New Forest East



Co-ordinated Campaign of interference in the work of the Privileges Committee  (HC 1652)

Sir Julian Lewis: At the closing stages of what has already been a very long debate, one thing has emerged very clearly: it is a thankless task indeed to be involved in issues of this sort.

I would like to congratulate speakers on both sides of the argument—not necessarily both sides of the House – for the contributions they have made, most notably those who have made the point that they have friends on both sides of the argument. That is true of me as well. If I were to single out two particular speeches on opposite sides of the argument, I would first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) on giving a masterclass in how to defuse a very fraught and serious subject with good humour while still making his case lucidly. I would also commend my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris) for her excellent focus on the heart of the matter, which is to ask the question: is anyone seriously suggesting that the seven members of the Committee, who went through this exhaustive process, were blinded by hatred and bias?

I have been in the House since 1997, and I hope, with luck, to carry on a little bit longer. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) is in his last Parliament, and I have known him very well since he came in in 2005. I challenge anybody who knows my hon. Friend at all well to believe for one moment that he would allow himself to be blinded by prejudice and bias in an inquiry of this sort. It is inconceivable.

There is a tendency in controversial areas such as this never to know when to stop. I remember having an argument with the then Leader of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg), from whom we heard at length this afternoon, in the run-up to the debate about Owen Paterson. At that time, the Privileges Committee had produced a report with a very strong sanction. I had been shocked that that process had continued after Owen Paterson’s wife had committed suicide. My argument was to suggest to the then Leader of the House and the people in my party that it would be sensible to note the Privileges report, but to decide on compassionate grounds to take no further action. That lost out to an alternative policy and we all know where that led. It did not lead anywhere any good for Owen Paterson himself, the Government of the day or the reputation of this House. It was a case of not knowing when to stop.

I came to the debate this afternoon fully expecting that the Opposition might move an amendment arguing for sanctions against the seven people who were named in an appendix to the report. Had that been put to a Division, I would have voted against it; and had it nevertheless been agreed and had there been a Division on the amended motion, I would have voted against that as well. In my opinion, the Speaker was very wise not to select any of the amendments, on either side of the argument.

The one argument that I have heard against the way in which the Committee has conducted itself that carries any weight with me is this: I think it was unwise to name specific Members in an appendix, when all that the appendix did was give samples, as we have heard, of the sort of extreme criticism bordering on, and perhaps constituting, abuse to which the Committee was being subjected. The Committee would have been wiser to anonymise those quotes. It could have made the point just as effectively without then giving reason to people to feel – with some justification, I think – that they should at least have been informed that they were going to be named. I know the Committee will say, “Well, they’ve had their chance today to set their comments in context,” and some of them have done so.

Nevertheless, there is one other key point, with which I will conclude, that lies at the heart of the matter. When Members engage with a process that is going to judge them in some way, or at least make recommendations as to how they should be judged, which the House of Commons will then decide whether or not to agree with, and when Members accept that process, then they really ought to accept the result; otherwise, they should not have engaged with the process in the first place.

I close with an example of that, which I have asked my parliamentary researcher’s permission to mention. My parliamentary researcher is a lady called Nina Karsov. As an infant, she survived the holocaust. In 1967 she was put on trial in Poland for keeping an anti-communist political diary. She refused to engage with the court because she did not recognise its legitimacy. She knew what that would cost her: she spent two years of a three-year sentence in a Polish jail, until Amnesty International made her prisoner of the year, which helped get her released and brought to this country.

The fact is that if you are not prepared to accept the verdict of the umpire, don’t play cricket. I am getting increasingly fed up with the brutalisation of language in discussions of this sort, but I have limited sympathy for those people who get into trouble because of tweets and emails. If they open themselves up to that sort of thing, that is precisely what they should expect.