Benn to defy Commons secrecy

Tony Benn, the veteran left-wing MP, said yesterday that he was ready to defy the Commons Privileges Committee by making public its proceedings if it investigated complaints against MPs behind closed doors.

His threat of what amounts to civil disobedience against the House of Commons came as the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, announced she had ordered a formal investigation into how the Guardian sent a fax bearing a Commons crest to the Paris Ritz while pursuing its inquiries into Jonathan Aitken's stay at the hotel.

Mr Benn's announcement, which provoked gasps of astonishment and anger from Tory MPs yesterday, will raise the stakes in the debate over whether the committee should be meeting in private after MPs last night defeated by 301 to 264 votes a Labour motion explicitly calling for the hearings to be in public.

With the Guardian incurring cross-party criticism over its use of a Commons crest on its request for a copy of Mr Aitken's bill, the Speaker revealed to MPs that she had asked the Serjeant at Arms, Sir Alan Urwick, to carry out an inquiry and report back to her.

Moves against the Guardian helped provide some respite for Mr Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, after a fresh attack by Mohamed al-Fayed, owner of Harrods, who yesterday again challenged Mr Aitken's account that his wife had originally paid his hotel bill. Mr Fayed said a cashier at the Ritz told him that he was certain the bill had been paid by the secretary of a Saudi Arabian businessman and friend of Mr Aitken.

The Speaker said Sir Alan, who interviewed Peter Preston, the editor of the Guardian, yesterday, would ``investigate all the circumstances so that I can decide what further action it would be appropriate to take''. She said that she took ``account of the Guardian's misuse of House of Commons writing paper . . . very seriously indeed''. More than 100 Tory MPs last night signed an Early Day Motion calling for Mr Preston's dismissal and for his case to be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

The Speaker's announcement came at the start of a vintage debate that went to the heart of the issue of whether the Commons was fit to regulate itself by traditional methods, and in which Sir Edward Heath appealed to the Privileges Committee to reconsider its three-century-old practice of holding private hearings.

Labour MPs on the committee are expected to attend today's session of the committee before deciding whether to continue the boycott they announced two weeks ago.

Mr Benn, the senior member of the committee, cited the 19th-century defiance of the Commons by William Cobbett and Thomas Hansard in reporting parliamentary proceedings before it became legal in 1855: ``I am no longer prepared to accept the present restrictions, and if I attend future meetings of the committee, it is my intention to issue my own personal report of the proceedings which I attend.'' Mr Benn, who intends to type reports each day based on short notes of the main events of each session, cannot be directly expelled by the members of the committee, which today continues its inquiry into the ``cash for parliamentary questions'' allegations made against two backbenchers, Graham Riddick and David Tredinnick. Instead, the committee would have to recommend to the House that Mr Benn should be thrown off the committee.

Tony Newton, the Leader of the Commons, rejected in the debate what he termed a ``half-way house'' of part-public, part-private hearings, as suggested by the Labour motion. ``There is no evidence that such an arrangement could be made to work,'' he said. It would not be thought fair to hear some witnesses in private and some in public, and he doubted the committee could judge in advance whether issues were going to arise that should be heard privately.

John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, told MPs: ``The public will assume that we have something to hide if we continue to investigate these matters in private.

``We need to display to our constituents the simple truth - that we are here to serve them before we serve ourselves, and that is best done by being open and by holding these investigations in public.''

One Tory defied a three-line government whip and voted with Labour: Richard Shepherd, MP for Aldridge Brownhills, a long-standing freedom of information campaigner.

Unanswered questions, page 3

Andrew Marr, page 17

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
Voices
Ed Miliband and David Cameron are neck and neck in the polls
election 2015Armando Iannucci: on how British politics is broken
News
i100
Life and Style
Great minds like Einstein don't think alike
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Life and Style
A nurse tends to a recovering patient on a general ward at The Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham
health
News
science
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
News
Chuck Norris pictured in 1996
people
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Lucas, I SCREAM DADDIO, Installation View, British Pavilion 2015
artWhy Sarah Lucas is the perfect choice to represent British art at the Venice Biennale
News
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station
i100
News
people
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Engineer - Leeds This i...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Bristol

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment C...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power