Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I echo what others have said and wish the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) a speedy and complete recovery from his illness. The House owes a debt to the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) for the way in which he presented the report, as well as to his Select Committee.
I am sorry that the husband of my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is in poor health. I understand the additional pressure that that has put on her. I hope that nothing that I say about the report will undermine the sympathy that I feel for her on that score.
In comparison with some of the other cases that the Select Committee has recently had to investigate, the original offence--the original offence--of non-declaration was a minor one. Of course my hon. Friend should have declared her interest in private rented property before she introduced two ten-minute Bills. As a Housing Minister in the early 1990s, I was well aware of my hon. Friend's views on the private rented sector, which accorded with her generally libertarian and free-market views on other matters. I did not for a moment believe that her espousal of a free market in housing, and a belief that rent control was wrong, were driven by her own private interests.
If that had been my hon. Friend's only offence, I am not sure that we would even be having this debate. The Select Committee has adjudicated on a number of occasions where interests should have been declared and were not. Hon. Members have survived the usual, rather minor, press interest that ensued, with their reputations intact. Indeed, some on both sides have gone on to hold very high office.
What clearly exasperated the Select Committee in this case was the smokescreen that descended, which caused it to veer all over the road, and to stop and ask a few people for directions before it eventually found a way through. The Committee's strong conclusion in paragraph 42, and the sentence at the higher end of the tariff scale in paragraph 51, flowed from the general obfuscation, and in particular from my hon. Friend's denials of links with offshore companies.
In the present case, three things have happened which have led us to where we are today. First, as I said, my hon. Friend was initially unable to respond accurately to the questions put to her by the Committee, and found herself tangled in the subsequent web.
Secondly, my hon. Friend has not found it possible to accept the verdict of her colleagues, who I think displayed some patience in dealing with the case, or to express her regret for what happened. If she had felt able to do that, she would have found the House to be generous and forgiving.
Thirdly, my hon. Friend has cast aspersions on the neutrality of the Committee and therefore on the roles of my right hon. and hon. Friends who serve on it and on the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell). Neither my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) nor my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) would assent to what they believed to be a miscarriage of justice just because they were in a minority. I give away no secrets when I say that both of them are outwith the conventional range of discipline of my party: I cannot imagine that they would have subjected themselves to the discipline of another.
My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay suggested that the procedure that found her guilty was tainted. A number of those who have spoken have mentioned the relevant report of Lord Neill's Committee, "Reinforcing Standards". Of course, we should debate that report, which has been published since we last had a report from the Select Committee. It made recommendations about serious contested allegations. Whether that would cover my hon. Friend is a matter for debate. As I said, I personally do not regard her original offence as particularly serious.
Neill stated in paragraph 3.51:
We considered whether an accused MP should have the right to elect the full tribunal procedure in all contested cases, whether a minor or a serious case. We concluded that they should not.
I agree with what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Sir N. Lyell) said. Once a case has escalated to the extent to which my hon. Friend's case has now escalated, there is a strong argument for the sort of assistance that was mentioned.
Mr. Dalyell: Does the right hon. Gentleman think that Members of Parliament who are not lawyers, however well-intentioned, conscientious and untainted they are--and I am sure that all members of the Select Committee were like that--are the people to handle contested allegations? When he mentioned offshore companies, the hon. Lady's body language suggested that she strongly contested what was said. I do not know whether she is right or wrong, but it is a matter for a lawyer, rather than for Members of the House of Commons.
Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for a debate on the report "Reinforcing Standards", and for a debate on the parallel report by Lord Nicholls, which reached the same conclusion.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Sir George Young: No, I am going to finish.
I speak in a personal capacity. I have to say that I think the proceedings were fair. I think the Committee was painstaking in its deliberations, and I support the verdict and the sentence.