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1994 - Mr Major’s Commons Statement on Standards of Conduct in Public Life

Below is the text of Mr Major’s Commons statement on standards of conduct in public life, made on 25th October 1994.


PRIME MINISTER:

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a statement on the conduct of public life, and put some proposals before the House. Before I do so, I shall refer to the report that I asked the Cabinet Secretary to undertake on allegations of impropriety against named individuals that had been made by Mr. Mohamed Al Fayed. I have now received Sir Robin Butler's report, and am publishing it in full in a written answer this afternoon. Before turning to wider matters, I should like to draw on that report.

Perhaps it would be best if I quoted paragraph 2 of Sir Robin's report to me. It reads as follows:

"In reporting those allegations the informant said that Mr. Al Fayed wanted a meeting with the Prime Minister, principally because of Mr. Al Fayed's wish to have the DTI Inspectors' Report on the takeover of the House of Fraser revised or withdrawn."

It continues:

"He had made a number of allegations against Government Ministers and was contemplating passing them to others."

Sir Robin then sets out my reply. He records that I replied that it would be impossible for me to see Mr. Al Fayed in these circumstances. If Ministers had been guilty of wrongdoing, as Mr. Al Fayed alleged, I was not going to make any sort of deal, regardless of the cost to the Government's reputation. I said that I would consider how to proceed, and suggested that in the meantime my informant should make no response to Mr. Al Fayed.

I said that because I was not prepared to enter into discussions with Mr. Al Fayed on any of these issues. However, it was clear to me that I would need to establish whether there was any substance in the allegations. If there was, it was unlikely that they would remain private; nor was it right that they should remain private. Upon the substance of the allegations, the House now knows that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) has resigned from the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) has rigorously rejected--both orally and in writing--the allegations of impropriety made against him, and is taking legal action. Sir Robin's report makes it clear that he has found no evidence that controverts my hon. Friend's assurances on these matters.

I must tell the House, however, that, since Sir Robin completed his report, other unconnected allegations which were not the subject of his investigations have been made against my hon. Friend. I must consider whether the combined impact of these allegations disables my hon. Friend from carrying out his responsibilities as Minister for Corporate Affairs. I believe that they do, and my hon. Friend agrees and has resigned from the Government.

On the other allegations put to me, Sir Robin found that they are either demonstrably false or, so far as he has been able to establish after careful inquiry, entirely unsubstantiated, as well as being denied by the Ministers concerned.

I now turn to wider issues. It is important that the public have confidence in our system of public administration, our methods of making public appointments, the conduct of people in authority and the financial and commercial activities of public figures. It has always been the wish of this House that British Government, Parliament and administration should be entirely free of malpractice and I am determined to ensure that that is so.

In the present atmosphere, there is public disquiet about standards of public life and I have concluded that action is imperative. I have listened carefully and have reflected upon the points raised by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen in all parts of the House in framing my recommendations.

I have decided to establish a body with the following terms of reference:

"To examine current concerns about standards of conduct of all holders of public office, including arrangements relating to financial and commercial activities, and make recommendations as to any changes in present arrangements which might be required to ensure the highest standards of propriety in public life."

For these purposes, public life should include Ministers, civil servants and advisers, Members of Parliament and United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament, members and senior officers of all non-departmental public bodies and of national health service bodies, non-ministerial office holders, members and other senior officers of other bodies discharging publicly funded functions and elected members and senior officers of local authorities. That is a wide-ranging list, and it is intended to be so.

I have considered the nature of the body to be established. A royal commission tends to be cumbersome, and would probably take too long; a committee composed solely of Privy Councillors might be seen as being too narrowly drawn; a Speaker's Conference traditionally deals only with electoral law; and a formal board of inquiry or judicial inquiry tends to carry out specific investigations rather than considering broader issues and making recommendations to the Government. Arguments can be made for any of those bodies, but I believe that a better way ahead exists.

The body needs to be able to respond quickly and to be sufficiently flexible to deal with the wide range of issues I have outlined. I have, therefore, decided to establish standing machinery to examine the conduct of public life and to make recommendations on how best to ensure that standards of propriety are upheld. It will contain prominent individuals who have practical experience of Parliament and public life, but also others with expertise and knowledge of our principal institutions. Lord Nolan, a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary, has accepted my invitation to chair this committee.

I have invited the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Liberal Democrats each to nominate a member of the committee, and I shall announce the full membership shortly. I hope that the committee will be able to produce at least a first report covering the main areas of current concern within six months, and then stay in being as a standing body to advise the Government of the day.

It will be open to the committee to take evidence in public, although it could also invite evidence in writing or in private and would probably wish to deliberate in private, but the committee must determine this. Naturally, I would expect Ministers and Members of Parliament to give evidence to the committee if requested to do so, but I should make it clear that the purpose of the body is not to replace the House's own machinery, which is the proper way to consider issues affecting individual Members of the House.

The new body will advise on general procedures, including procedures governing public appointments rather than investigate individual cases. When the committee has reported, I will publish its report, I hope in full, lay it before the House and take the proper action upon it. Recommendations affecting the Members and procedures of this House will, of course, be for the House to decide. I hope that I have made it clear that I am determined to ensure that this is a wide- ranging review of the safeguards of standards of public office. It is vital that the system is seen and recognised to be beyond criticism. I shall naturally make available to the committee "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" and any other documentation concerning the proprieties in Government that the committee may seek.

This country has an international reputation for the integrity and honour of its public institutions. That reputation must be maintained and be seen to be maintained. I hope that the standing committee I have announced today will enjoy the support of the House and reassure the people of this country about our determination to maintain high standards of conduct in public life.

Mr. Tony Blair (Sedgefield): I welcome the new body to look at conduct in public life. It is plainly sensible and necessary. I accept that some of the allegations made by Mr. Al Fayed may well be unsubstantiated and, indeed, badly motivated, but will the Prime Minister accept that public anger over these issues goes far wider than merely the matters raised by Mr. Al Fayed?

On the inquiry, will the Prime Minister confirm that it will cover not simply the consultancies of Members of Parliament and outside financial payments, but whether Ministers who privatise companies should then sit on their boards; the role of lobbyists, the use of patronage generally, not just for Members of Parliament but for others; and appointments to quangos, especially given the news today--I should be obliged if he would confirm it --that there are some 66 national health service trusts whose chairmen are either prominent members of the Conservative party or gave a donation to it? Does the Prime Minister agree that the inquiry must be comprehensive, covering past malpractice, present practice and future rules? In that regard, may I point out what I think is a weakness in his statement? Will he confirm that the one area of investigation that appears forbidden to this body will be the specific allegations made against Ministers or Members of Parliament that have given rise to the public anxiety? If the new body is not to examine those cases, is there not an overwhelming case for the Committee of Privileges, which is the only other body that can examine them, to sit in public so that those matters can be investigated?

If that is ruled out, might I suggest alternatively that it is imperative that the new body, headed as it is by a Law Lord and with the power to take evidence, investigates the specific cases before moving to the general conclusions? If the Prime Minister rules out either the Committee on Privileges sitting in public or the new body investigating those matters, there will be justifiable public concern that the general inquiry is being used to sweep the particular allegations from public view when it is those allegations that have given rise to the public concern.

It would not be unfair to describe today's statement as decision-making on the run. Indeed, the resignation of the Minister with responsibilities for trade, just announced, suggests something of the same. I should be obliged if the Prime Minister would tell hon. Members what the nature of those other allegations against the Minister are. I repeat, however, that the inquiry is right. I do not underestimate the difficulties that beset the Prime Minister or the delicacy of the judgment that he must make, but the warning signs over these issues have been ignored for too long.

There should be no more statements made one day only to be superseded by different ones made the next. The action that the Prime Minister takes today should be expanded to encompass the comprehensive solution that I have put forward. If he does that in the way that I described, we will ensure that his Government once again start to control events rather than be driven by them.

The Prime Minister: Let me deal with the points that the right hon. Gentleman made. I welcome the fact that he supports the establishment of this new body. It will restore confidence where confidence may have been lacking, and that is to be welcomed in every part of the House. I welcome also what he had to say about the allegations that have been produced by Mr. Al Fayed.

On the right hon. Gentleman's specific questions about the inquiry, I made clear in my statement the answer to a number of the questions that he asked, but I shall confirm specifically for him that, yes, it is possible to look at the membership of boards, the relationship with lobbyists, patronage and quangos. That is all well within the terms of reference, as I said to the House a few moments ago. On membership of quangos, no record is kept of the political affiliation-- [Interruption.] No record is kept of the political affiliations-- [Interruption]

Madam Speaker: Order. I cannot hear. The House must come to order so that at least I can hear what the Prime Minister is saying.

The Prime Minister: I repeat the point that I made a moment ago. People of all political persuasions serve on non-departmental public bodies. Many of them who are sufficiently well known for us to know their political affiliations without central record are well-known members and supporters of the Labour party.

There is no precedent for the Committee on Privileges to sit in public. The right hon. Gentleman knows very well the good reasons why that is so. It is necessary to have an investigation in depth without unsubstantiated allegations subsequently being made. That is a matter of natural justice, and has always been seen to be so by Members of the House, until some Opposition Members seemed to wish to play partisan party politics.

As for the new body, as I made entirely clear in my statement, it will set up the procedure to ensure that everyone has confidence in the way in which public affairs are conducted. It has been set up for that reason, and it is unbecoming of the right hon. Gentleman to suggest that it was set up for any other reason.

As for the nature of the allegations about my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton), they are allegations and they are unsubstantiated. Whatever inquiries the right hon. Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair) may have, I am not going to retail unsubstantiated allegations. They will be investigated--they should be investigated--but every hon. Member should know that the purpose of the House is not to retail unsubstantiated allegations, but to make sure that they are investigated and, if true, acted upon.

Mr. John Biffen (Shropshire, North): May I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in particular the wide scope that is proposed for the inquiry, and the method by which it is thought that it should conduct its business?

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I felt that it was necessary to give the committee the widest possible scope, so that it may deal with the whole range of concerns that have arisen not just in the events of the past couple of days, but I suppose, in some respects, rather earlier. It is therefore right to deal comprehensively with this matter; to have the committee independently chaired by a senior Lord in Ordinary, whose independence can be undoubted; to have representation on it from each of the three largest political parties in the House and to have other representation on it, which will spread across the band of public life, of people from politics and beyond it.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil): I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement, not least because it seems to follow almost identically the proposals put by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile) a week ago. I am tempted to ask the Prime Minister why it has taken him so long to get there. Will he understand, however, that a welcome for the principle of a general inquiry into the ethics of public office should not be taken as satisfaction with the way in which the Prime Minister has handled individual concerns about individual Ministers in his Government? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his indecision in this matter stands in stark contrast with the clear undertakings that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) little more than a week ago? If there are substantive matters to be investigated, does not the right hon. Gentleman understand that they should be investigated not by the Cabinet in the Cabinet, but by the Privileges Committee in public?

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman's originality is such that he repeats precisely the points made some moments ago to which I have already replied. As for decision-making, an inquiry was established immediately. That inquiry has reported, and action has been taken on it. As for the wider issue, I would hardly regard as he does the decision to establish the widest-ranging committee to deal with the conduct of public life that has been established in this country at any time since the second world war.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): May I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on the action that he has taken? Is it not the case that only an independent inquiry of this kind will satisfy the public? Is it not much better to have such an independent inquiry than to allow the agenda to be set by political muck-raking?

The Prime Minister: I agree with my right hon. Friend entirely about that. It is necessary to have a proper body so that people know that actions are taken within a proper framework and can then deal with suitable contempt with those who make unsubstantiated allegations.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney): The Prime Minister emphasised the wide-ranging nature of the inquiry that he has just announced, and, like others, I welcome that. But will the terms of reference also include a matter that bears upon standards of conduct in public life--the financing of political parties in the UK?

The Prime Minister: This inquiry will deal with Government matters, Government appointments and Government behaviour. It has nothing to do with the financing of political parties, which has been dealt with by the Home Affairs Select Committee.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey): While greatly welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, may I ask him whether the Director of Public Prosecutions will examine whether Mr. Al Fayed should be prosecuted for attempted blackmail and whether all those who either succeed in bribing or attempt to bribe Members of Parliament should be prosecuted for corruption or summoned before this House for contempt of Parliament?

The Prime Minister: The latter point is predominantly a matter for the House. On the former point, the note of my meeting has been passed to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Mr. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): Is the Prime Minister telling the House that the inquiry will have no right and no capacity to inquire into those cases where substantial sums have been paid to the Conservative party in order to buy favourable decisions or privilege?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman would be wise to reflect on what he has just said and on his evidence for saying it. I set out clearly the remit of this committee. It is perfectly clear, and I have nothing to add to it.

Mr. Bill Walker (Tayside, North): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the new body will have the power to look into the substantial sums of money that are paid to a number of right hon. and hon. Members for things that they do for the news media, based on information received while Members of this House?

The Prime Minister: I should think that the chairman of the committee may well consider that the remit would cover an examination of such payments.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): As the Prime Minister purported at Question Time to read out a selected list of Labour members of quangos, he must have taken some trouble to ascertain such political affiliations. Will he now compile and publish a full list of the political affiliations of chairmen and chairwomen of quangos, so that the public know how the Government fill those vacancies? Will he also publish a full list of the chief executives of the next steps agencies with their salaries-- something which he has totally refused to do so far--together with the salaries of the civil servants who did the comparable jobs before the agencies were set up?

The Prime Minister: That is a classic illustration of the sort of smear by association that we have seen so often during the past few years. It is not very difficult for most people in politics to know the political affiliations of prominent socialists like Baroness Jay, Helene Hayman, Lord Scanlon, Mr. Jack Jones and other people I mentioned earlier. I do not know where the right hon. Gentleman lives, but most of us on this side of the House can recognise a socialist, whatever activity they may be performing, if they have been as prominent as those.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden): As chairman of the Select Committee on Members' Interests, I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement today, especially his reassurance that matters affecting Members of this House will continue to be considered by Members of this House.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he said, and I certainly concur with the points that he made. My hon. Friend speaks with great experience of those matters.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Is the Prime Minister aware that the matter of taking money from big business can never be properly cleared up until the Government face the 64-dollar question and say that Members of Parliament should have one job and one job only? Members of Parliament hold 550 directorships, consultancies and adviserships, which are mainly held by Tory Members of Parliament. It is high time that people understood that they should be able to live on the payments made to a Member of Parliament, and that there should be no conflict of interest between serving constituents and serving other masters outside. Clean up the stables now.

The Prime Minister: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman entirely carried his hon. Friends with him in those remarks--some of them also would have interests. I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman also addressed himself to the question of trade union sponsorship and membership of that type. I do not think that that is a matter for the hon. Gentleman. He may be the latest living example of the old levellers, but many other people on both sides of the House believe that the concept of the wholly professional politician will only isolate politicians more and more from the people who send us here.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham): I refer my right hon. Friend to the second paragraph that he quoted from the Cabinet Secretary's report. I ask him to confirm that, in the past six days of hectic media reporting, not a single member of the media managed to discover the way in which they were being manipulated by the Al Fayeds. Although legitimate issues were raised in public, the media should be encouraged to try to ask how they are being manipulated by others. I also ask my right hon. Friend to confirm that it is right that the new standing group should not examine every part of internal party funding, and that we cannot expect it to consider the way in which the Leader of the Opposition got his £70,000 and why the Labour party has appointed Tom Sawyer, the man who said, "No pay, no say", as its general secretary.

Ms Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood): Because he is the best man for the job.

The Prime Minister: "Because he is the best man for the job," the hon. Lady says. I do not doubt that. He may well be the best man for the job; I would not have any criticism about that in the case of Mr. Sawyer. The people whom we appoint are also the best people for the job; that is why they are appointed. I hope that Opposition Members will make the same type of judgment as the hon. Lady did to defend her position, that we would make to the people that we have appointed.

Now we know the truth, do we not? It is the right person if it is someone on the Opposition side; it is sleaze if it is someone on our side.

Mr. Joseph Ashton (Bassetlaw): Is the Prime Minister aware that it is no use writing a new highway code unless there are sanctions at the end of it, such as fines or taking away the licence, to implement it? Is he aware that the last time that the House received recommendations to expel two Members--in that case, Reggie Maudling and Albert Roberts--the Tories divided the House on party political lines and threw out that recommendation? Will the recommendations of the new body have to come back before the House for endorsement and be subject to political sanctions, or will the new body have the power to fine or suspend, or recommend expulsion on the verification of the Speaker?

The Prime Minister: I made the point earlier to the whole House, quite clearly, that the report would have to be laid before the House for the House to consider. If I had not done so on matters relating to the House, a large number of the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friends would have said to me, "This is a matter for the House of Commons, and it has to come back to the House of Commons." Opposition Members cannot have it both ways. As for dividing on party lines and walking out on that basis, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell the Privileges Committee about that.

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon): Welcoming my right hon. Friend's statement, may I ask him whether he agrees that the same requirements should be made, as far as may be reasonable, of quangos as of local government, in respect of access to information and documents and meetings, as well as publication of membership and registration and declaration of interests?

The Prime Minister: Those are all points that can be covered in the report, and I suspect will be.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): Is the Prime Minister aware that, whatever the merits of a wider inquiry may be and whatever embarrassment to individuals or parties may have arisen from recent events, the matter of real concern is that, when people vote for a Member of Parliament, they should know that that Member works for them and is not using his position in Parliament to earn money on political matters that benefit the Member, not the constituent? Were that idea to spread, people would lose faith in the House of Commons, which would destroy centuries of work to establish the democratic principle.

That being the case, is the Prime Minister aware that the only way to deal with it is total openness, which is why I and other Members of the Committee of Privileges felt unable to hear the evidence in private and believed that it should be in public?

Is there not a clear answer to the problem? The Prime Minister and other Ministers, like everyone who has been a Minister, are governed by the strictest guidance of procedure for Ministers on private interests. If that were applied to all Members of Parliament, and if the House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 were used to disqualify, by law, those who did not fulfil those criteria, the matters could be dealt with and public confidence restored.

The Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman's latter point is certainly the sort of matter that the committee may wish to recommend, and may wish to send back to the House. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be free to give evidence to the Committee on such issues if he wishes to do so.

On the subject of open government, may I remind the right hon. Gentleman that I have probably made more moves towards open government in the past three years than we have seen at any stage in the previous 30 years. Those include the membership and terms of ministerial Cabinet Committees, the publication of "Questions of Procedure for Ministers", the Intelligence Services Act 1994, the White Paper on open government, the code of practice on Government information, the statutory access rights, the openness of public records, the code of practice that includes a range of other matters, more than 11,000 records released under open government initiatives--I could extend the list. Those are the moves towards open government that I have made in the past three years, and I think that it is time that some Opposition Members realised some of the movements that have been made.

On the earlier part of what the right hon. Gentleman said, many of his strictures are equally applicable to sponsorship by trade unions. The purpose of the Register of Members' Interests is to ensure that people are aware of what outside interests Members of Parliament may have.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North): Every weekend, the majority of Members of the House go back to their constituencies and hold advice surgeries to try to offer help to constituents from all walks of life. It is vital that those people are able to come to us--men and women on both sides of the House--and expect to receive sound, helpful and honest advice. It is for that reason more than any other that I welcome the inquiry that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has announced. My right hon. Friend has--

Madam Speaker: Order. Would the hon. Gentleman resume his seat for a moment? He is making a statement. He has been on his feet for some time, and I have not yet heard a question.

Mr. Gale: My right hon. Friend said that there would be an inquiry into the affairs of Ministers of the House, Members of the House and civil servants, which is absolutely right. It is not up to the House to question--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat. A number of hon. Members wish to be called, and I now want brisk questions to the Prime Minister, not long-winded statements.

Mr. Gale: There is a section of the community that has not been named in my right hon. Friend's statement. Will my right hon. Friend ask the chairman of the Press Gallery to conduct a similar inquiry into the political affiliations, financial interests and shareholdings of members of the Gallery, their editors and proprietors, and to publish them?

The Prime Minister: I think that my hon. Friend may have achieved a rare moment of cross-party consensus.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): Does the Prime Minister appreciate that, when he appears before this House with a straight face and tells us that there is no current connection between political affiliation and quango appointments, he makes himself and his Government look shabby, foolish and quite incredible?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his view, even if, as usual, he is wrong.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford): I welcome my right hon. Friend's statement, and I regret the resignation of our hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton). Perhaps my right hon. Friend could also take a look at one of the biggest quangos of all--the European Commission. Would it be in order to suggest that British nationals serving in the Commission as Commissioners, or working for it, or who are now likely to serve on the Committee of the Regions, should also be included in the remit of the new body?

The Prime Minister: I have certainly included the United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament, but I am not sure whether the conditions of service of others who work in the Commission and elsewhere would legitimately fall within that remit.

Mr. John Evans (St. Helens, North): Is the Prime Minister aware that many people in this country are appalled by the prospect of Members of Parliament holding consultancies that pay them large, although undisclosed, sums of money? If he wants to give real credibility to the new body that he has announced, why does he not include both Members' consultancies and trade union sponsorships?

The Prime Minister: I am interested to hear that suggestion. I made it clear earlier that it was perfectly possible for consultancies to be examined by the Committee, which can make recommendations about them. The hon. Gentleman should be in no doubt about that.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston): Has my right hon. Friend noted the number of times during these exchanges when Opposition Members have referred to the proceedings of the Privileges Committee as "secret"? Does he not feel that, in the interests of accuracy, it should be clearly stated that every line of every question and answer will be published and then debated in this House? There is no secrecy in that.

The Prime Minister: That is entirely true; I could have made the point in answer to a previous question. The report of the Privileges Committee, although its proceedings will be held in private, will be published, brought to the House and then debated by the House. That is hardly a secret investigation, and it is open to every member of the Committee to come and speak in the debate.

The reason why the Privileges Committee has always met in private has been well understood for many years: it is in the interests of natural justice that it should. I very much regret that on this occasion, for whatever reasons they may have--I shall leave others to judge them--Labour Members alone have decided that they will not sit and conduct the investigation into the behaviour of Members of Parliament in the traditional manner. I believe that people outside will see that as a partisan move for partisan reasons.

If the report were not to be published, debated and then acted on, Opposition Members might have a point. As it is, they have none--except that they want to create the maximum amount of difficulty, irrespective of how the House traditionally deals justly with its Members.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South): I generally support the Prime Minister's announcement today, although we share the view that some appointments to quangos are made for political reasons. In Northern Ireland, that is not usually because the persons concerned are Tories, as they are an endangered species there. Usually, it is people who have been defeated at elections who have been appointed to quangos. Is there not a danger of hysteria getting to us in this House? Already I have heard people crying, "Why didn't he resign?" when earlier they were crying, "Why doesn't he resign?" It is a fact that standards in this House are still respected throughout the world as an example for all.

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. There has been an hysterical reaction in some quarters. There seem to be a large number of candidates for the role of witchfinder-general on the Opposition Benches--people who seem unconcerned about the way in which they are behaving. That truly is as poor as any of the behaviour that they themselves criticise.

Literally millions of people in this country would claim to be Conservatives, socialists, Liberals or members of some other political party. The argument that those people are somehow different and should therefore be excluded from public service is totally and utterly ludicrous.

I want people of quality whatever their political persuasions to serve, and the sooner the Labour party removes its dogmatic opposition to bodies that run things locally, such as national health service self-governing hospitals, the sooner many of its supporters will wish to come forward and work for their local communities and make a success of those bodies. It is the Opposition's doctrinaire stupidity that stops that happening.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North): I thank my right hon. Friend for his announcement of the inquiry. I should like to return to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford (Mr. Duncan Smith). While all our officials in the Commission are meant to be honourable men, should we not set an example by regulating them in the same way as we regulate public officials in this country--or is my right hon. Friend saying that employees in the European Commission, those who are UK nationals, are beyond UK law and jurisdiction? Should we not do something about that, bearing in mind that the Commission is responsible for £5 billion of fraud in the European Union?

The Prime Minister: People working for the European Commission who may previously have been British civil servants are in exactly that same position as people who have been working for the United Nations and other bodies for the past 20 or 30 years. The fact that people work for the European Union ought not to mean that they are treated in any way differently. They are employed for a period by people other than ourselves, and do not fall within our natural responsibility and jurisdiction. People may regret that, but it is a fact. Those people who properly fall under the control of the House for these purposes are elected Members of the European Parliament, and I have included them in the inquiry.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North): Can the Prime Minister say whether Mr. Al Fayed was interviewed by the Cabinet Secretary? Will he say who the other Ministers were and whether they were interviewed? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that his inquiry is unprecedented, and does he not know that his Law Officers accept that the Committee on Privileges could meet in public or in private: that that is up to the members of the Committee?

In the context of being partisan, does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that the public might draw the conclusion that the partisanship lay with the Government supporters, and that the issue was decided only by the casting vote of the Lord President? The public will also ask, "What have this Government got to hide that they have to meet in private?"

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman is sometimes mind-bogglingly silly. On the points in the first part of his question, I suggest that he refers to Sir Robin Butler's report. On his latter points, he should refer to the answer that I have several times given to his hon. Friends and which he has not yet taken in.

Mr. Gary Streeter (Plymouth, Sutton): For the avoidance of doubt, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the standing committee will examine and explore the substantial sums that pass from trade unions to Labour Members year in and year out, and no doubt the substantial favours that are required in return?

The Prime Minister: That is not specifically included in the remit, and I am not sure without a careful examination of the remit whether it would fall within it. But, of course, if people wish to volunteer that, it is a matter for them.

Mr. Peter Kilfoyle (Liverpool, Walton): The Prime Minister has suggested that no records are kept of the political affiliations of quango appointees. Is he aware of the existence of the Public Appointments Unit, which has nine full-time and two part-time staff investigating the backgrounds of appointees? Is he also aware that the Public Appointments Unit registers 10 different categories of information with the Data Protection Board? In the course of the inquiry, will he ensure that the criteria used for those 10 different categories of information about prospective appointees to public office are placed in the public domain?

The Prime Minister: Let me take, for example, the question of health service appointments, as I think, from memory, that that was the one I referred to earlier. No central record is kept there of the political affiliations of the people who are appointed. On the hon. Gentleman's logic, many of the people who are invited have high-profile positions. But hundreds more do not--they just have a commitment to public service. I ask the hon. Gentleman to reflect. Is he really suggesting that one should engage in a series of questions to all the people there as to what their political affiliations might be? What is the question to be, "Are you, or have you ever been, a Conservative?"--is that the sort of society that the hon. Gentleman wants?

Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West): In welcoming the Prime Minister's statement today, will he ask the Lord in Ordinary when he comes to looking at patronage and the abuse of it to examine carefully the record of the last Labour Government, and in particular the resignation honours list of one Prime Minister and the appointment of a son-in-law to the ambassador to Washington by another Labour Prime Minister?

The Prime Minister: I seem to recall that, when the last Labour Government were in power--admittedly, a long time ago--there was a great fuss about the number of Labour appointees to bodies of one sort or another, particularly those that became known as quangos. There is no doubt at all that that was certainly the case at the time. Anybody who has served on a local school governing body with a Labour-controlled education authority will know very well precisely what Labour authorities have done so frequently to Conservative Governments--

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West): And Conservatives.

The Prime Minister: "And Conservatives," says the hon. Gentleman, so he concedes that that is what Labour authorities do. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman makes my point for me.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): Can the Prime Minister repeat his assurance that the inquiry will report within six months? Some of us can remember that, in October 1989, the Home Secretary and the Attorney- General came to the House and announced an inquiry into the Guildford and Woolwich cases. That inquiry was dragged out, and every conceivable excuse was used to drag it out, for the next five years, until most people had forgotten the origins of the inquiry in the first place. We do not want to see that happen in this case.

The Prime Minister: The timetable for the inquiry will not be in my hands. I have said that I hope the inquiry will be able to report, at least on the substantive part of its work, within six months, but that is a matter for Lord Nolan, the chairman, and the members of the inquiry, one of whom--a senior member--will be appointed by the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and another by the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Liberal party.

The timetable will not be in the hands of the Government in any sense. I have expressed the hope that it can be done within six months, and I believe that the chairman and the committee will seek to meet that target, but I can offer the hon. Gentleman no guarantees, for it is not within my control.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent): I am sure that my right hon. Friend will accept that one of the background elements in the whole matter is the speed with which the role of Members of Parliament and the expectations of them of their constituents are changing, and the way in which the relationship between this place, the Government the European Union and, indeed, the public service in our country is changing. Will he at least give us the assurance that he will think very carefully about also setting up an inquiry into the best way of equipping this great House of Commons to take the country into the 21st century, in light of the way in which so much is changing so quickly?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about the changing demands on Members of Parliament. Members who have served in the House for more than a few years will acknowledge that difficulty from their own practical experience. There is no doubt that the much greater availability of Members of Parliament and their much greater visibility through a much higher level of media interest than ever before has added to their work load, so I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has to say. However, that is predominantly a matter for the House itself rather than specifically a matter for me, although I have much sympathy with my hon. Friend's underlying proposition.

Mr. Robert Hughes (Aberdeen, North): Will Prime Minister confirm that the two Ministers who have resigned did so apparently on the narrow point they had not declared items in the Register of Members' Interests? Will he accept that the issue is much more serious than that? Will he therefore reject the notion that, just because something is in the Register of Members' Interests, it is all right to do it?

Will the Prime Minister also make it clear that the whole purpose of the inquiry is to look way beyond whether we have a Register of Members' Interests or whether people declare what is in it, to the real prospects of trying to find out how to bring back to the country the honour that the House has so long deserved?

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman's first proposition was wrong, of course. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) certainly resigned because he did not declare something in the Register of Members' Interests. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) has resigned not on those grounds, but on the grounds that more allegations, as yet unsubstantiated and unexamined, have been made, and on that basis it is clearly difficult for him to continue with his present responsibilities as Ministers for Corporate Affairs. For that reason, he has left the Government. Nothing as yet has been proved against my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton. Of course there are wider concerns. It is precisely to allay them that I have set up a mechanism which I hope will, when it has reported and is operating, show beyond doubt that many of the wilder allegations and tittle-tattle that have appeared recently have no basis and are, indeed, nonsense. Once the procedures are in place, much of the feeding frenzy that we have seen from time to time over recent years and weeks will be seen to be the utter nonsense that so much of it is.

Several hon. Members rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. We shall now move on to the next business.