Leaders have no right to silence: Tony Benn explains why he will not countenance a secret investigation

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The Independent Online
THE revelation that some MPs were paid money to table parliamentary questions raises issues that go to the very heart of democracy. For if it is possible to buy the services of those whom we elect to represent us, public confidence in the House of Commons will be fatally and deservedly eroded.

This is far more important than any political advantage that might be gained by one party against another, or the personal scapegoating of those who may have been guilty of accepting money on this basis.

After 44 years in Parliament, I had no idea that this practice went on, and when it was referred to the Committee of Privileges earlier this year, I welcomed this as providing a real chance to set down clear rules for the future.

As the senior member of that committee, it was my task to summon it for its first meeting in July, and there I asked that all the evidence be held in public. It was agreed that this matter should be left until our first meeting after the recess, and on Tuesday I moved my motion for open hearings. I was defeated by nine votes to eight; the Lord President, Tony Newton, cast his vote for secrecy.

That is why the Labour members all decided to withdraw and it was absolutely right that we did so.

I had also argued that the committee should deliberate in public so that our electors could hear our arguments as well as the evidence. It is a strange irony that the Government should abolish the right to silence - which is an ancient principle of civil liberties - in the new Criminal Justice Bill, and then try to shield behind a veil of secrecy when some of its colleagues are required to face cross examination about their conduct.

When Colonel Oliver North was accused of very serious offences in the United States, a Congressional committee heard all the evidence in public, as had happened at the time of Watergate when President Nixon was suspected of abusing his office.

But in Britain we have no such tradition of openness, as we learnt when Peter Wright of MI5 wrote his book Spycatcher, boasting that he had tried to undermine an elected government. Instead of seeking his extradition to Britain to face criminal charges, the Cabinet Secretary was sent to Australia to try and prevent us from knowing what he had written by having the book banned.

If any parliamentary candidate offered money to an elector to secure their vote, he would be guilty of a grave criminal offence. Ministers are subject to much more stringent rules about their conduct and those rules should apply to every single backbencher as well.

For what has happened in recent years is that a new breed of influence-peddlers - known as lobbyists - have entered the scene and they gain contracts from companies by promising that they can buy the services of some MPs to secure them some advantage.

Unless this is stopped, we shall be moving towards the death of the democratic process. It could all end up with parliamentary candidates putting in a bid, leaving the Returning Officer to open the bids and award the seat to the one who has bid was the highest, without having an election at all.

The Leader of the Opposition quite rightly broadened out the issue yesterday to demand public hearings and an examination of the salaries and perks available to those appointed to serve on quangos, and he went on to argue that no former minister should be allowed to serve on the board of a company that had been privatised by him, or her, while they were a minister.

The most important task that the Committee of Privileges can perform now is to agree that everything that has happened should be brought out into the open by hearing the evidence in public, and allowing the press in while it discusses its recommendations. The arguments that were put forward against this view could also be used to justify a decision that the courts should sit in camera and the House of Commons should exclude the press and television.

Democracy hangs by a thread in Britain; its survival depends above all on trust, for if that is withdrawn people will either abstain from voting or take to the streets and riot to draw attention to their grievances. In the years before we had universal suffrage, that was what happened, just as it did in South Africa under apartheid or in the old Soviet Union.

We all have a vested interest in democracy and it is time we woke up to the danger which will be posed if, as a nation, we criminalise dissent and cover up corruption. For that is a sure recipe for disaster.

The writer is Labour MP for Chesterfield.