Leading article: Brown envelopes or no, Parliament cannot police itself

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The Independent Online
Is it not time for Neil Hamilton to get off the stage? After all, we know what we think about him. Anyone who has taken any time at all to follow his wrongdoings knows that he does not deserve to be an MP. Indeed, the electors of Tatton in Cheshire took that view and sent him for his pension on 1 May this year. As certain as British public opinion is that Louise Woodward is not guilty of premeditated murder, it is certain that Mr Hamilton is guilty of taking backhanders and lying about it.

End of story? Time to consign the bow-tied Thatcherite and his vengeful wife to the attic of parliamentary scandals, along with Jeremy Thorpe, Jack Profumo and John Stonehouse? Not quite. Sure, he is guilty, but let us be clear what he is guilty of, and get it clear according to the rules of justice, because the House of Commons has stumbled in its attempt to hold its members to new, improved ethical standards. It almost defies belief that MPs could have managed to miscarry justice in the very case which forced the last government to appoint Lord Nolan in the first place.

The sleaze-busting peer himself was the model of restraint yesterday, commenting gently that his successor as the guardian of standards in public life, Sir Patrick Neill, will "no doubt" want to "look again at the procedure which the House of Commons has adopted in this case". Too right, he will. Instead of getting the miserable Mr Hamilton banged to rights, MPs have allowed him to complain - correctly - that he has been denied the right fully to challenge the evidence against him and to appeal against the findings.

This matters, not simply because Mr Hamilton, however unpopular, is entitled to a fair trial, but because the issue so dominated the early stages of the general election campaign earlier this year, and helped turn a landslip into a Labour landslide. If Labour's electoral advantage were built on an injustice, democracy has been tarnished.

Let us rehearse the central facts. In 1994, after the "cash for questions" scandal broke, John Major asked Lord Nolan to rewrite the rules on ethical standards in public life. Sir Gordon Downey was appointed as a kind of investigating magistrate on behalf of a "court" of MPs on the Standards and Privileges Committee.

The election intervened while Sir Gordon compiled his 900-page report, and the voters were treated to the pathetic spectacle of the Prime Minister trying to force Mr Hamilton to resign and then, instead of disowning him, declaring him "innocent until proved guilty".

Mr Hamilton was unfit to be an MP on the grounds of the offences which he admitted: failing to declare a stay at the Ritz or an interest in the tobacco products he promoted, and lying to the Deputy Prime Minister when cornered. So Mr Hamilton in particular, and the Tories in general, deserved to suffer the electoral consequences.

But on the most serious charge, that of taking thousands of pounds in brown envelopes from Mohamed Al Fayed, the owner of Harrods, Mr Major was right, and that remains the position today. Mr Hamilton is only guilty by association with Tim Smith, the Tory MP who admitted taking money in similar circumstances. Otherwise, it is Mr Hamilton's word against Mr Al Fayed's.

In spite of the fact that the only witnesses to the alleged transactions were Mr Al Fayed's employees, Sir Gordon found that there was "compelling evidence" that Mr Hamilton took the money. In yesterday's report, the committee of MPs contradicted the Commissioner. There "can be no absolute proof that such payments were, or were not, made". So was Mr Hamilton to receive the benefit of "reasonable doubt"? No. Boldly facing both ways, the committee declared that it "did not arrive at a practicable way of reaching a judgment which adds to or subtracts from the Commissioner's findings". A masterpiece of evasion, and a conclusive, final argument for the policing of ethical standards to be taken out of the hands of MPs.

The committee was under an obligation to reach a conclusion one way or the other, if necessary by re-examining witnesses already interviewed by Sir Gordon. If they think that would be a waste of time and public money, they should acquit Mr Hamilton and draw attention to all the other misdemeanours he has admitted. If they think he took the money, then they should say so and give him the right of appeal. The defects of a system in which MPs are expected to police themselves remain fundamental. What do they want? Bring in the judges?