THE OBSERVER (ALLEGATIONS)
The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)
Yesterday I gave a preliminary answer to a Private Notice Question [column 1659]from the Leader of the Liberal Party concerning the position in law of Members of Parliament in relation to allegations of corruption. In the course of the exchanges that followed, the view was expressed that, such allegations having been made and having achieved wide publicity, it would be in the public interest that they should be investigated. I asked for time to consider this, and on further reflection, having now studied what has appeared, I agree with that view.
The reputation of Parliament must be upheld and that means that public concern should be satisfied. This requires a full and thorough investigation into the recent allegations made against hon. Members acting in their parliamentary capacity. The Government will therefore enter into immediate discussions with other parties in the House on how such an investigation shall proceed.
We are here concerned with allegations of improper conduct by Members in the course of proceedings in Parliament since such cannot be the subject of criminal offences. Possible criminal offences were the subject of the statement made on Tuesday by my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General.
It is the Government's provisional view that the appropriate body for such an investigation would be a Select Committee of Members of this House, and I propose that there should be early discussions both as to the composition and also the precise terms of reference of such a Committee. An appropriate motion would then be put down on the Order Paper.
It would be our intention that the motion would give to the Committee full powers to send for persons and papers and that it would have such assistance as it required from the Attorney-General, who would not be a member of the Committee.
The Committee's proceedings would not be concerned with the general question to which I referred yesterday; that is to say, what action, if any, the House should take to consider changes in the law following the recommendation of the Salmon Commission.
I am grateful to James Callaghanthe Prime Minister for making this further statement. Is he aware that we agree with him that the reputation of Parlia[column 1660]ment is at stake and that action must be taken to uphold its good name? To that end, speaking for the Conservative Party, we shall therefore co-operate fully with him in consultations about the nature of the Committee, its terms of reference, and its composition.
I should like to make one point about the final sentence of the statement, which referred to the recommendation of the Salmon Commission. Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to make a further statement about any action which he proposes on the recommendation of that Commission?
The Prime Minister
I am obliged to the right hon. Lady for the way in which she responded to what I said. We shall, of course, be willing to have full discussions with all those who are concerned in this matter on the composition of the Committee, its terms of reference, and any other material points.
Regarding the Salmon Commission, I gave an indication yesterday of how we thought we would proceed—namely, to give some advice to the House which it might want to take up. I am open for discussion on this matter. Indeed, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Lord President will be back soon to relieve me of these responsibilities. There need be no difference between us as to how we should proceed on consideration of the Salmon Commission's proposal.
Mr. David Steel
I thank the Prime Minister for the further consideration that he has given to this matter and for his statement.
Will the right hon. Gentleman reflect on what he said yesterday about possible vindictiveness towards Members of the House? I hope that he will accept that, as far as I am aware, it does not exist in any quarter of the House. It is the public interest and the interests of this House that are at stake, particularly when we bear in mind—this is in Hansard of July 1972—that the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), and the then Leader of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), both made it clear that, following the end of criminal proceedings, further investigations were possible. It would have been a denial of that feeling in the House four years ago had nothing been done. [column 1661]
The Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life criticised the fact that the Committee of Privileges does not have adequate investigative powers. Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore undertake that, in addition to the welcome availability of the Attorney-General to the Committee, any resolution setting it up will be strong enough to allow it to have as much information on these matters as was available to the Director of Public Prosecutions?
The Prime Minister
I regret it if, in passing, I used a word which caused offence. I did not mean to do that.
On the question of the powers of such a Select Committee if this found favour with the House and the matter does not go to the Committee of Privileges, I repeat that it would have full powers to send for persons and papers. I hope that that covers the points that the hon. Gentleman has in mind.
I accept and welcome the statement made by the Prime Minister. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the matters which flowed from the Poulson bankruptcy proceedings were the cause of widespread concern throughout the country? In the light of that widespread concern, will he consider the possibility of establishing a tribunal of inquiry so that publicly that tribunal can investigate all the relevant matters and deal with this matter in a wholly satisfactory way?
The Prime Minister
I think the answer is “No” . This matter basically concerns the actions of hon. Members in the performance of their duties in the House. As such, provided that we give any Committee that we appoint the powers to act in this matter and to send for persons and papers, it seems to me that we should take the responsibility for dealing with the actions of hon. Members in this House.
Sir David Renton
Will the Prime Minister, in his further consideration of the findings of the Salmon Report, bear in mind that some years ago a Select Committee of this House made recommendations regarding the responsibilities and powers of the Committee of Privileges, that since then that Committee has sometimes found itself in some difficulty because of the obscure nature of its present powers and responsibilities, and [column 1662]that this would seem to be a good opportunity for rationalising its position?
The Prime Minister
I regret to say that I do not keep abreast with the Committee of Privileges, but I should have thought that this would be a proper matter for the Committee to report on. If it wished to make further recommendations, the House could take up the matter and change the Committee's powers if it wished to do so.
The Salmon Commission doubted whether a Select Committee has the right powers to investigate these matters as well as the Committee of Privileges. Do the Government intend to pass a resolution in the widest possible terms which will allow the Committee to have all the police files which are at present with the Director of Public Prosecutions so that the matter can be thoroughly investigated?
The Prime Minister
I do not wish to go into too much detail. I have literally had only 24 hours since yesterday to look at these matters. I have tried to give a general answer which I hope will meet the appropriate end that we have in mind. I shall be happy to discuss with the Leader of the Liberal Party or with anyone else what the powers of the Committee should be. I do not wish to be taken further along that road this afternoon.
Will my right hon. Friend explain something which seems a little puzzling? My right hon. Friend is suggesting setting up a Select Committee when one already exists in the Select Committee of Privileges. What is the difference between the Committee which he proposes and the one which exists?
Will my right hon. Friend try to get something done about the report referred to by the right hon. and learned Member for Huntingdonshire (Sir D. Renton)? There was a report on privilege—it is no use asking for another—by a Joint Committee of both Houses. Nothing has been done about it. One result, among others, is that if, for example, we go in for broadcasting the proceedings of the House, the BBC will find itself sued for libel. There are many matters in that report, including the power of this House relating to fining and imprisonment. It cannot fine, but it should be able to do so. All this [column 1663]is in the Joint Report, but nothing has been done about it. The longer nothing is done, the more matters of this character will come up unless my right hon. Friend stirs it up a little.
The Prime Minister
I am not able to comment on the second part of my hon. Friend's question. I must ask him to put it to the Leader of the House, who is no doubt considering these matters.
The Attorney-General, who is a member of the Committee of Privileges, would not be a member of the proposed Select Committee, but he would be available to assist it. That in itself is an important difference. It would also be for the House to consider what powers should be given to this Select Committee which may not necessarily be appropriate to the Committee of Privileges. These are matters to be considered. It seems to me that if we are not to have a Committee of Privileges investigation into these matters at present, another appropriate body set up by the House would be the right way of dealing with them.