§ The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Leon Brittan)
I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to make this statement as I should like to clarify what I said earlier today, and to apologise to the House if what I said gave a misleading impression.
This afternoon in making my statement to the House I was asked whether the Government had received a letter from British Aerospace concerning the meeting which took place between Sir Raymond Lygo and myself on 8 January. I replied that I had not done so. In answer to further questions as to whether any member of the Government had received a letter from Sir Raymond Lygo, I replied that I was not aware of any letter from Sir Raymond Lygo to any one else either. There has since been an announcement by 10 Downing street that a letter was received there which the Prime Minister saw just before coming over to the House. It was not from Sir Raymond Lygo, but from Sir Austin Pearce, the chairman of British Aerospace, and was marked private and strictly confidential. Although I was made aware of the existence of the letter minutes before I left for the House I had not been informed of its contents, nor did I know whether Sir Austin Pearce was prepared for its existence to be made public. In view of the fact that the letter was marked "Private and strictly confidential," it was essential that I took great care in what I said to protect the strict confidentiality attached to it by Sir Austin Pearce, while answering questions accurately.
I understand that since I made my statement, Sir Austin has agreed with the Prime Minister's office that the existence of his letter can be disclosed, although not its contents. I had no intention of misleading the House in this matter, and therefore wished to come to explain this sequence of events immediately. If it is thought that I have in any way misled the House I apologise unreservedly.
§ Mr. John Smith (Monklands, East)
If the Secretary of State had made an unreserved and unqualified apology, we would have been happy to accept it. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman of the sequence of events. The right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) asked about a letter. The Secretary of State replied: "I have not received any such letter." That is quite true. There were questions from other hon. Members. At one point, my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) asked about a letter from the chairman of British Aerospace, who happens to be Sir Austin Pearce. My hon. Friend finished his question by saying that the Secretary of State "should come clean."
The verbatim reply by the right hon. and learned Gentleman was: "If it helps the hon. Gentleman, I am not aware of any letters from Sir Raymond Lygo to anyone else either."
In case the Secretary of State seeks to draw a distinction between a letter from Sir Raymond Lygo and a letter from Sir Austin Pearce, I remind him that, later in the exchange, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Brown) asked: "is the Secretary of State aware of any letter received by Her Majesty's Government from British Aerospace?" The matter could hardly be more clearly put. The Secretary of State replied: "As to the first 871 part of the question by the hon. Gentleman, I have already answered that point in reply to the hon. Member for Bolsover."
Any reasonable person would have accepted from that sequence of replies that the Secretary of State did not know of any letter from British Aerospace. He has told us today that he did know that such a letter had been received by the Prime Minister. I think that the Secretary of State should now say—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Resign."] Let us see how things develop. He should now say, "I am unreservedly sorry for having misled the House of Commons to the extent that I implied that a letter had not been received when it had been."
On the issue of confidentiality, I say to the Secretary of State that I appreciate that there might be a problem about a letter marked "Private and confidential". He should have said precisely that to the House—that a letter had been received which had been given on a confidential basis and that he could not take that matter further because of questions of commercial or other forms of confidentiality. That would have had the merit of being a truthful answer to the House of Commons.
Throughout the whole of that performance this afternoon, the Prime Minister sat in silence. She had more knowledge than any other hon. Member because she was the recipient of that letter and, no doubt, had read it before she came across to the House of Commons. In that circumstance, why did the Prime Minister not even lean across to the Secretary of State, who was within inches of her throughout the whole of the debate, and correct him if he was at some stage misleading the House? I ask the Prime Minister to apologise to the House tonight or tomorrow for what was said by the Secretary of State.
The House of Commons will not be satisfied that it knows the full truth about this rather confused matter until the terms of that letter are published so that they can be compared with the account of the meeting given by the Secretary of State this afternoon.
§ Mr. Brittan
At the outset and at the conclusion of what I had to say, I made it clear that if the opinion of the House was that my answers were misleading, I would apologise unreservedly. I should have thought that the right hon. and learned Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith) could at least give me credit for that. As it happens, I do not think that the answers that I gave bear the interpretation that he has put upon them. If he thinks that they gave that impression, I am content to apologise and withdraw. On any view, I have unequivocally set the record straight tonight at the earliest opportunity that I could. [Interruption] If the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he asked me to do so, I can assure him that I had taken the decision to do so before he made that request.
As for saying that the letter was marked "Strictly private and confidential", the right hon. and learned Gentleman should be well aware that in matters of this kind it is the existence of the letter as much as its contents that is strictly private and confidential and that the confidentiality is one imparted by the author of the letter and no one else.
§ Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)
How can the Secretary of State claim that it was not his intention to mislead the House when he now explains that he gave his answers, as he did, because he did not wish to 872 acknowledge at that stage the existence of a letter whose contents were marked "Strictly private and confidential"? Was it not clearly his intention to conceal from the House the existence of that letter? In pursuance of that letter was he given guidance by the Prime Minister before those exchanges, as he did not appear to be given any during them?
§ Mr. Brittan
The hon. Gentleman is not on a correct point. I had to tread the narrow path of not breaking the confidentiality of the chairman of British Aerospace and answering the questions accurately. I readily concede that in doing so I answered the questions strictly, but I answered them to the best of my ability. If I failed to answer them in a way that the House considers to be completely satisfactory I have indicated my readiness to apologise. I know that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
May I put it to my right hon. and learned Friend that if the writer of a letter, for his own reasons and in his own interests, chooses to mark that letter "In confidence" it would be a breach of confidence for the letter's existence to be disclosed.
§ Mr. John Morris (Aheravon)
The House of Commons is always generous to anyone who makes a fulsome apology. Does the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry not realise, however, that the way he has apologised tonight shows that he does not know the difference between evasion after evasion, after question after question was put to him; when he told the House that he was speaking only for himself and for no one else, when he said that there was no letter from Sir Raymond Lygo; and when he replied to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Brown)? In those circumstances, whatever the nature of the original letter, there was an hour of questioning available when his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister could have told him what the position was, and for him to have told the House when he should.
§ Mr. Brittan
I do not accept the right hon. and learned Gentleman's strictures. I should have thought that what I said to the House is a completely clear account of what occurred, and expresses a readiness to apologise to the House for any misleading impression given. I should have thought that any attempt to extract more than that was motivated more by a concern to extract the maximum from this matter than a concern for the truth.
§ Sir John Page (Harrow, West)
Is my right hon. and learned Friend rather surprised that a private and confidentially marked letter should have had such a wide circulation to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) and apparently a large number of Opposition Members?
§ Mr. Roy Jenkins (Glasgow, Hillhead)
Is it not the case that, although the behaviour of the Secretary of State has been pathetic, the behaviour of the Prime Minister has been much the more extraordinary? It was clear from halfway through the exchanges this afternoon that the crux of the exchanges was the question of whether there was a letter from British Aerospace. For the Prime Minister to 873 sit there for half an hour and allow the Secretary of State to mislead the House was a most extraordinary procedure. Although what the Secretary of State said may just be within the formal bounds of the truth, the margin is so narrow that we shall count our spoons quickly whenever they are together again.
§ Mr. Brittan
The right hon. Gentleman was not in the House—[HoN. MEMBERS: "Yes, he was."] I did not spot him. If he was there, he was there—[HON. MEMBERS: "Apologise."] I certainly apologise. I did not see him. If the right hon. Gentleman is unable to appreciate any of the consequences of receiving a letter that is marked "Strictly private and confidential", whether that is a matter for me or for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, he is quite unaware of the normal obligations that exist in society.
§ Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)
Does my right hon. and learned Friend believe that the highly personalised politicking that has been going on will in any way help the workers of Westland, the board of Westland, and those who depend on the future of this industry? Since the Opposition already have a full Supply day on Wednesday to debate this subject, and since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is to speak on that occasion, would it not have been more appropriate had the Opposition waited until Wednesday, when my right hon. Friend would have communicated the contents of the letter, had they been material to the shareholders' meeting, which has now been postponed until Friday?
§ Mr. Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)
Is the Secretary of State aware that, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) so rightly said, an unqualified apology is received very sympathetically by the House. He has exposed himself by making this statement at least as a stranger to the truth. If I can remain in order by describing the conduct of the Secretary of State tonight, he has disgraced himself, but the Prime Minister has disgraced the House of Commons and the country by her silence this afternoon.
§ Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)
Does my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State accept that this is not a time for semantics or qualification? Does he not feel that his inglorious part in this long and unhappy chapter should come to an end?
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Does the Secretary of State recall that when I asked the question, I referred to any letters from the chairman of British Aerospace. In his answer, as was recounted by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Monklands, East (Mr. Smith), he 874 said that no letter had been received from Sir Raymond Lygo. That was not the question that I asked him. The House will always accept an apology from someone who unwittingly misleads the House, but when a Minister, under close examination, knowing of such a letter, misleads the House, not unwittingly but deliberately in cahoots with the Prime Minister, he has no alternative but to go—and to take the lady with him.
§ Mr. Brittan
The hon. Gentleman is not correct in his description of what I did because he fails to give any weight whatsoever to the fact that a letter was received marked "Strictly private and confidential", the existence of which I was not at liberty to disclose.
§ Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)
Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that anyone who has listened to what he has said and has heard what has been said against him would accept that—with the exception of those right hon. and hon. Members who want to make mischief—he has given the House a reasonable explanation and an adequate apology?
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
This afternoon I asked whether it would not be more accurate—[Interruption.] to say that if the Secretary of State did not read the letter, the Prime Minister did. Was that not an opportunity for one colleague at least to say to another on the Government Front Bench what the truth was? Why did the Prime Minister not take that opportunity to save a lot of time and trouble for the House and to say quietly and gently what the truth was?
§ Mr. Brittan
The confidentiality attached to that letter was not something which the Prime Minister had any more right to waive than I. It was a confidentiality imparted by Sir Austin Pearce and it was for him to decide how he wished that letter to be treated.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. These matters will be discussed when the issue is debated on Wednesday. Mr. Nicholas Ridley.
§ Mr. Dave Nellist (Coventry South-East)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I accept your ruling about the termination of questions, but is it not in order to point out that a large number of hon. Members who were present this afternoon for the statement asked questions based upon the answers then given by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? A few of us would like to find out whether his selective amnesia is permanent or only temporary.
§ Mr. Speaker
It would be impossible to have a complete re-run of what happened this afternoon—[Interruption.] Order. This is a very narrow statement and we have a full day's debate on the matter on Wednesday.