Sir George supports legal indemnity insurance for MP's
23 May 2000
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): I support the motions. This is a House of Commons matter, on which Conservative Members will have a free vote, if there is one. I support the proposals and have added my name to the motions, along with the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler).

I begin by making three general points. First, as the Parliamentary Secretary said, we live in an increasingly litigious world in which more and more people sue each other. Whether the phenomenon has been imported from the United States, or whether it has come about because people are better educated and more assertive of their rights or because solicitors are more proactive is, in a sense, irrelevant. We are where we are.

Secondly, professional people are increasingly in the firing line: teachers, doctors, accountants--as we heard in the earlier debate--solicitors, social workers and Members of Parliament. The Parliamentary Secretary described how my hon. Friend the Member for Mid- Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) was involved, and I am sure that other hon. Members have had their own experiences.

I had a case some 10 years ago, when a book was published by Canary Press entitled "Thatcherism goes to College", written by one Matthew Salusbury. Views allegedly held by one George K. Young were wrongly attributed to me, including holocaust denial. If one does not challenge such an assertion, it remains on the record; if one does challenge it, there is the risk of costs. Happily, in that case, the book was withdrawn, a handsome letter of apology was sent, and my costs were paid. That shows the risks that we all run of finding ourselves in the firing line through no fault of our own.


Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): Perhaps I misheard that example. Was there not a case in which my right hon. Friend was defamed, rather than allegedly defaming?


Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is right, but such a case would not have been covered. My third general point is that, to my knowledge, no Member of Parliament has been sued for the advice that we give in our advice bureaux. Of course we all do our best, not least by directing people to the right answers if we do not have them ourselves. None the less, we dispense advice on which people act, and it may not always be right. I find it amazing that so far, none of us has been sued by any of our constituents for what happens in our advice bureaux.

Against that background, I find the proposals before the House justifiable, focused and cost effective. Defamation is damaging for anyone, but it is particularly damaging for a Member of Parliament who has to face re-election every four or five years, and our reputation is a major factor in the outcome.

The costs of defending defamation can be high. They are not eligible under the office cost allowances, and an hon. Member may not have the resources available to defend himself. As the Parliamentary Secretary said, assistance is available only when the case arises from an hon. Member's duty, and it is available only for the defence of a case, not for the initiation of one. The House should keep the matter under review.


Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and warmly welcome the Parliamentary Secretary's remarks. Can my right hon. Friend tell the House about the sorts of protection that apply in other countries, and the extent of such protection?


Sir George Young: No, I cannot do that. One of the advantages of being in opposition is that one does not have to reply to a debate. There is someone who is very well briefed and in a far better position than I am. When he winds up the debate, I am sure that he will give my hon. Friend enormous detail of what happens in other cases.

It is entirely justifiable to reimburse my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire with the expenses that he incurred, and it is entirely right to extend to other hon. Members prospectively the protection that we have extended to him. We should keep the matter under review. I hope that the motion meets the approval of the House.


 
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