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1994 - PMQT 20th October 1994

Below is the text of Prime Minister's Question Time from 20th October 1994.

PRIME MINISTER:

Engagements

Q1. Mr. Clapham: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 October.

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major): This morning, I presided at a meeting of the Cabinet and had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall be having further meetings later today.

Mr. Clapham: When did the Prime Minister first become aware of the allegations against the hon. Members for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) and for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith)? What has he done about it, especially in relation to the Minister who has not resigned? Can he give the House an assurance that no other members of his Government are involved in corruption?

The Prime Minister: With your indulgence, Madam Speaker, I shall reply in detail to each of those points, for I think that the House would wish me to do so.

The allegations were brought to me privately some three weeks ago. It was clear that the allegations reported to me originated, although they did not come to me directly, from Mr. Al Fayed. I made it absolutely clear at that time that I was not prepared to come to any arrangements with Mr. Al Fayed. I was not prepared--

Mr. Skinner: How much did he offer?

Madam Speaker: Order.

Mr. Skinner rose --

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must resume his seat.

The Prime Minister: I immediately made it perfectly clear that those matters would be fully investigated and asked the Cabinet Secretary to undertake an independent and full investigation. He has been doing so and he is continuing to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) wrote to me following that investigation and discussions with the Cabinet Secretary to say that he had a business relationship with Mr. Al Fayed and that he was paid fees. He did not, however, declare the necessary detail in the Register of Members' Interests during the consultancy. He has tendered his resignation and I have accepted it. My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Hamilton) wrote to me explicitly refuting the allegations that he was paid any money to ask questions or to undertake any activity whatsoever on behalf of Mr. Al Fayed. My hon. Friend has announced that he will be instituting legal proceedings to seek damages for libel.

I have made it clear that I am determined to see the highest possible standards in public life and to see that they are maintained. It is right that such allegations should be investigated. They should be investigated--as they have been--by the Cabinet Secretary. Equally, if any further occasions arise, they will be investigated thoroughly and appropriate action taken.

Mr. Wilshire: Following on from that, will my right hon. Friend now arrange for the Audit Commission to conduct investigations into allegations made in the newspapers of corruption by Labour-controlled Birmingham city council--the allegations being that it corruptly used millions of pounds to buy votes in marginal wards?

The Prime Minister: There have been allegations of that sort against local authorities before and I believe that, as with hon. Members of this House, such allegations deserve to be properly investigated by the proper authorities.

Mr. Blair: While we note the resignation of one Minister and we await the outcome of the inquiry into the other, does the Prime Minister understand that today's allegations can no longer be seen as isolated incidents, but that his Government are becoming tainted? If he is serious about standards in British public life, will he now respond specifically to three proposals, which I shall put to him? First, that no Minister who has privatised a company should subsequently end up on its board; secondly, that he publish a list of all members of quangos, their payments, perks and any position with any political party; and thirdly, that the cash for questions inquiry now be broadened, made deeper, held in public and made fully independent so that the confidence of the British people in their Government can begin to be restored.

The Prime Minister: As I have said in the House on previous occasions and repeat now, I am determined to ensure high standards of probity right across government, and I will not tolerate anything less than the highest standards of behaviour. Special standards are required of those in public life and special sacrifices must be made by people when those standards in public life are not kept. I am not prepared to take action against people on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations and against the background of concrete assurances from the person concerned that the charges laid against him are without foundation. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman would share my view about those points.

On the right hon. Gentleman's substantive questions, I shall deal first with quangos. Last May I established an independent working body across government to look at the system of appointments of such bodies, and I expect to receive the report of that body very shortly. In addition, the Treasury and the Office of Public Service and Science are preparing revised guidance on making appointments to issue to Departments. Last summer, I also asked my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to look right across the board at appointments to all public bodies and to make recommendations to me if he thought it necessary to change the system in any way. The purpose of that is to ensure that the system itself is seen, and is recognised, to be beyond criticism. When that work has been concluded, we shall announce our conclusions to the House. The right hon. Gentleman and I share the same objectives upon that point also.

As for the cash for questions issue, all traditions suggest that that should be dealt with by the Committee of Privileges, and there is no precedent for the Committee of Privileges not sitting in private. The reason for that is self-evidently understood by every Member of the House so that the matter may be fully dealt with. When the Committee has completed its report, the recommendations of that Committee of the House of Commons will be published and will then be debated here on the Floor of the House of Commons, where they should be.

On the first of the right hon. Gentleman's three questions, I am aware of no occasion where the question of the abuse of previous ministerial interests arises. If he wishes to give me details, I shall naturally look at what he has to say.

Sir Giles Shaw: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in pursuit of his clear commitment to deal with the issue, there is an extremely important role for the House of Commons Privileges Committee as set up by a motion agreed in the House? Will he confirm that it is not a matter of innuendo or allegation but one of thorough investigation, which the Privileges Committee can do, and that not only the Committee's report but the evidence, in full, which the Privileges Committee obtains, will be published? Is not that an objective to be proceeded with, rather than distorted by walk-outs by Opposition right hon. and hon. Members?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is right about that. For a long time we have had our own method of dealing with such issues--the Privileges Committee. When it has taken evidence and reported, it is right for the House then to take decisions. I regret very much indeed that Opposition Members have decided not to continue with their work on that Committee, because I believe that if such Committees do not operate properly, with cross-party support, that will do great damage to the House of Commons as an institution.

My hon. Friend is entirely right in all else that he says. I reiterate the absolute necessity for high standards in public life. Let me make it clear once again that where any evidence of wrongdoing is brought to me, it will be investigated, and it will be punished if that is found to be justifiable. I must make a further point upon which I believe the House would wish to reflect: any investigation must be seen to be fair. It is a fundamental part of the way in which we conduct things in the House and in the country that people are innocent until they are shown to have been guilty. I regret that, occasionally, some in the House tend to forget that fundamental part of our constitution.

Mr. Ashdown: Does the right hon. Gentleman realise just how disappointed many people will be by the inadequate answers that he gave to the three specific questions put to him by the leader of the Labour party? Does not he realise that neither the House nor the people will be satisfied with the results of inquiries held in secret? Does not he understand that the interests of the country, his Government and the House would now be served by an independent and impartial re-examination of the standards that are required of those who hold public office in a modern democracy like ours?

The Prime Minister: I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman seems to fail to understand how the Committees of the House operate. I would have thought that he, as a Privy Councillor, would have understood that rather better. We have had a long tradition of cross-party Committees, like the Privileges Committee, dealing with such matters. The decision of some hon. Members not to serve on that Committee is unprecedented. They should serve on it. That Committee will take evidence. It will publish its report--there will be nothing secret about it--and it will be debated here, in the House. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman did not hear what I said earlier about that. I hope that he now has heard and that he now understands. I hope that he will now continue the traditions that the House has long followed.

Mrs. Peacock: Is my right hon. Friend aware that there would be widespread support throughout the country for a mandatory identity card scheme?

The Prime Minister: As my hon. Friend will know, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has said that he proposes to consult about the possibility of an identity card scheme, either a voluntary or mandatory one. We shall wish to listen carefully to what people say in response to that consultation. There is a substantial case to be made for one, although practical difficulties must be overcome. If we have one on a smart card basis, it will allow Opposition Members to record their conservative principles on it.


Q2. Mr. McAllion: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 October.

The Prime Minister: I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave some moments ago.

Mr. McAllion: Let me return the Prime Minister to the question of sleaze at the heart of government. Has he seen the astonishing report in today's press that his predecessor, Lady Thatcher, ordered GCHQ to pay foreign intelligence to spy on two members of her own Cabinet whom she suspected of disloyalty to her? [Interruption.] If only for the sake of her fellow travellers who are still members of the right hon. Gentleman's own Cabinet, will he give the House the assurance that he, at least, has discontinued that dishonourable practice? More importantly, will he give the House the assurance that he will order a full and independent investigation of that latest allegation so that those responsible for that perversion of the democratic ideal are brought to book before the British people?

The Prime Minister: The fact that, in the middle of his question, the hon. Gentleman could not even keep a straight face shows just how seriously everybody in the House regards the absolute absurdity of that allegation. Does not it show that the present frenzy of ludicrous rumours sweeping around deserve to be investigated and then cast aside because they are total nonsense? I am glad that the hon. Gentleman illustrated the sheer absurdity of many of the things that are currently being said and apparently being taken seriously by Opposition Members. I shall give him one answer to his question on that particular allegation: it is claptrap.


Q3. Mr. David Evans: To ask the Prime Minister if he will list his official engagements for Thursday 20 October.

The Prime Minister: I refer my hon. Friend to the reply that I gave some moments ago.

Mr. Evans: As my hon. Friend knows, I have always gone softly, softly in Prime Minister's questions, unlike the lot opposite. Is my right hon. Friend sponsored by the TGWU? If not, perhaps he would like to tell me who is? Will he also confirm that clause 4 is not on our agenda and that, therefore, Babycham will not be nationalised and we shall not have to watch Bambi on the television every night?

The Prime Minister: The answer is, no I am not, but if anybody wishes to make any allegations, I am happy for the Committee of Privileges to investigate them. I trust that everyone will attend the Committee.