HC Deb 12 March 1984 vol 56 cc221-38 6.15 am
Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

I wrote to the Leader of the House about this debate a few days ago, telling him that it would be specifically about the Prime Minister's conduct during her visit to Oman in 1981 and the subsequent developments, and that I would expect her to reply to a debate involving her personal conduct. I also said that some of the questions I would be putting were precisely those posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) in his correspondence with the Prime Minister a few days ago.

The matter was sparked off by The Observer on 15 January, nearly three years after the Prime Minister visited Oman. She was there specially to lobby for a £300 million contract for the building of a new university there. In the event, the contract was won by Cementation International, a subsidiary of Trafalgar House, a known supporter of the Tory party, and a massive contributor to its funds.

Cementation International was the only company competing for the contract — itself a strange and unexplained fact. The contract was never put out to tender, as one might expect in such circumstances. Had that happened, other British firms would almost certainly have made bids. That strange and unexplained fact was made more intriguing by the presence in Oman, at the same time as his mother, of son Mark Thatcher. He had arrived privately in Abu Dhabi at the same time as his mother, and they met there. We do not know whether he was accompanied by his police protection force—a facility provided to him at considerable expense to the British taxpayer, and one of which the Prime Minister obviously approves.

More importantly, Mark Thatcher was obviously there with one objective—to make sure that he got his rake-off from the contract that his mother was winning for Cementation International. If she was "batting for Britain", as she boasted in the House on one occasion, she was also batting for her son Mark, and perhaps for her husband, too, as revelations in The Sunday Times might suggest. The right hon. Lady was acting on the principle that what was good for the Thatcher family was good for Britain. Mark was engaged in consultancy work for Cementation International and stood to make a considerable sum if his mother did her stuff. We have never found out how much. Some people have said that it could be £100,000; others have said more, some less.

Never in all our British history had the interests of the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister and her family been so well served simultaneously as in the winning of this large, juicy contract. There may have been nothing improper in the way these things happened. Everything may have been perfectly honourable and above board. If so, if there is nothing to hide, why has the Prime Minister been so resentful about the questions that have been put to her on these matters by the press, by Members of Parliament and notably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney? Why has she refused to answer the perfectly proper questions put to her by The Observer on 15 January and by my right hon. Friend in his long letter dated 15 February 1984?

The questions put by The Observer were succinct and to the point and I should like to put them on the record. The first was: When the Prime Minister raised through the Sultan of Oman the question of the university contract, did she know then that her own son had a financial interest in securing the contract for Cementation?

Secondly, did she realise that that situation posed a potential conflict of interest?

Thirdly, what advice did she seek, or what advice was she given, by her officials on this matter?

Fourthly, did she know that when her visit to Oman was planned her son was going there, too, and with the same objective in mind?

Fifthly, does she think it wise for her son to be associated with a company that benefits from British influence overseas and whose contracts may be underwritten by public funds?

Sixthly, if so, does she not think it desirable that such arrangements should be made public?

Those questions, it seems to me and to many other people, were of legitimate public interest and concern. What was the response of 10 Downing street and the Prime Minister when those questions were put to her and her Office? Nothing but a deafening silence. The right hon. Lady refused to answer one single question put in that way by The Observer. There was a resolute determination not to answer any of those questions at all.

In addition, when Cementation International was challenged as to whether Mark Thatcher was employed by the company, it denied, through Mr. James Poole, that he was. That denial was repeated a few weeks later. The Trafalgar House chairman, Mr. Nigel Broackes, refused to say anything about the matter when questioned on it.

Subsequently, on 15 February, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney put a series of questions to the Prime Minister, not unlike those put by The Observer. He courteously but pointedly asked questions which need to be answered. What was the purpose of son Mark's visit to Oman? Why was it kept secret for nearly three years? Did the Prime Minister consult Mark about the contracts, and in particular the Cementation contract? Did Mark meet representatives of the Oman Government to discuss the contract? Was the Prime Minister aware of her son's financial interest in Cementation International? What agency, consultancy or other financial arrangement with Cementation or any of its associated firms did her son enjoy? Again, those were reasonable questions. The Prime Minister's reply, to quite a lengthy letter was a brief and haughty evasion of all the questions put to her.

My right hon. Friend put two further questions to the Prime Minister, which were answered in written form in the House and published on 29 February. Those questions asked the Prime Minister: (1) on what date in 1981 she first learned of Cementation's interest in the Oman university contract; (2) on what date she first learned of Mr. Mark Thatcher's financial interest in the Cementation negotiation for the Oman contract.—[Official Report, 29 February 1983; Vol. 55, c. 218.] Yet again, the Prime Minister refused to give specific answers.

Subsquently, The Sunday Times dug up some further interesting facts—that Mark's loot was being paid into a Barclay's bank account of which his father, Denis, was cosignatory. The explanation for that, as the Prime Minister was at pains to point out to the House, may be simple —that dad wanted to keep an eye on a difficult son's multifarious dabblings in the financial world, or, as The Sunday Times said: The less charitable see the possibility that Mrs. Thatcher's husband — as well as her son — stood to benefit from her 'batting for Britain' in Oman. Those interpretations will be made, and suspicions will be heightened as long as the Prime Minister refuses to tell the whole truth. As The Sunday Times editorial said: It is this silly silence which has allowed the Mark Thatcher saga to develop in such damaging dribs and drabs, when a full disclosure of all relevant information at the start could have killed the story stone dead. It is perhaps because the story could not be killed stone dead that the Prime Minister refused to answer the questions.

The current edition of The Economist said: It is hard to doubt … that she, the Prime Minister, knew of her son's involvement in the Cementation bid. Yet, given it was the only British company concerned, she might very reasonably have concluded that the interests of Britain and of the Thatcher family were, as usual, blessedly as one … Her anger over the affair is rooted in her disbelief that anybody could think she might be swayed by family considerations in her conduct of public business. That same piece in The Economist concluded: In most countries, the unavoidable leg-up she (the Prime Minister) gave her son in Oman would arouse little public interest. Britain, as Mrs. Thatcher ought to know, is different. Her error has not been her conduct in Oman but her inability to see that a full answer to every question, however apparently intrusive, was the only way to quell the storm. Over the weeks and months the Prime Minister has stubbornly refused to answer the questions that have been put to her by various hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The Prime Minister may feel reinforced in her posture by the report of the Select Committee on Members' Interests which was improperly leaked to The Times last Saturday—no doubt by one of her party. The Chairman of the Select Committee improperly prejudged the report before the evidence was taken and before the Committee had prepared its report. The Committee's terms of reference are such that it could not make a worthwhile comment on the matter. I suggest that an ad hoc committee——

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I clarify the position for my hon. Friend? The Select Committee on Members' Interests has not as yet concluded its examination, although the press has been led to believe that it has. It still has further submissions to take.

Mr. Hamilton

I am interested to hear that. The matter had plainly been prematurely leaked, and from its terms in The Times last Saturday it was leaked by a Government supporter on the Committee.

In view of the Prime Minister's cavalier attitude to this and other matters involving the House and her accountability here, the time is now ripe for an ad hoc Select Committee to probe and cross-examine the Prime Minister in depth and at length about that specific matter. I would go further. The seeming development of the office of Prime Minister into a kind of presidential set-up may mean that now is the time to examine the desirability of a full-time Select Committee to examine the Prime Minister specifically and alone on matters of critical national importance.

If one looks at the Prime Minister's record since the election in June last year, one sees that she has made speeches in the House on rare occasions. Her Question Time of a quarter of an hour on Tuesdays and Thursdays is virtually a farce and a waste of time. There is no means, therefore, by which the House can get at the Prime Minister and question her in depth in the way that we have a right to expect. Only by that means have the House and the country a chance, however remote, of ascertaining the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth in this rather squalid episode.

I shall quote what The Observer said in its editorial of 29 January. It quoted the Daily Telegraph, a Tory newspaper: As the Daily Telegraph remarked last week: 'When public figures take refuge in their rights of privacy one is normally entitled to be a little suspicious … [Mrs. Thatcher's] protective feeling for her children can be well understood, yet their actions, especially here in the case of Mark, can never be beyond the scope of public interest.' A lack of frankness is not something of which this Prime Minister is normally accused. Apart from all the other considerations, her own political style and character surely require her to abandon this present unconvincing posture that it can all be kept within the family. This is one of the most squalid episodes in our history that I can recall in quite a long period in the House. It will continue to be raised in the House by us, and no doubt by the press outside the House. More revelations will come out in due course. We intend to pursue the matter until we get the answers to the questions that have been legitimately posed inside and outside the House.

6.47 am
Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

I suppose that we should be grateful for small mercies, in that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) has chosen to make his squalid attack against the Prime Minister rather than his usual target, the Royal Family. The word "squalid", which the hon. Gentleman applies, could with the greatest consistency be applied to his own personal attacks over so many years, of which the House is well aware.

One aspect of the matter has not been drawn to the attention of the House before, so far as I am aware. This is the appropriate occasion to do so. I refer to the first report from the Select Committee on Industry and Trade, in Session 1982–83, which was released on 3 March last year. Although the principal focus of the report was southeast Asia, much of the evidence was about Britain's commercial activities in the near east. The particular problem was encapsulated in evidence given, on which the Committee comments in paragraph 52. I am glad that the hon. Member for Fife, Central has returned. The Select Committee states: We accept what the Minister for Trade said: 'if more than one company is fielded it prejudices the chances of a British company securing the order'. We also accept that for Government there is a considerable difficulty in any suggestion of discrimination … One of our witnesses also said to us that 'although UK manufacturers or contractors may not relish the idea of cooperating with their competitors in this country, at times we see large contracts being awarded to a consortium of contractors in a foreign country against bids made by two or three UK firms in competition with one another'. We believe that the British Overseas Trade Board, Ministers and the Overseas Projects Board should use their influence to the maximum extent to bring this message home to major British Companies, and to prevent their cutting each others' throats, whether they operate in South East Asia, Hong Kong or anywhere else overseas.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

That is not our case.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

I know that the hon. Gentleman finds this unanimous report of the all-party Committee distasteful because it does not suit the squalid case that he wishes to make.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

No, this is a debate of limited duration, so I shall continue. The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt have the opportunity to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker if you are so minded.

The gravamen of the Omani contract is that the British companies had not learnt the lesson over the years that if they did do as their overseas competitors did and form a consortium they would make it very difficult for the Government of the day, of whichever political complexion, to give full support to the British bid without inviting accusations of partiality in favour of one firm and against another. [Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) will contain himself instead of trying to interrupt from a sedentary position, because the squalid attack on the Prime Minister is being answered. I know that he finds that distasteful because he cannot face the truth, but the truth is going to be told whether he likes it or not.

On this occasion there was one consortium which constituted the British bid. Even the hon. Member for Fife, Central did not say that the Prime Minister or any other member of the Government should not have given full support to that British bid, because to do so would have been to let the cat out of the bag and to say that once again Britain's bid should fail for lack of Government support. The hon. Gentleman did not dare cross that Rubicon, and nor have Labour Front Bench spokesmen when challenged on that point in their equally squalid attacks on the Prime Minister. Had the British consortium failed to win in this a case due to lack of ministerial support, I do not doubt that the Opposition, as well as Conservative Members, would have been critical, as we have been under successive Governments when British Ministers have not made the same supportive efforts when in a position to do as have been made by their French, German, Dutch and Japanese competitors.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

No, I will not. The hon. Gentleman seeks to make his contribution from a sedentary position. If he wishes to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, he may do so later in the time that remains.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I wish to ask a question.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

The hon. Gentleman ought to know the rules of the House by now. I know that the hon. Member for Workington does not like taking his medicine, but he will have to do so.

The report of the Select Committee did not, I regret to say, receive the publicity that it deserved. There was an important message which ran through the whole of that important report. That message was that, in the case of such enormous overseas opportunities, there should be only one major bid and that that bid should have the full support of the British Government. There could not be fuller support than that of the Prime Minister herself, and when she was invited to go to that country it would have been a dereliction of her duty if she had not done everything in her power to ensure that Britain won that competition. There can be no question of partiality or discrimination when there is only one British consortium. That is the essence of the truth which those who attack the Prime Minister have so often overlooked.

On the question of interest, Mr. Speaker made the position amply clear in his statement on 30 January, which will bear repeating. He said: Last Thursday, in response to requests from hon. Members, I undertook to give further consideration to the question of Members' interests. There are three matters which it would be helpful for me to make clear to the House. The first relates to the declaration of the interests of Members' children in the Register of Members' Interests. In the introduction to the last published register, the registrar states that members are not required to disclose 'the interests of spouses or children, except in certain circumstances relating to shareholdings'. The rule about registering shareholdings is confined to the holdings of infant children. There is, therefore, no interest to register in the case referred to by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours). The second matter concerns the declaration of interests in the House. I reaffirm what I said last Thursday. It is contrary to our practice for interests to be declared during questions and answers. Finally, I remind the House that the events to which reference was made on Thursday took place in 1981. I am not aware that anything has taken place in the present Parliament which is contrary to the rules of the House governing direct declarations of interests. Those rules have not changed between the last Parliament and the present one. Comment on what took place in a previous Parliament is not a matter for the Chair." —[Official Report, 30 January 1984; Vol. 53, c. 24.] The hon. Member for Fife, Central has asked what advice the Prime Minister was given by her officials.

I have been in the House for nearly 24 years, and during the whole of that time it has been the accepted doctrine that Ministers should never reveal what advice they are given by civil servants, and that Select Committees — which have power to send for persons, papers and records—should never press questions to civil servants about the advice which they have given to Ministers. That doctrine was upheld by a Labour Government during the inquiry by the preceding Select Committee into the Chrysler rescue operation. That Committee wished to do two things. It wished to question a Minister, Mr. Harold Lever, and the Prime Minister of the day refused to allow him to appear before the Select Committee on the grounds that it had the right to decide which Ministers, if any, appeared before the Select Committee. Civil servants rightly refused to reveal to the Committee what advice they had given Ministers. That was accepted by the Committee because that practice was wholly in accordance with the rules that have governed the House for longer than I care to mention. There is no novelty in the proposition that Ministers should not reveal what advice they have been given by civil servants and that civil servants should not reveal the advice that they have given. The reason for that is obvious—civil servants are not able to defend themselves if they are criticised for their advice and Ministers are responsible for whose advice they seek and whether they take it. I am surprised that the hon. Member for Fife, Central, who has some experience of Select Committees, should have repeated that question from a newspaper, although he knows as well as I do what the rules are concerning the questioning of civil servants about the advice that they have given Ministers and the reasons for the rules.

The squalid attack, in line with those that the hon. Member for Fife, Central and some of his hon. Friends have made for so long against their chosen targets, falls back into its proper place as a squalid personal attack on the Prime Minister, but does not dare criticise her for what she did—backing the only British bid for an enormous contract that will bring significant employment and revenue to Britain.

6.51 am
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I thank the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) for the helpful research that he has done. We shall read the report with special interest as he has almost made our case for us.

Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop

The right hon. Gentleman should have done that before.

Mr. Williams

The hon. Gentleman has just chastised others for intervening from a sedentary position. He has only just resumed his seat. I trust that he will extend to me the courtesy that I extended to him. I did not interrupt him when he showed that he did not want interventions in his speech.

The hon. Gentleman made two points, the essence of which was that a British company should have co-operated in a consortium and learnt the lesson spelt out in the document. The reality is that it was not a consortium; it was within the Trafalgar House empire. Even the design work is being done by a subsidiary of Trafalgar House, and, far from the negotiations being open, they were conducted furtively and secretively. I shall demostrate that by referring to what the Government said in guidance to others who might have been interested in the contract.

It is understandable that, on an issue such as this, the debate could become heated. Like most hon. Members, I would prefer that the debate were not taking place. The Leader of the House and I have fought our politics across the Floor of the House for many years. I am sure that he also does not like personalised politics. I would not be involved in this debate if I felt that this was a purely personal campaign. I am here only because I believe that a series of questions about ministerial responsibilities need to be answered. I should not be here if the Prime Minister had given straightforward answers to straightforward questions. Had she given such answers earlier, many of the suspicions that are based on the festering doubts that have been created by unanswered questions might never have arisen. It would have been better for politics if those circumstances had not been allowed to develop. However, the Prime Minister allowed them to develop.

It is important to understand what we are talking about. The hon. Member for Tiverton spent considerable time talking about the register of Members' interests. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), I am talking not about the register but about the rules governing ministerial conduct. They must be stricter, because of the special position of Ministers, because of their patronage, and because they have access to confidential information.

A clear conflict of interest emerges if we systematically, and I hope unemotionally, follow the development of the Oman contract. Before I do that, I should establish what the conflict of interest rules require. Prime Minister Asquith said: No Minister is justified under any circumstances in using official information, information that has come to him as a Minister for his own private profit or for that of his friends. That was updated by Churchill when he was Prime Minister in an especially relevant form: It is a principle of public life that Ministers must so order their affairs that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their private interest and their public duties. On the basis of the evidence so far—I must include that provision, because the Prime Minister has not provided evidence that she could provide—there would appear to be a conflict between private interest and public duty.

We should fit this dispute into its context. The Financial Timesof 17 March 1982, when the contract was announced, said: One of the largest overseas orders to be won by a single building contractor"— Conservative Members should note that— has been awarded to Cementation International, part of the Trafalgar House group. We are talking about an unusually large contract anyway in this sector.

We should also bear in mind that Cementation is not inexperienced in activities in Oman. It had carried out the infrastructure programme for the extension of the capital city — the Greater Muttrah project — and been involved in the substantial Medina Qaboos executive housing project near the airport in conjunction with Taylor Woodrow, which said to the press that it would have liked to bid for this contract, but Cementation had a substantial track record. It was not new to this market. For some years it had enjoyed the services of two well-known operators, one a Libyan and the other a Lebanese, whose names I have, and they also had good local connections, includng two brothers, one of whom was the ex-Foreign Minister — [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) seems to find this funny. Will he treat it as a serious matter? New as he is to the House, he should understand—

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

Spare the cant.

Mr. Williams

I shall not spare the hon. Gentleman. If he choses to sneer and shout from a sedentary position, when he seems to have nothing constructive to say, I am entitled to attack him for his frivolity and irrelevance.

Mr. Baldry


Mr. Williams

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he did not have the courtesy even to try to intervene previously in the normal way.

Cementation had a proven track record and employed known operators well versed in the ways of establishing middle east contacts, and with high-level contacts in the country.

What, one asks, does Mark Thatcher have to offer a company that already has those connections? What did his Monteagle marketing company, a company with no office and an ex-directory phone number, have to offer that was attractive and necessary to Cementation? In the Sunday People on 12 February 1984, a Cementation executive said that the company paid and used Mark Thatcher because he is the Prime Minister's son. That is important. [Interruption.] I shall come to that point later. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) is excited by my argument, and I intend to develop it fully as I progress.

Here was a Cementation executive saying that the attraction of Mark Thatcher to that company was not commercial know-how or his expertise in Oman — he probably had to look it up on the map before he went there —but the fact that he is the Prime Minister's son. To put all this into context, I point out that this interest in him as the Prime Minister's son was only in relation to a contract in the middle east where there is a ready acceptance that helping families and friends is legitimate to an extent that would raise eyebrows and questions in western Europe.

Professor Dworkin, professor of jurisprudence at Oxford university, in The Observer on 26 February said: Is it inconceivable that some foreign officials would think themselves to have done a favour for a head of state by advancing a relative's career, a favour that might, in some wholly unpredictable way, be returned later? We understand that that is the way in the middle east. We have had discussions about this in the House, and we all know that the business ethics there are different. We understand that companies have to behave rather differently when they are pursuing contracts in the middle east. That would suggest that Ministers should be particularly cautious about the way in which they conduct their affairs when contracts in the middle east are involved. What I have described — family preference and the giving of contracts on a basis that would be regarded as dubious or unethical in Europe—is a fact of middle eastern life of which the Prime Minister should have been aware and of which Cementation, a well-established practitioner in the middle east, would certainly be aware.

The Prime Minister should tell the House whether any of her officials in the Foreign Office, the Department of Trade and Industry, or even at No. 10, registered any warning or complaint about the presence of Mark at the time that she was making her representations in Oman. I accept her statement that she was batting on a purely British brief, but had she received any warning that there was a danger in Mark's presence?

Mr. Campbell-Savours

With regard to my right hon.

Friend's point about Omani practice, is it not clear that the Omanis believed that they were helping our Prime Minister's family on the contract because her son was in the palace garden at the time that she was discussing the contract with the Sultan? Furthermore, the Omani authorities knew that he had a pecuniary interest in that contract and that he had been accompanied to Oman by a Mr. Jamil Amyuni, who is the middle east director of Cementation. Within their perceptions of what business people did, is it not clear that they believed that there was a direct family interest?

Mr. Williams

If the facts are as my hon. Friend describes them, the situation is far worse. It is another reason why the Prime Minister should come to the House and make a proper statement.

The right hon. Lady was out there with her husband and daughter, her daughter acting as her PA. I was told in a parliamentary answer that the Prime Minister paid her daughter's fare. Her daughter and husband were there as part of the official group, and I am not making anything of that. I am distinguishing between their role and that of Mark Thatcher, who was not there as part of the official group. He was not, so far as we know, carrying out any duties in relation to the Prime Minister's office, as his sister was doing. He even travelled separately.

The Prime Minister insists that she argued the case not of Cementation but only of the contract coming to Britain. The intervention of the hon. Member for Tiverton, in which he said that the Government preferred single-bid contracts, worsens even that claim on her part, but I do not want to pursue that.

Did the right hon. Lady know that her son Mark, through Monteagle Marketing, was in Oman representing Cementation? Did she know that before she went to Oman? If so, why did she not ban him from going there or refuse him any contact with the official party? Alternatively, if she did not find out until she arrived in Oman, why did she not send him home, or at least ensure that he had no contact with the official party?

It is a possibility that he did not tell her. But it is almost beyond the realms of credibility that a mother meeting her son in the middle east—not just bumping into him in the high street in Brighton—would not ask him what he was doing in Oman and Abu Dhabi. It is conceivable that she did not ask or that he did not tell her. The right hon. Lady has implied that she was not aware of Cementation's interest in the contract before it was signed.

In January, in a written answer, the right hon. Lady said: No United Kingdom construction company had approached the Department about the project prior to the decision of the Omani Government to award a turnkey contract".— [Official Report, 19 January 1984; Vol. 52, c. 273.] On 29 February, in answer to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, the Prime Minister said "there is no record" in relation to two specific questions. One was when she first learnt of Cementation's interest in the contract and the other was when she first learnt of Mark Thatcher's financial interest in the Cementation negotiations. Yet at that stage she said that there was no record.

The Prime Minister's visit was in April 1981. The Observer, on 15 January, alleged: In May 1981, almost as soon as the Prime Minister had returned to London, Morgan Grenfell applied to ECGD for credit guarantees in the expectation that Cementation would be awarded the contract. It is not illegitimate to ask whether that allegation is true or false. If it is false, that disposes of it, but it was within a month of the Prime Minister having been in Oman.

On 11 May—I ask the Minister to note this, because he will appreciate its relevance to what he said — the British Overseas Trade Board, through its export intelligence service — a photocopy of this is in the Library—issued notice No. 404. The board was telling potential bidders for the Oman contract in May 1981, a few weeks after the visit: It is understood that an architect's brief is to be prepared within the ministry"— that is the Omani ministry— by December in preparation for design tenders being called in early 1982. In May, in advice to other potential bidders for the contract, the Government were saying that tenders would be called in early 1982. In fact, tenders were never called. In the autumn of 1981, after secret negotiations, of which, apparently, no one else was aware, the entire contract was awarded to Cementation and its subsidiary. That may explain why Taylor Woodrow never participated. The race was over before the starter had brought out his gun.

Why was there only one company? The other companies, on Government advice, were still waiting for tenders to be invited in the next year. It would be relevant for us to know whether the Prime Minister discussed the dates on which tenders were to be invited and the time span in which the contract was to be negotiated when she was in Oman.

In March 1982, the Sultan of Oman visited the United Kingdom. We understand from the press that Mark Thatcher cancelled an important engagement in a celebrity golf tournament in Spain, telling the organisers, according to The Observer of 15 January 1984: The sultan's visit has to come first. Apparently some nosey journalist approached Buckingham palace. A spokesman said: Mark Thatcher seldom takes part in state visits, so there is no reason why he should do so this time. The report of 15 January continued: But unusually on this occasion, Mark's name was on the list of official guests at Downing street where everyone associated with the Oman contract was present. By that stage the contract had been sewn up, but as far back as that there was a sign that the Prime Minister was, or should have been, aware of her son's involvement, and the alarm bells should have been ringing. She should have been volunteering information to the House rather than, as happened subsequently, concealing information. The entire episode has been surrounded by silence and deception.

Again, The Observer of 15 January — I emphasise that no writs have been issued on the basis of this report —stated: In 1983 last year James Poole, a Trafalgar spokesman, said: 'Mark Thatcher is not employed by us or Cementation. I have checked and there is no record that he has worked for a fee or as a consultant. On 14 January, the day before, a reporter checked with the company and the company confirmed that statement. Cementation's project director, Michael Slater, told The Observer: I have no knowledge of any involvement by Mark Thatcher. On a third occasion a spokesman from Trafalgar House said: I am led to understand … that Cementation have no relationship with Mark Thatcher. Yet in The Sunday Times, only a month later on 12 February 1984, Mark Thatcher agreed that he had been involved but was reluctant to discuss how much he had been paid.

On the same day the Sunday People—I shall complete the quotation that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington started, and I ask for your forbearance, Mr. Deputy Speaker — stated that a spokesman for Cementation had admitted that the company had used him because he is the Prime Minister's son—and why the bloody hell shouldn't we? To be able to go around with the Prime Minister's son in a country like Oman does not exactly open the doors, but it flatters people. That was at the time of the Prime Minister's visit to a country where the influence of family relationships, as I said earlier, should have been well understood. Is any more proof required that a conflict of interest, in ministerial terms, exists with this contract? In the meantime, Cementation had lied, cheated and tried to mislead.

Meanwhile—again, as part of the general conspiracy of silence that surrounds the whole episode — Mark Thatcher told The Sunday Times on 4 March — and I understand that it has not been rebutted: I have an understanding with the people involved that I don't say anything. I have an understanding with Mum that I'm not going to say anything. His partner, Steve Tipping, of Monteagle Marketing Ltd., gave what the newspaper called "guidance", because he said that he did not want to break his promise to remain silent. So here we are, three years later, and the conspiracy gets tighter. An attempt is being made to draw more and more people within a cloak of silence.

The Prime Minister was not exactly helpful when hon. Members tried to question her about the circumstances. She blocked question after question by the old technique of reference back to an answer she gave on 19 February this year. In a letter to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, on 16 February the right hon. Lady admitted that her son was present at a function attended by many people including the press; there was no interest at all in his visit at the time". That referred to his visit to Oman. She said, in effect, that there was nothing to answer, that the press knew he was there and showed no interest. Of course not, because the whole family was there, and no doubt the press made the same assumption on the same basis.

Secondly, at that time no one knew that Mark Thatcher represented a commercial interest, so again the press had no reason to be excited by his presence. Moreover, in answer to me on 20 February, the Prime Minister said, My son was in Oman during my visit but did not attend any official functions."—[Official Report, 20 February 1984; Vol. 54, c. 376.] Could it be that the party she was talking about was the one that took place in Abu Dhabi, not Oman? According to The Observer, on 21 April a party took place in the British embassy in Abu Dhabi—which journalists were not allowed to attend, contrary to what the Prime Minister said — at which there was a brief "photo-call" for photographers, but Mark Thatcher was not present. One of the photographers, on leaving, apparently turned into the wrong corridor and bumped into Mark Thatcher. According to The Observer, that was the only indication that Mark Thatcher was even there.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I and my researcher have checked every British newspaper for the day of the Prime Minister's visit to Oman to find a reference to Mr. Mark Thatcher's presence there, and the only three people who have any relationship with the Thatcher family who are reported to be there are Carol, Mrs. Thatcher and Denis? There is no reference in any British newspaper to Mark Thatcher being in Oman.

Mr. Williams

That amplifies what I am saying—that there was this distinction. [HON. MEMBERS: "So what?"] Hon. Members can make what they wish of my hon. Friend's intervention, but it adds to the aura of suspicion that the Prime Minister has allowed to develop.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

Only in dirty minds.

Mr. Williams

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark), who is sitting with his feet up and has just emerged from bed, had not the courtesy to be here to hear most of the evidence that I have given. I do not take kindly to interventions which are based on ignorance and lack of knowledge of what has gone before.

Last Tuesday, 6 March, the Prime Minister abused Parliament and our procedures. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central, as all hon. Members saw, she clearly read a prepared statement. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Selly Oak will wait a moment, he will have his own opportunity to speak later.

Having refused to make a formal statement to the House, the Prime Minister came to the Dispatch Box last Tuesday at Prime Minister's Question Time and read an answer to a question relating to the visit and the report in the Sunday newspaper.

Mr. Patrick Nicholas (Teignbridge)


Mr. Williams

Let me finish. The hon. Gentleman can make his point in his own time. [Interruption.] We understand that Conservative Members do not want to hear all the facts—[Interruption.] I am only too delighted for hon. Members to shout as though they were in a bear garden. If that is the way that they want to conduct their affairs, they can. I have been trying to argue the case reasonably and without emotion. Most of the heat has been caused by Conservative Members shouting from sedentary positions.

Last Tuesday the Prime Minister gave another blocking answer. Although her reply was read to the House, she did not make a formal statement which would normally have been given at least an hour in advance to the Opposition for their consideration. Such a statement would also have been subject to a period of specific questioning by hon. Members. Instead, it was slipped out in Prime Minister's questions. Therefore, a blocking position has been established without the House of Commons having the chance properly to examine the contents of and omissions from that statement.

In the past week there has been an incredible new twist. The Prime Minister's husband, who accompanied her to Oman, has been revealed as a counter-signatory of Monteagle Marketing's cheques. That may be perfectly straightforward. It is Mark's company, which mysteriously, three years after it had done its work, still has not been paid. He should talk to Cementation. Extending credit is one thing, but perhaps the company was not paid in Britain or we have not been told all the facts. One can understand that there may be a good reason for Mr. Thatcher being a counter-signatory. Mark Thatcher is legitimately frequently abroad on business. But, if the press report is correct, it is peculiar that for about a year Denis Thatcher had the right of sole signatory to the cheques, despite the fact that he is apparently neither a shareholder nor a director of the company.

That raises the question of his role. Is he, perhaps, a guarantor? More importantly, when did his role start? If the Prime Minister tells us that it started after the Oman contract, that would be the end of the issue. But if it started before the Oman contract, it adds massively and even more worryingly to the fact of Mark Thatcher's presence at the time that the contract was being discussed. We want to know at what stage he became involved, because the Prime Minister's husband, if he were involved at the time, would clearly have known of Mark's interest in the Oman contract.

I have said that there may be perfectly innocent answers to all those questions. Hon. Members have shouted and tried to intervene from sedentary positions. However, the fact of the matter is that these are legitimate questions because there is clearly a potential conflict of interest within the terms of ministerial guidance. It may be that the Prime Minister could resolve this issue, in which case it would be dead within 24 hours. That would be the sensible course, particularly in relation to a contract which has had support from the Export Credits Guarantee Department —a contract with a country which allegedly had been due to have its aid cut and which then suddenly found that no cut was imposed. There is a public funding element in this.

It would be in everyone's interest, including that of the Prime Minister, if, as she protests—and one is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, if only she will tell us—there is nothing involved that needs to be a matter of intense public concern. But her silence, or partial silence, and her evasion of the questions that Parliament most wants answered, is feeding the doubt and suspicion that she could resolve literally within a matter of minutes at the Dispatch Box.

7.25 am
Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

There will be many around the world who will read the report of this debate with interest, and there will be many who will read it with amazement. There will even be some who will view the proceedings with sadness. But there will certainly be some who will be hanging on every word with absolute relish.

Interest will be shown by anyone for whom the state of politics, as it is now played in Great Britain, is part of the daily diet. Amazement will be shown at the fact that in helping to gain vital business for her country, against fierce international competition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is subject to this vilification and, indeed, in a word much loved by the Labour party, to harassment.

Sadness will be felt by those who see that a once great party, one that held Government as recently as five years ago, and still, we are told, has aspirations, should have sunk so low, but relish will be felt by our many overseas competitors, who will now hope that British Ministers and officials will be so busy worrying about possible parliamentary or journalistic lambasting, having to fight their battles at home as well as abroad, that they will lose the stomach for the international fray.

It is hard enough for those who serve Britain's interests in the world, struggling for markets, for jobs, for the right product at the right price, with few of the financial packages and subsidised prices that are commonplace in certain other countries, to boost their chances without having to run the gauntlet of the hypocrisy, bitterness and jealousy of those who feel that any Government-aided British success is for them an abject failure.

There are some actions by the Government and by Britain that are in all our interests—and our economic health and future is one such area of common good—but I perhaps forget that our economic strengths and, indeed, our economic system are so hated by many members of the Labour party.

The questions have been put, and the answers have been given. There is the ruling of 30 January, and there were questions throughout February and, indeed, March. There is the letter to the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) on 15 February from the Prime Minister, which goes straight to the central point. The Prime Minister said: You accuse me of batting for a single firm in which a member of my own family had a direct financial interest in the outcome. You did not produce a shred of evidence to support such a serious allegation. It is quite untrue. The letter continued: I do not discriminate between British companies and I did not do so on this occassion. In accordance with the advice of the relevant Departments, I raised with the Oman Government the interest of Britain in playing a major role in all aspects of the new University … I did not mention Cementation or any other company. The answers have been given. There is no deception, there is no cover-up. One cannot escape asking the one crucial question: why does the Labour party pursue this matter, when the Prime Minister has been doing her job abroad for the sake of 400 British companies and when Mr. Mark Thatcher is similarly working in Britain's interest? Imagine the furore from both sides of the House if he had been working for a company that belonged to another country. I wonder whether, in the case of the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney, it is not a case of running scared. We heard of his problems of re-selection. Is he scoring a few brownie points to please the far Left?

As to the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton)——

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Hanley

—now that his vicious barbs have been redirected away from his usual target, our royal family, now that he sees how justly loved that royal family is and how hard it works for Britain's interests around the world as well, he tries this approach because he is running scared in front of the hearts of the British public. Has the hon. Gentleman ever registered the royal family as one of his pecuniary interests?

It is all of those things that have inspired the Labour party. It is a basic sterility of ideas. The Prime Minister has said that she is batting for Britain. As for the googlies, the bouncers and the clever-clever bowling the Labour party thinks it has done, I would say that any umpire would declare not only "no ball" but that it was well wide of the mark.

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Member has already spoken in the debate——

Mr. Campbell-Savours


Mr. Deputy Speaker

—on an earlier subject. I call Mr. Ivan Lawrence.

7.32 am
Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

The hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) asked whether this was not one of the most squalid episodes in recent times. Is it not more appropriate to ask whether his speech was not one of the most squalid that he ever made? And is it any less squalid because right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Front Bench lend themselves to this vindictive and malicious allegation, which can only bring shame to the Labour party for raising and supporting it?

Is it also not painfully appropriate that an hon. Member who has gained widespread publicity for himself and his books by his eccentric attacks upon the royal family should be fast making himself a name as a prince among muckrakers, not only because he rakes muck but because he makes the muck that he is raking? He goes on trying to rake it, even though by so doing he is attempting to besmirch the name of a Prime Minister whose integrity is a byword throughout the world, a national company about whose interests one would have thought that the hon. Gentleman — who pretends to be so concerned about jobs—would have some great concern, and an ally of Britain in the middle east. The hon. Gentleman also tries to besmirch Britain's good name, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley) has pointed out. He certainly besmirches the name of his party and himself into the bargain, because the allegation is manifestly absurd.

This is not some hitherto unheard of contract with a country with which we have never traded. Oman is a part of the world where Britain has substantial and important commercial interests and with which we have had treaty interests for well over a century. The Gulf states and Saudi Arabia took 5.5 per cent. of all Britain's exports in 1982, which means that they are probably providing something like 200,000 British jobs. A total of 15 per cent. of Britain's invisible earnings in 1982 came from the middle east and the majority of that from the Gulf. Some 50 per cent. of the United Kingdom's defence sales in 1982 were to the Gulf, and Oman is one of the few states that has voted consistently with Her Majesty's Government over the Falklands.

We have between 100,000 and 150,000 British nationals living in the Gulf area. It would have been a dereliction of duty if my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had not done everything in her power to bat for Britain and to secure that contract for Britain.

For the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) to pretend, from the Opposition Front Bench, that he has established some conflict between private interest and public duty is also manifestly absurd. He said "I shall demonstrate that, far from being an open matter, it was being done furtively." He has done no such thing. He hinted at corruption in the middle east, but that is no such demonstration. He hinted that Mark is worthless and therefore must be corrupt. That is no such demonstration. He hinted that, because the Prime Minister carefully reads out an answer at the Dispatch Box there is something dishonest in that. That is no such demonstration. He hinted that the Prime Minister's behaviour in shortly, sharply and to the point denying any of the absurd allegations is some indication of dishonesty. That, also, is quite absurd.

The right hon. Gentleman is forced to accept, and he does, that he does not question that the Prime Minister batted for Britain. But that is a long way short of demonstrating any dishonesty. The answer to the question whether there was any possible hint of dishonesty was given by the Prime Minister when she said: I did not mention Cementation or any other company. If the Prime Minister tells us that, it is an end of the matter. For Opposition Members to go on saying that there are legitimate questions, if only the Prime Minister would answer, is ridiculous. The Prime Minister has answered, yet they go on trying to make political capital out of something that is patently absurd. The Prime Minister could not have killed this story stone dead by the answers she has given or any other answers she should give as long as Opposition Members are malevolently trying to stir up trouble for Britain and the Conservative party and the fine Prime Minister who leads the country.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central asked why the Prime Minister has been so angry. How can he ask that question? For years he has appeared in this Chamber either being angry or pretending anger because, as he takes it, there has been some attack upon the nursing profession. The hon. Gentleman has, I believe, a daughter who is a nurse. His connection with his daughter has made him angry. How can he, of all hon. Members, ask how it is possible for the Prime Minister to be angry at unjustified attacks made upon a member of her family?

Why has the Prime Minister been so resentful of allegations against her? The answer is manifest. It is because the allegations are absurd and without foundation. Everyone in the House knows that if this had not been a matter that brought personal publicity to the hon. Gentleman, well known for his eccentric views, if this had not been a matter for which there is absolutely no shred of supporting evidence, or the hon. Gentleman would have raised it outside the House, and if it was not a matter of trying to secure some party political advantage, this issue would never have been pursued by the hon. Gentleman in this House.

If the hon. Gentleman had a shred of decency, he would withdraw his eccentric and bizarre allegations, and if there was a shred of decency in the Labour party it, too, would withdraw any association with such a scurrilous attack.

7.37 am
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Richard Luce)

The subject for debate is the Prime Minister's visit to the middle east. It therefore seems astonishing — my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) made this point—that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) and the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) should focus on only one personal aspect. Their sense of priorities seems not only astonishing but distorted and warped.

I wish to describe for a few minutes the value of my right hon. Friend's visit to the middle east and then to deal with the specific allegations, which are quite disgraceful, that the hon. Member has made. The point made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton is most important. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister went to the middle east at a very important time for Britain, politically and commercially. There were a number of important issues to be dealt with. This was the first time any Prime Minister of this country had visited these countries while in office. The purpose was to discuss a range of important political issues. At that time the Gulf war had started and there was the problem of Afghanistan. There was the Arab-Israel dispute and there were many other problems that my right hon. Friend needed to discuss.

Of equal importance was the great value of commercial relations that we have with that part of the world. In 1982, 5.5 per cent. of all British exports went to the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. According to some rule of thumb, about 200,000 British jobs depend on exports to the Gulf. Yet, not once did the hon. Member for Fife, Central attach any importance to those exports. Where is his sense of priorities? Is he interested in jobs for Britain? Is he interested in earnings for Britain? Is he interested in a healthy balance of trade? He showed no interest in those factors, yet my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pursued British interests vigorously in each of those countries.

A number of significant contracts have flowed from my right hon. Friend's visit—the National Guard hospital in Saudi Arabia with a total contract value of £120 million; the Hawk trainer aircraft for Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Kuwait valued at approximately £160 million; a major defence contract in Qatar worth approximately £70 million; and an agreement for the exploitation of the North-West Dome gasfield in Qatar. The story goes on and on. Those contracts provide jobs for Britain, and that is one of my right hon. Friend's many achievements.

We have exceedingly important ties in Oman. Last year, our exports to Oman were £450 million. having increased by 70 per cent. in the past two years. About 400 British companies, not just Cementation, have derived benefit from the Oman university project. The hon. Member for Fife, Central and the right hon. Member for Swansea, West should welcome that fact.

The Prime Minister expressed interest in British participation in all aspects of the university project, but no particular firm was mentioned at any time. Therefore, all questions about this matter being not only a public but a private interest are irrelevant because at no time did my right hon. Friend promote the interest of any particular company. It is tendentious and wrong to suggest that she did so. The fundamental point is that there is no conflict between my right hon. Friend's public and private duties, because she at no time promoted a single specific firm. She promoted Britain's interests and more jobs, in which I should have thought the hon. Member for Fife, Central was interested.

We can judge for ourselves the motives of Opposition Members, as they did not once talk about jobs for Britain. They are simply revelling in muck raking. That is not only singularly distasteful but one of the most unattractive sides of British politics. It is sad to see Opposition Members debasing themselves in that way. One of the characteristics of the British way of life, which I had hoped by now had more or less faded away, is that we seek to find fault in everything we do. Even when we are successful we seem always to moan and criticise. That seems to be almost a compulsive action of the hon. Member for Fife, Central. He can never say anything constructive. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister sets herself the highest possible standards in her public life, and she is right to do so. That is widely acknowledged and she is widely respected for that.

Having listened to the debate, including the excellent contributions from my hon. Friends the Members for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) and for Richmond and Barnes (Mr. Hanley), my conclusion is that my right hon. Friend deserves the strongest congratulations on her visit and that those who seek to criticise her must re-examine their motives. I hope that Opposition Members, and especially the hon. Member for Fife, Central, will realise their folly and, in their own interest, wrap this matter up.

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