
Throughout our proceedings we were bedevilled by the fact that there were no clear, agreed procedures. I never before sat on a Committee in which we made up our procedures as we went along, but that is exactly what happened. We could not agree on what our remit was or what our procedures should be. We ended by reducing justice to the decision of a single inquisitor, against which there was no effective appeal.
It was farcical that, when Mr. Hamilton appeared before us and talked at usI cannot think of any other way of expressing itfor nearly two and a half hours, we were not allowed to ask any questions. If we thought that he had contradicted himself or that something was unclear, we could not ask about it; we had to sit there in silence and absorb the onslaughtthat is what it was for two and a half hours. That is profoundly unsatisfactory. At the end, l was none the wiser. I had heard a great deal that had raised an awful lot of questions in my mind, but because l could not ask questions l was neither wiser nor better informed.
We could not examine the main witnesses against Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Al Fayed was not called before the Committee, and we could not examine those who said that they had been involved in the dispatch of the money, so we had no basis on which to assess a report that had been challenged. That was our real problem, because there were no serious challenges to the facts in all the other reports before us; there were pleas in mitigation, writings to the Committee to apologise and drawings of our attention to other matters, but there was no real challenge to facts. On the occasion when there was an extremely serious challenge to facts we did not have the procedures to deal with it.
We examined Sir Gordon Downey's huge and extremely thorough report and we knew that it would take a very long time, involve a great deal of complexity, and demand resources that we possibly did not have, to re-examine the questions from scratch. The answer to that was not to shrug our shoulders and have done with it, but to come back to the House and say that we were stuck and needed a clear remit and guidance on how we should proceed.
We have to decide whether the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges is an appellate body. Should it hear appeals against the Commissioner's findings? If not, who is to hear such appeals? Or are we seriously suggesting that we should create in the House a situation, unique in this country, in which a finding can blight someone's career prospects, and even preclude membership of the House, but no appeal is possible? Surely that must be unacceptable.
We have to decide what appeal there should be. Should it be heard by the Committee or by some other body? Should practising lawyers be involved? What should we do? Is the Committee simply a sentencing and administrative body, or is it an investigative body that determines guilt and innocence? Those questions, incredibly, have not been sorted out. We carried out investigations if that is the right word - into the conduct of Members of Parliament, without an answer to the basic question: what is the purpose of the Committee?
The purpose of the Committee determines very much what its composition should be. I regret the fact that it has been downgraded in composition. A Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, sitting in judgment on Members of Parliament, and occasionally quite senior ones, should itself be a senior Committee. I regret the fact that the Leader of the House does not chair it. The Committee's predecessor was chaired by the then Leader of the House and back in the mists of time it was chaired by the Prime Minister. That gave the Committee real gravitas, which l believe is now lacking
I do not want to criticise new Members, as those who serve on the Committee are extremely diligent and intelligent, and spend a lot of time examining the evidence, but they lack one huge dimension: experience. Experience counts in such investigations, as it helps one to understand what a Member of Parliament could or could not be expected to know. One needs to have served in the House before one can reach such judgments. The composition of the Committee is all wrong.
We need to ask ourselves whether legal representation should be allowed. In highly complex investigations of the sort that went on in the Hamilton case, we should consider seriously whether we should allow cross-examination of witnesses. It is worth pointing out that in this case Mr. Hamilton was not allowed to cross-examine the witnesses against him, even in front of Sir Gordon Downey, never mind in front of the Committee. That seems to me to be another affront to justice, and even to natural justice.
I do not say that there are easy answers. I am not standing here sanctimoniously saying that we should have had it all sorted out, although we should have had a lot more sorted out than we did;but the solution that the Committee should have arrived at was to say honestly to the House that within our current remit, against procedures of which we were not even certain, we really needed clearer instructions before we could proceed. As it is, we have left a man who may be guiltyI do not presume innocencewith no clear verdict and no right of appeal. That should bring us deep shame.
It is urgently necessary that the House address itself to what it expects the Committee to do, what composition it should have, and how we are to resolve the situation. It will be fine as long as we carry on having simple cases, but the next time that we get one of the complexity of the Hamilton case, we will be back in exactly the same situation if we have not sorted out our procedures.
I resigned from the Committee because I could not go on wading against a sea of uncertain procedures, with no clear remit, making things up as we went along and, in the end, having to subscribe to a report that, I believe, brought shame on us, not because we had not made honest efforts but because we had not been able to sort out the mess. It ill behoves any Select Committee to return a shambles to the House.
Of course I understand the convention by which both Government and Opposition accept reports from Select Committees, especially when they concern standards and privileges and the regulation of our own conduct; but on this occasion I believe that they should not have accepted the report: it should have been sent back to the Committee for reconsideration. It was accepted, however, and the damage is done; whether justly or unjustly, we will never know, because there is no appeal. We must get this sorted out for the future. If we cannot regulate ourselves we have absolutely no right to aspire to regulate anybody else.