HC Deb 28 February 1978 vol 945 cc253-73

4.12 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I beg to move, That it is expedient that a Tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, that is to say, to what extent there were lapses from accepted standards of commercial or professional conduct or of public administration in relation to the operations of the Crown Agents as financiers on own-account in the years 1967–74 described in the report of the Committee of Inquiry on the Crown Agents (HC 48 of 1977–78).

Mr. Speaker

I should inform the House that I have not selected the amendments on the Order Paper.

Mr. Rees

Following the debate on the Report of the Fay Committee on 5th December last year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 8th December the Government's decision to establish a tribunal of inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921.

The Fay Report brought out with clarity the circumstances that led to the need to make special financial assistance available to the Crown Agents.

The Government concluded that a further inquiry should be held to consider where the blame lies; and the House decided that this must be a public inquiry.

Accordingly, we are proposing a tribunal under the 1921 Act which will have the ample powers given by that Act to carry out the thorough investigation which is required. As my right hon. Friend said on 8th December, the purpose of the tribunal will be to deal with lapses in accepted standards of public administration. The Government believe that the concept of "accepted standards" will be readily understood and will be preferable to some finely drawn legalistic concept.

The wide inquisitorial powers of such tribunals are quite different from other legal proceeedings and require special safeguards for people whose conduct is in question. One safeguard lies in the composition of the tribunal. The White Paper of 1973—Cmnd. 5313—giving the then Government's response to the Report of the Royal Commission under Lord Salmon, accepted the principle that the chairman should be a person holding high judicial office. It also expressed the view that when a tribunal is inquiring into the conduct of members of a particular service, profession or calling, or where it is required to deal with issues of a specialised, technical nature, it should include members other than lawyers with experience or qualifications relevant to the subject of the inquiry.

The Government have followed these principles in considering the membership of the tribunal, which will comprise a judge of the High Court and two distinguished non-legal members.

Other safeguards are to be found in the six cardinal principles set out in the Royal Commission's Report. I thought that if I were to remind the House of those six principles, that would be the most important matter in what I hope will be a brief speech. The principles are as follows.

Before involving any person in the inquiry, the tribunal must be satisfied that there are circumstances affecting him which the tribunal proposes to investigate; that is, people must be protected against any unnecessary involvement in the inquiry.

Before being called, a witness should be informed of allegations against him, and the relevant evidence.

A witness should be given adequate opportunity to prepare his case, and of being assisted by legal advisers. His expenses should normally be met out of public funds.

A witness should have the opportunity of being examined by his own solicitor or counsel, and of stating his case in public at the inquiry.

He should be able to call material witnesses, if reasonably practicable.

He should have the opportunity of testing any evidence affecting him by cross-examination by his own legal representative.

The Government endorse these principles, as the previous Government did in their White Paper of 1973. I shall be drawing them to the attention of the tribunal, and I am confident that the tribunal will have regard to them.

With regard to the third principle, concerning legal representation for the people involved in the inquiry, I should make it clear that, since the 1921 Act has not yet been amended in the way that the Commission proposed, the decision whether to authorise legal representation for any person rests with the tribunal itself under Section 2(b) of the Act.

The Government will invite the tribunal to be guided in this matter by the Royal Commission's recommendations, as accepted in the 1973 White Paper, and to adopt the practice envisaged in the White Paper of ascertaining and prescribing the particular issues in which an applicant for representation is to be regarded as an interested person.

We intend also to authorise the tribunal to announce at the preliminary hearing that the Government will be prepared to pay on an ex gratia basis the reasonable costs of individuals on legal representation allowed by the tribunal in relation to the issues prescribed by it and subject to any recommendations the tribunal may make.

The House knows the background to the inquiry which was so clearly set out in the Fay Report and was debated on 5th December. It is a public inquiry. I suggest that it would be right to adopt this resolution now and let the tribunal begin its work.

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

The Home Secretary has spoken of the ample powers and inquisitorial nature of the inquiry. On the subject of the safeguards, will he confirm that he will draw to the tribunal's attention the view not only of the Government but of the House, that the six principles should be adhered to and that for public servants involved there will be the right of representation by a lawyer of their choice at public expense?

Mr. Rees

I thought that I had already made that clear. If I failed to do so, yes.

4.18 p.m.

Sir Michael Havers (Wimbledon)

Is the Home Secretary aware that the Opposition welcome the motion, but the welcome is slightly muted by the delay since the intention disclosed by the Prime Minister last year? In particular, we welcome the method by which the Salmon safeguards are to be built into the new inquiry.

I think that it is implicit in the terms of the motion, but I should be grateful if the right hon. Gentleman would confirm that the bodies referred to by the Minister of State for Overseas Development in her statement on 1st December, which were in the original terms of reference for what was then to be the Aarvold Inquiry—the Ministry of Overseas Development, the Treasury, the Bank of England and the Exchequer and Audit Department—are included within these terms of reference.

4.19 p.m.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

I welcome the Government's decision to accept the view of the House of Commons to set up the inquiry. I was a little concerned about the delay since the Prime Minister made his statement, but I understand that there are good reasons why all this time has passed before the announcement was made.

I want to make only one additional comment on this occasion. It is a matter both of fact and of principle. When the Prime Minister announced before Christmas that he had accepted this decision, he spent a little time pointing out that the House would have to judge later whether it had made the right decision. He was concerned about possible prosecution in the courts of the people involved. I should like to put on record, because I believe this to be the proper occasion rather than when the Prime Minister made his comment, that I do not believe there is anything in my right hon. Friend's doubt. This was a matter which I considered carefully and on which I took advice before I moved my original motion. It had already been decided in high Government circles that there would be no further prosecutions beyond the three mentioned. One of those persons had already died on the day on which we had the original debate.

It would therefore be wrong for any hon. Member to try to cast doubts in the minds of right hon. and hon. Members, and even more important the nation, that we were in any way rushed in our decision to set up a tribunal. There is no question of large numbers of prose cutions not taking place because of this tribunal. They were never intended.

It is essential that this action is not thought to be taken in a spirit of vengefulness. As I understand the situation, there are two grounds for the tribunal. They are, first, to make it clear that all those who engage in practices and individual actions that are wrong will he shown up. They will be named and the nation will know who they are, Secondly, and perhaps even more important, the purpose of the operation is that in future everyone will know, in high and not so high places, that nothing will be done in secret that will not come out later. That was my main purpose when moving the original motion.

Nothing will be last by this procedure. If it is carried out fully, as I am confident that it will be, the gain for the nation will be considerable. Although I am a little dissatisfied with the delay, I welcome the Government's willingness to accept a decision of the House of Commons without hesitation.

4.23 p.m.

Mr. Robert Rhodes James (Cambridge)

I rise to express some regrets and reservations about the motion—principally about the 1921 Act. As an Officer and now a Member of the House, I can remember many occasions when this Act has been invoked. Whenever that happens it arouses considerable apprehension among hon. Members. Although the 1973 guidelines and the safeguards have improved the situation, the Act has not been amended.

I strongly support the proposition that this should be a public inquiry but I had hoped that it would be a parliamentary inquiry. One does not wish to criticise distinguished judges and experts, but there are certain occasions—and this is one of them—when the House of Commons itself is fully entitled and qualified to seek accountability from public servants on deeds and misdeeds against the House and the public.

Too often over the last 10 to 15 years the House too easily has permitted major inquiries to be conducted by outsiders. There is the supposition that the House does not possess the expertise to conduct such inquiries. I do not believe that to be true. I believe that this issue is one which should be referred to the House of Commons. It involves deeply our responsibility to our constituents and the accountability of Ministers to the House. I wish that that had been the decision of the Government.

I assume that there will be no Division. I shall support the motion only with profound regret for a missed opportunity.

4.25 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

I endorse almost everything said by the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). I feel exactly the same as he on this issue. Too often are we in the habit of allowing other people to do the work for which we are paid. We allow others who are not paid to do it for us and often they do not do the job as well as we could and should.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr), who has done an excellent job with his Committee. I Should have preferred that his Committee, rather than a legal Committee, did this job. I think my hon. Friend's Committee would make a good job of it.

I agree that there is tar too much cover up going on. This is a motion for further cover-up. The reason for the delay is to let the old-boy network get on with it, square it up and have it sorted out in a proper way. The motion does not mention what action should be taken against those who are found guilty of lapses, nor did the Home Secretary make a comment on that. The matter will go on for weeks and weeks and for months and months. I am sure that it is hoped that by then most of us will have forgotten about it, that by that time some of those involved will have reached retirement age, will have been conveniently put on retirement or passed on to other jobs—probably better jobs—and everyone will say what a good job was done. I object to that.

I should have preferred the Home Secretary to carry out the promise that was made at several elections, in the manifesto, at the Labour Patty annual conference and to the TUC to introduce a freedom of information Act. If there were such an Act we, and the general public who pay our salaries, could have investigated this matter long before any of this happened. We could have had the opportunity to ask for persons and papers. The Home Secretary and the Government have dodged that. There was a pledge from both sides that we were going to do something.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

There is nothing in the Labour Party manifesto nor, I hope, said by the conference that tells us that the best way of seeking information is to set up Select Committees, have cosy relationships with the people on the other side and produce reports which recommend the sacking of people who produce Labour votes and Labour Members.

The Select Committee on Overseas Development started with the Crown Agents. It was a cosy little set up, and those hon. Members who were so vigilant—so they say—suddenly found that it was too hot to handle and they dropped it. We should not have any fancy ideas about Select Committees being able to handle this.

Mr. Lewis

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) cannot have been listening with his usual attentiveness.

Mr. Skinner

I was listening very carefully.

Mr. Lewis

What I said was that I should have preferred the Home Secretary to carry out the Labour Party policy laid down in our manifesto and promised by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary—that there should be a freedom of information Act. That would have allowed the general public to investigate such matters. That would have been better than a Select Committee, judges or Members of the House of Commons. Once the public get their teeth into something, there is no old-boy network between the two sides because the public are interested in knowing what goes on. I want to see the public let in on these things. Let us give the public the opportunity to sift information.

We are debating whether we should set up a tribunal. Under a freedom of information Act we should have the right to information in the same way as we now have the right to go to Somerset House to look at company documents. Any person would be able to go along and, by paying a nominal fee, ask for all the papers and documents on the Crown Agents. They could have done that long before this issue had reached its present stage. The matter would then have been publicised.

But what is to happen under this procedure? As one of my hon. Friends said, the Official Secrets Act bars us. It is no good my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) shaking his head. I have had this year after year. When a civil servant does not want to divulge anything he simply refers to official secrets—

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

Not to a tribunal. My hon. Friend has got it wrong.

Mr. Lewis

I have not got it wrong.

Mr. English

Under this Act there is no privilege by which a civil servant can refuse to answer one of the tribunal's questions.

Mr. Lewis

My hon. Friend is talking about this matter—

Mr. English

That is what we are supposed to be talking about.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Order. As the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) said, that is what we are discussing.

Mr. Lewis

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am saying that I do not think that it is good enough. I have said that I would like to see an alternative to it.

My alternative is that rather than support this procedure the Home Secretary should implement the promise he has made on several occasions to introduce a freedom of information Bill. There would be no need for this procedure we are now embarking upon. There would be no question of any civil servant pleading to this or any other tribunal the existence of the Official Secrets Act as civil servants do when anything difficult or compromising for Governments take; place. Sometimes civil servants say that they cannot provide information because it could not be obtained even at disproportionate cost. Or they employ some other dodge.

I believe that this is another cover-up. It will be a cover-up because this matter will be swept around and the tribunal will take so much time that when it publishes its report, the report will be innocuous. No action will be taken of a definable nature against those responsible. Some people may be pensioned off and some may be given other jobs. If this were a question of Mrs. Smith stealing a bottle of milk from a supermarket, she would not get off like this. Top people in top places can and do get away with it, and they will get away with it here. I am not happy with it.

4.33 p.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

The real point at issue, however, is not whether we do something in relation to the people responsible for this matter that happened in the past. That may or may not happen. It would be deplorable just to do that and to forget at least to deal for the future with what has gone wrong.

I want to ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, whom I congratulate on accepting the will of the House in setting up this tribunal through this motion, to confirm that in dealing with the Crown Agents the tribunal will have the power to look at any person in any Government Department—the Ministry of Overseas Development, the Treasury or the Exchequer and Audit Department—who may have had a relevant connection with these events from 1967 onwards.

I say that advisedly because I tabled a Question to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development in the House before Christmas asking to whom the Crown Agents lent money, other than their principals, and from whence they obtained that money, other than from their principals. The Answer has proved difficult to come by, but through no fault of my right hon. Friend, who courteously invited me round to her Ministry and showed me such information as was available to it. The blunt truth is, as the Answer in Hansard last week by my right hon. Friend shows, that there were no proper accounts of transaction involving million of pounds.

One is therefore bound to ask whether it was by accident or intention that those accounts were not kept. That is clearly a matter that the tribunal will have to inquire into. But one must ask what the auditors, the Exchequer and Audit Department were doing not to notice the absence of proper accounts. This is a serious question which covers much more than just the problems before us. I do not want to go into the details at this stage, but I do want the Home Secretary to confirm that these terms of reference enable such inquiries to be made.

Lastly, on that same point, it will take many man-hours of work by accountants to endeavour to reconstruct accounts which do not necessarily wholly exist. That will need considerable resources in financial and human terms. I do not know what will happen in this case, but certainly since the Treasury itself must in part be a subject of this inquiry, it would be intolerable if someone in the Treasury were to tell the tribunal "No, you may not have the necessary money or resources to investigate this matter properly." I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will give us an assurance that the chairman of the tribunal can take on board the fact that no reasonable request for financial or human assistance in accountancy or other respects will be refused.

4.36 p.m.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Perhaps I may briefly refer to what I said in my intervention during the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) when, in a rather hurried fashion, I was reminding the House that the Crown Agents had been dealt with by the Select Committee on Overseas Development. The situation had reached the point where people such as my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) and Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) realised that very little progress was going to be made by this so-called high-ranking Committee, with the result that they registered their votes accordingly.

We all know that had it been left to that Committee—and one reading of the evidence shows this—we would not have reached the conclusion that we are reaching today. For that reason I disagree with the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James). He may be well versed in what happens in this place, being an ex-Officer of the House. But my evidence, limited as it is, tells me that very little comes out of here when all is trapped within the belly of consensus. The truth emerges when there is conflict and when there are two sides to an argument and those two sides are clearly opposed to one another.

In these cosy little Select Committees very little emerges, except, as in the case of the recent Select Committee report for which my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Mr. Kerr) was partly responsible, a Tory policy which he and his colleagues—

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

Stop talking bloody nonsense.

Mr. Skinner

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston does not like this, but it is necessary to put our cards on the table. I am saying forcefully that the Select Committee could not have done this job in a proper fashion, and so it is as well that it is being dealt with in the manner now proposed. That is why so many of us voted for this type of inquiry.

That is not to say that all of us—and I am certain that this applies to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson)—will be highly satisfied with the kind of inquiry that takes place. We are always sceptical of such matters, but we say that the arrangement now proposed is the best that we can get in the circumstances. It may be that the outcome will be long delayed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West said. We all understand that. We all know that involved in this particular argument is a lobby that is much more powerful than, say, the widows, the disabled or the pensioner. The lobby involved here is the most powerful lobby in the land. It cuts across the Treasury, the City and the Bank of England—all highly formidable institutions. I know only too well that when the members of that kind of establishment get together and decide on a certain course of action, the chances of too much emerging are more than a little remote.

We do not want to be wide-eyed and innocent about the outcome of this tribunal. I am worried about the outcome. I take the view that my hon. Friend expressed that this long delay may result in people who are involved in the matter being let off.

I say to the hon. Member who spoke from the Conservative Back Benches, the hon. Member for Cambridge that the House is not very good at dealing with these matters, except on sporadic occasions such as this. But at doing a continuing job the House is not very good.

When we dealt with the Poulson matter, the almost last vestiges of the Poulson inquiries in respect of certain hon. Members, there were many millions of people outside this building who thought that we had done a terrible job on that night, that we had failed to measure up to our task.

Mr. John Mendelson

Certain hon. Members voted on party lines.

Mr. Skinner

There is no doubt about that. Certain people were wined and dined in various places before the vote. That is another story.

I am not suggesting that the House as a whole could deal with the matter on a continuing basis. But I am fearful of what might take place. As I have already indicated, there is a powerful lobby at work. Those of us who have been vigilant in this matter will have to be on our toes all the time in trying to ensure that the outcome is one that is proper and aboveboard.

Since the previous debate, for which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury was mainly responsible and which was in many respects a credit to his activities and those of a few others of us, many people have made suggestions and put forward information about aspects of the Crown Agents and about where the money has gone. One of the things that we have not been able to establish is precisely what happened to some of that money. We have had discussions with people concerned about what happened to English & Continental and the role played by the Crown Agents. We have discussed how somebody managed to get hold of 8,000 plots of land which are not subject to development land tax.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member is now discussing the matter for which the tribunal may be set up. It is not in order for him to go into these aspects which such a tribunal will investigate.

Mr. Skinner

I understand that the pressure is on. I am getting to some of the difficult subjects and some of the detail which I hope will be properly sifted by the tribunal on how that transfer or that asset-stripping was done in the fashion in which it was and who has got hold of what is generally reckoned to be a £30 million company. All these matters and the role played by the Crown Agents have got to be brought out.

That is why, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I took the opportunity of raising the matter, because I am fearful that some of these matters will not be raised unless some of us continue to raise them in this forum, where at least on some occasions we cannot he stopped from doing so. In view of matters such as the Slater Walker business and the way in which taxpayers' money has been used for that, I am bound to be sceptical about what will happen to this tribunal. More than £30 million—some would say as much as £70 million—of taxpayers' money was used in that exercise.

For those and many other reasons based upon my experience in this place and the way in which in particular the two Front Benches can come together on matters such as this, I am naturally concerned about what will be the outcome. Consistent with the role that I have played in this affair, I shall at all times be concerned with what is really happening about this tribunal. It is on that basis only that I welcome it. I shall continue to hold a close watching brief, as I hope many other hon. Members will.

4.46 p.m.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

I was not one of those Members who supported the idea of a further and public inquiry into the Crown Agents affair. That was because I suspected then, as I suspect now, that the outcome of this further inquiry will be to decide that it is not possible or not fair to blame individuals. That may not turn out to be the case, but I think that it will.

I suspect that the tribunal will say that there was such a prevalent attitude of non-interference with the Crown Agents' affairs over a long period of time, shared by all Whitehall Departments, the Bank of England and so on, that it would be invidious and unfair to pick out individuals who happened to express that commonly accepted view towards the Crown Agents and say that they were to blame for the £100 million that has been lost. Whether that is a right view to take, I am not saying, but there is something to be said for it. That is likely to be the outcome of this new, prolonged and no doubt expensive investigation.

Since we are to have such an investigation, there is one point that I ask my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to answer. The motion limits the tribunal to inquiring into lapses in normal standards, and so forth in relation to the operations of the Crown Agents as financiers on own-account in the years 1967–74". In other words, the activities of the Crown Agents, other than on own-account, are excluded from the concern of the tribunal.

I think that we are all assuming that the tribunal will be looking mainly at the possibility of corruption by individual members on the staff of the Crown Agents, the possibility of lapses in proper supervision by officers of the Crown Agents, by the Treasury, by the Bank and so on. All of those faults, if they are found, will apply as much to the Crown Agents' activities on behalf of their principals as they do to own-account dealings.

Clearly, if an overseas principal gave specific instructions to the Crown Agents to place a certain amount of money in certain investments there would be little opportunity for wrong behaviour by the Crown Agents' staff. But principals did not only put money with the Crown Agents with such specific instructions. The Crown Agents invited deposits from principals and were left with considerable discretion as to what was then done with it. That was not own-account dealing. That was the larger part of their dealings, which was on behalf of overseas principals.

Therefore, I do not think that it is right to exclude any wrong-doing of the kind defined here which was done in the course of the activities of the Crown Agents on behalf of overseas principals. However, I see the difficulty in a public inquiry of bringing all that out in public when it concerns relations with independent countries and the like overseas. That is one of the reasons why some of us are doubtful about the idea of having a public inquiry.

It is almost impossible for the tribunal to distinguish between the administrative faults which relate to own-account dealings and those which relate to other dealings. If the tribunal finds evidence that a certain official in Whitehall did not sufficiently look over the shoulder of the Crown Agents to see what they were doing, surely it will come to the conclusion that that did or did not happen generally in relation to the Crown Agents.

As we have drafted this motion, if the evidence before the tribunal happens to relate to activities on behalf of principals, the tribunal will have to leave it aside. It will, nevertheless, be evidence of maladministration, carelessness or whatever on the part of Whitehall, but the tribunal will not be free to inquire into it and report upon it. I think that that is a mistake, and it needs to be looked at.

If the tribunal found that that was an impossible or highly undesirable limitation upon its freedom of action, I hope that the Government would be prepared to receive representations from it to that effect, and then perhaps to bring an amending motion to the House.

4.50 p.m.

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South)

I intervene briefly not in connection with the tribunal's terms of reference, or to support what my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James) said about the nature of the tribunal, but as a consequence of the intervention of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who said that the Treasury, the City and the Bank of England constituted the most powerful lobby in the land and would seek to distort the outcome of the inquiry.

I suppose that in some sense the Treasury and the Bank of England are my constituents, in that they are set within my constituency's boundaries. But there are plenty of people on the Government Front Bench who can defend those institutions. I have a constituency responsibility to defend the good name of the City of London, and I intervene to defend that good name, as I did when the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) initiated the debate before Christmas.

The Parker Tribunal on the bank rate leak in 1957 fully investigated the affairs of the City of London. In the debate in this House that followed that inquiry, Lord Butler, one of the most distinguished of the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge, remarked that no one but a knave or a fool would impugn the integrity of the City of London. I take that view today.

I have every confidence that the tribunal will bring out anything that should be brought out and needs to be brought out in the inquiry. Though I hold no brief for all individual members of the City of London, I have every confidence that the good name of the City will emerge unscathed.

4.52 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)

I do not object to the Home Secretary's moving the motion. I think that he has met the wishes of the House in this regard, but I am sorry that we had to have this kind of tribunal, because I think that it will go on for a long time and that it will be dated at the end. In circumstances of this kind I should much prefer that the people concerned could be dealt with by the Minister or whoever else is involved, that those people should simply be shot out and the matter dealt with in that way.

We forget that the Crown Agents did a very good job for this country over many years. The situation that arose in relation to the Crown Agents has also arisen in private and public companies and public corporations at times in the past. It needs to be dealt with swiftly rather than slowly.

Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), I should have preferred the matter to come to a Select Committee if the Minister could not deal with it swiftly. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that a Committee might not be able to deal with it adequately. But that is a criticism of the Select Committee procedure. If we accept the hon. Gentleman's view, we had better get together and make sure that we tighten up that procedure so that it proves to be effective in an investigation of this kind. In so far as my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge suggests that the House could deal with such a situation, I believe that he will accept that we should improve the Select Committee procedure to see that it is as effective as we think it is in the United States.

It is in everybody's interests that the inquiry should not be too slow. The Home Secretary should suggest to the chairman that it should be as swift as possible, that the matters are dealt with briskly, that there is no prolonging of evidence, that there are no weeks or months of delay. If that is done we might be able to make a judgment on the report. But if the inquiry goes on for months or even for two years, I doubt whether we shall be able to reach a proper judgment, and probably it will be a new House of Commons by then.

4.55 p.m.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to reply.

I say to the hon. Member for Rutland and Stamford (Mr. Lewis) that of course speed matters, but it also matters that there should be a thorough inquiry, so that at the end people will feel that everything has been brought out to the public eye and a judgment can be made on it. I agree that the report may well not come to the present House, even if this Parliament lasts well into next year.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Lewis) talked about a cover-up. I am confident that the terms of reference are right. The delay in setting up the tribunal was to see that they were right. It was not simply a matter that was similar to drafting a motion for a party meeting or an occasion of that kind. It had to stand the test of time and be looked at by my right hon. Friends. Different views were put forward.

I do not apologise for the delay, for which I was responsible and which did not involve any other aspects. I feel con- fident that we have the matter right. I shall return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham). I say now merely that the terms of reference are right and that when hon. Members learn the names of the three men on the tribunal I think they will agree that they are men who will clearly understand what the House requires.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was unfair at least in one respect—the question of relationships between the Front Benches—to my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development. In my view—and I have read all the papers in recent weeks—she has performed a most important task since the return of this Government. What my hon. Friend said about cosy relationships was extremely unfair to her in view of the work she has done.

Mr. Skinner

While my right hon. Friend and many other hon. Members will accept that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State has done a job that they regard as first-class, my experience tells me that what happens in this place is that there is a relationship between the two Front Benches over and above anything that may occur between the Government Front Bench and our Back Benches. That does not apply only to this matter of the Crown Agents. It applies to everything.

I am prepared to lay a bet that the motion was put down only after consultation with the Opposition Front Bench. It certainly was not put down after any consultation with people such as myself and others on the Labour Back Benches. So I say to my right hon. Friend—he may not like it, but he will have to lump it—that on all these matters there is an ongoing relationship between the two Front Benches on all matters brought before the House. He cannot tell me any different.

Mr. Rees

When my hon. Friend asserts that I shall have to lump it when he says that the motion was shown to the Opposition, I tell him that that is not true—

Mr. Skinner

I will bet that the right hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) knows the name of the chairman.

Mr. Rees

My hon. Friend is completely wrong about the terms of the motion and the members.

Sir M. Havers

I did not know anything about the terms of the motion. I would also point out to the Home Secretary and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that when the Minister of State made her statement I was the first to say in the House that I disagreed with the secret form of inquiry and I asked her to consider the matter. Speaking from the Opposition Dispatch Box, I urged that there should be a public tribunal under the 1921 Act, against the then indicated wishes of the Government.

Mr. Rees rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. In view of the denials, I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will be quite anxious to withdraw his allegations.

Mr. Skinner

I am withdrawing nothing.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Member is withdrawing nothing. I thank the hon. Member.

Mr. Rees

Whether or not my hon. Friend withdraws them, he is wrong on this issue.

Mr. Skinner

My right hon. Friend says that, but I do not agree.

Mr. Rees

With regard to the other aspect concerning other forms that the inquiry could take, and the remarks of the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), it seems to me, looking back over the history of this problem over the years, that the House itself and the various committees that have looked at this matter in a variety of ways have not exactly been successful. Perhaps on that basis alone it was right to move to the 1921 Act, with all the problems that arise in doing so. On an aspect that has been mentioned, proceeding under the 1921 Act will not cause a division on party grounds.

My hon. Friend the Member for New-ham, North-West at least shows again why it would be better to deal with the matter in this way rather than through the House of Commons. No one could say that he would approach this with an open mind. Indeed, when he says that I have put in my manifesto or that my party's manifesto contains an official information Act, he is wrong. It is a reform of the Official Secrets Act, which is a different matter.

However, because my hon. Friend has raised this subject today, I simply say that it would be a mistake to just look at how the official information legislation works in other parts of the world. When I served on the Franks Committee many years ago, we investigated this matter. It is a nice title, but at the end of the day right hon. and hon. Members might end up with only as much information as they get now. What is far more important is the policy of the Government of the day with regard to the information that they wish to give Parliament. That is by far the best approach.,

However, after my hon. Friend saying what he said about me having stood for an Official Information Act, I must tell him that whatever developments might take place on that—and I have an open mind as to how that might develop—what he said this afternoon was wrong.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

I withdraw it, and I apologise to my right hon. Friend. It is true that I lumped him together with the TUC and the Labour Party, which did come out for this. It is true that the manifesto refers to the Official Secrets Act. I accept that. However, when my right hon. Friend says that we might find it difficult, is he not aware that we now have a ludicrous situation in which British citizens have to go to America to use the American information legislation to get information which should be available here, so that they can publish it? They can get information from America but they are banned from getting it here.

Mr. Rees

I am sure that there are funny things in this world. My hon. Friend knows many of the funny things that happen. I suspect, however, from my days at the Ministry of Defence, that that is absolutely true, but I do not believe that it is because of the Official Secrets Act that it happens in that way.

I come to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English). The terms of reference are wide enough to deal with the various departments—I use that phrase in the generic sense—that he mentioned. They are also drawn widely enough to deal with the aspect of cost. We leave it to the chairman of the tribunal, but there is no objection on the part of the Government. Certainly nothing will be raised to the effect that money is a bar to carrying out the investigation properly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury is absolutely right when he says that what we are investigating is the own-account operations of the Crown Agents. That was what we were asked to do. if there are other moneys involved in the own-account of the Crown Agents, I think that it will turn out that some of the worries that my hon. Friend has raised this afternoon will be dealt with.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) has been assiduous in this matter. He initiated the debate under Standing Order No. 9 some weeks ago. With regard to criminal and civil proceedings, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is not making any decision until he has consulted counsel for the tribunal.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Overseas Development, the Minister concerned with the Crown Agents, is confident that the Crown Agents are now in an excellent position. She deserves much of the praise for that.

On this motion, we are looking at the past, and it is for the good of the body politic that we get the truth of this matter. The terms of reference are designed for that end.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That it is expedient that a Tribunal be established for inquiring into a definite matter of urgent public importance, that is to say, to what extent there were lapses from accepted standards of commercial or professional conduct or of public administration in relation to the operations of the Crown Agents as financiers on own-account in the years 1967–74 described in the report of the Committee of Inquiry on the Crown Agents (HC 48 of 1977–78).