§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I welcome the courteous presence of the Leader of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Defence, the right hon. Member for Spelthorne (Sir H. Atkins). I should like to express thanks on behalf of many other hon. Members for the volume of work put in by our colleagues on the Committee, from all parties, and for the quality of presentation of the report. I thank not only our parliamentary colleagues on the Committee, but particularly Robert Rogers and other Clerks for their philologically elegant work. It is a superbly presented document, which has enhanced the standing of Select Committees as a whole.
I attended several of the meetings as a spectator when the Select Committee saw Sir Robert Armstrong and the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) and the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). It would have made fascinating television. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) was right yesterday when he said that one cannot get the full flavour from the written record.
Why have this debate the day after the report was published? I believe passionately that the House of Commons should be told the truth. Yesterday the Prime Minister reiterated four times that we would have a debate in due course. Why not this morning? In particular, why can we not have a statement this morning on the matter raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Southport (Sir I. Percival) yesterday, when he complained that the Attorney-General could not speak in his defence. The shadow Attorney-General is here. It was an official request from the Opposition Chief Whip that the Attorney-General might care to take the opportunity of replying. He has not done so. I do not make any complaint, but, in the light of what was said by the right hon. and learned Member for Southport last night, I want it to be placed on the record that he was given an opportunity.
The Prime Minister talked to her party last night about the virtues of unity. This debate is about the need for the virtue of integrity in public life. I say to the Prime Minister that political integrity may be more important than political unity. While we are on the question of unity and integrity, let us ask about another "ity"—responsibility; ministerial responsibility. Does the Prime Minister take ministerial responsibility for the cover provided by her office for the leak of the Solicitor-General's letter, or does she not? If, as constitutional convention suggests, she accepts that responsibility, she has to take the blame for the leak operation. Under the old-fashioned doctrine of ministerial responsibility she cannot say that it was the fault of her office, and it does not matter whether she knew about it or not. If, on the other hand, the Prime Minister does not accept such responsibility, her office, and Mr. Ingham in particular, is guilty of unacceptable conduct and should be disciplined. I say to the Minister responsible for the Civil Service, because it is particularly his area, that if he answers little else, will he tell us what has become of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility?
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
Does my hon. Friend recall that on Tuesday 27 January the Prime Minister claimed thatthere was a genuine difference in understanding between officials".—[Official Report, 27 January 1986; Vol 90, c. 655.]but on the previous Thursday, 23 January, the day before the dramatic resignation of her then right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, she said when defending him:They did not seek my agreement: they considered—and they were right— that I should agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that the fact that the then Defence Secretary's letter of 3 January was thought by the Solicitor-General to contain material inaccuracies which needed to be corrected, should become public knowledge as soon as possible".—[Official Report, 23 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 450.]Does that not show that, far from misunderstanding, they understood only too well and did what the Prime Minister wanted and carried out her policy? Does that not mean that while the right hon. Lady may have full confidence in civil servants, her party, Parliament and the people should have no confidence in her?
§ Mr. Dalyell
I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). He put in a power of work on another Select Committee report, together with my hon. Friends the Members for Bow and Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), for Doncaster, North (Mr. Welsh) and for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan) which was treated as a fag-end of Session document last year. I refer to the Foreign Affairs Committee report on the Belgrano sinking, Cmnd. 9647. Any question that my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South asks is a serious question and I hope that Ministers will bear that in mind.
Where is the evidence that public servants' conduct does not call for any action being taken against them? Why should the House accept that there is no case for disciplinary action being taken against the civil servants concerned, when all the House is told by the Prime Minister is that a report, which has not been made public, says so? Why cannot Sir Robert Armstrong's report be made public, especially as the question of national security is not involved? Does the report contain something that the Prime Minister wishes to hide?
As the Prime Minister answers questions that are put to her by introducing information that is not directly related to the question, the following unanswered questions should be put to her yet again. Does the Prime Minister take ministerial responsibility for the cover provided by her office for the leak of the Solicitor-General's letter? What is the distinction between authority and cover? My right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House never had that question answered, so we put the question again.
Paragraph 187 of the report states:It must therefore be the case that Mr. Ingham and Mr. Powell were in a position to tell the Prime Minister on 7 January what turned out to be the principal findings of Sir Robert Armstrong's inquiry more than a fortnight later.Paragraph 188 states:Yet on 7 January Mr. Ingham and Mr. Powell did not share their knowledge — not with Mr. Nigel Wicks, the Prime Minister's Principal Private Secretary, not with Sir Robert Armstrong and not with the Prime Minister.However, Sir Robert Armstrong was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) at the Committee hearing on 5 February 1986 — an unforgettable occasion: 853did the Prime Minister make any of her own private inquiries, to your knowledge, as to who the culprit or culprits might be prior to your being authorised to conduct you inquiry?Sir Robert replied:I do not think she did, no. She knew very early on 7 January that there was a probability of a more formal inquiry and she could well have thought that she would be criticised if she anticipated that inquiry by some more informed method of proceeding.Are we expected to believe that the Prime Minister knew very early on 7 January that there was a probability of a more formal inquiry concerning the conduct of her staff and that she did not get to the bottom of it immediately in case she should be criticised for doing so? The reverse is true. She can be seriously criticised for looking the other way when she knew that something serious had happened in her office. At best, she turned a Nelson's eye. That is a grave dereliction of duty by a Prime Minister.
I now turn to a topic that concerns me deeply. The legal advice from the Solicitor-General on 6 January was that the Government wereunder a duty not to give information which is incomplete or inaccurate in any material particular.If it was argued that the right hon. Member for Henley was completely inaccurate, it would have been the Government's duty to inform the shareholders. In the event, the letter of the right hon. Member for Henley was not inaccurate. It was based on evidence in his possession. As the Prime Minister said to the House on 27 January, it was thought that there was a "possible inaccuracy" in the letter from the right hon. Member for Henley to Mr. David Horne of Lloyds. Because those responsible failed to leak the qualification—the possibility of inaccuracy—they committed the very offence of which they had accused the former Secretary of State for Defence that day. If they alleged, as they did, that the former Secretary of State for Defence had misled the shareholders, they too were guilty of misleading. They were in direct breach of their duty not to give information which is incomplete or inaccurate in any material particular. Having committed the very offence of which they accused the former Secretary of State for Defence, should they not apologise to the shareholders? We now know, thanks to the Select Committee, that the former Secretary of State for Defence was justified in writing the original letter.
It flows from that that the Prime Minister's men and Miss Bowe orchestrated a campaign against the Secretary of State for Defence. More than that, they were in breach of a legal duty—I refer to the appendix on page 1xix. What is more, that was done in the full knowledge that the leak was also a breach of that duty. What is the basis of that duty? Is it moral, or statutory? If it is the latter, those involved were acting in breach of civil or criminal law. Therefore, are they open to litigation or prosecution?
For the sake of time, I shall not go over the interchange that took place last night about paragraph 195 between my right hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert) and the right hon. and learned Member for Southport. I shall simply say that I received a characteristically courteous letter from the Attorney-General in his own handwriting. It said:Dear Tam, Thank you for your letter — perhaps the best way to deal with your question is to show you my written answer I gave today. Yours ever, Michael.How, on 30 January, could the Attorney-General say that his first knowledge of the direct involvement of the former 854 Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was on 22 January and yet the indemnity was given before or on 16 January? On what basis do we give any kind of indemnity? That is a deep question, because one does not give indemnity lightly. I am not a lawyer.
I return to the point made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House. He was talking about paragraph 195 of the report. The Attorney-General said that when he was asked to grant immunityhe was also told enough 'to make it clear to me that under no circumstances would I have prosecuted her in any event.' These statements are unequivocal.This may be an occasion to answer my right hon. Friend's question. I also have questions I wish to put. On the reply to the hon. and learned Member for Fylde (Sir E. Gardner) by the Attorney-General, how did the Attorney-General havereason to believe that the disclosure had been made by the official concerned"?Secondly, how did he know that the official had acted in "complete good faith"?
If it was important that the inquiry should discover as fully as possible the circumstances in which the disclosure came to be made, why was the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks not interviewed by Sir Robert Armstrong? Does not protocol, apart from common courtesy, demand that Sir Robert Armstrong should have gone to the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry in the first place? I have to repeat what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, East, that the opportunity was not taken in the official answer to the hon. and learned Member for Fylde to deny the conclusion that the Committee had come to in paragraph 195.
In paragraph 201, why did the Attorney-General decide that there wasno justification for the institution of proceedings under the Official Secrets Act 1911 in respect of those concerned."?Can the House see the evidence? Has there been a change of policy since Ponting and Tisdall? Will the Minister make a clear statement?
I attended all 11 days of the trial at the Old Bailey. Clive Ponting could only too easily have been languishing in prison at this moment. That is the backcloth to some of this debate, and it comes to "sauce for the goose and sauce for the gander."
Then there are the unanswered questions of the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks. As the Prime Minister claims that she has nothing whatever to hide, will she now do the House a service by requiring the right hon. and learned Gentleman to answer the Defence Select Committee's questions in paragraph 203? When was he first involved in discussions about releasing information? When did he first speak to anybody in No. 10 about the publication of the Solicitor-General's letter? Did he have any conversation with the Prime Minister about the fact that he had authorised disclosure of part of the Solicitor-General's letter? Did he discuss with his private office or with other members of his staff the likely course of the leak inquiry?
The only reason for not answering those questions is that to have done so honestly would have landed the Prime Minister well and truly in the soup. If the Prime Minister claims that she has nothing to hide, now is the time for the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to answer those questions that were properly asked by the Defence Select Committee.
855 Paragraph 202 refers to Sir Robert Armstrong's appearance on 5 February. In relation to the authority of the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to leak the letter, Sir Robert said:I naturally addressed that matter in the inquiry and I found absolutely no evidence whatever that he did.However, at that time Sir Robert Armstrong had not interviewed the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who was the only person who could have definitively answered the query. Is that the level of investigation that Sir Robert Armstrong pursued? If so, his efforts are little less than a charade.
Why did Sir Robert Armstrong not just call the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and ask him whether he authorised the leak? Why did the Prime Minister not ring the Solicitor-General and ask for his consent to the publication of the letter? Why did Sir Robert Armstrong not interview Ministers, especially the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Attorney-General? Why did the Prime Minister not ask or instruct Sir Robert Armstrong to interview Ministers, especially the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and the Attorney-General?
The final sentence of paragraph 196 gives Sir Robert Armstrong's finding that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had authorised the leak before the inquiry began into the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Sir Robert Armstrong, Mr. Ingham and Mr. Powell. Is it remotely feasible that neither Mr. Powell nor Mr. Ingham never mentioned, hinted at or discussed that vital knowledge with the Prime Minister? If not, they should be fired for gross dereliction of duty.
As the Prime Minister has so much confidence in Sir Robert Armstrong, as we were told yesterday, will she publish his report about the leak? Why cannot the rest of us see it? This is not a matter of national security. Who, other than Sir Robert Armstrong and the Attorney-General, discussed whether the police should be involved? Were the Prime Minister, the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Sir Gordon Reece, Mr. Nigel Wicks or Mr. Powell consulted?
Did the Prime Minister agree Sir Gordon Reece's employment by Westland? Did she not see a conflict of interest? If not, why not? Are not the activities of a Prime Minister's closest adviser, whether formal or informal, in these circumstances, of considerable interest? It is being claimed that the former Secretary State for Trade and Industry was responsible for determining the form of disclosure. If that is so, why did the Prime Minister state that the former Trade Secretaryexpressed no view as to the form in which disclosure should be made."?—[Official Report, 23 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 450]Why, after the internal inquiry had been completed, were the police not called in, as was the case with Clive Ponting? The Government were quick enough to bring the police in on Clive Ponting and Sarah Tisdall. Was that to shield somebody, and, if so, who?
The extracts from the Committee's minutes relating to its sitting on Wednesday 9 April on page 1xii show that all three questions aimed at calling evidence from key Civil Service witnesses were negatived. No reason was given for that. Why were steps needed to block the evidence from such key witnesses? It is not good enough to say that they had already been questioned by Sir Robert Armstrong. If 856 they had done nothing wrong, they would have nothing to fear from the Committee. Mr. Bernard Ingham, whatever else he is, is not a shrinking violet. They should now give evidence, and I welcome the final clause of the report.
Senior civil servants were asked to do something which they knew to be improper. In normal circumstances such experienced and highly placed civil servants would have asked whether they should do such a thing. With the arguable exception of Colette Bowe, not one did so. Why? They knew that they were acting in accordance with the Prime Minister's wishes before the Solicitor-General was ever asked to write the letter. Sir Robert Armstrong and Mr. Ingham are not exactly minnow civil servants remote from Ministers. Sir Thomas Dugdale resigned. They are as close to the Prime Minister as Bob Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were to Richard Nixon.
§ Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)
I recognise the hon. Gentleman's interest in pursuing the matter in detail, and in the nature of politics it is understandable that he seeks to attack my right hon. Friends. Before he concludes, will he address his mind to paragraph 214 of the report of the Committee, on which I had the privilege to serve? It refers to the problem of Sir Robert Armstrong combining the jobs of head of the Civil Service and Cabinet Secretary. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to address his mind to that problem, surely he will see that many of the matters to which he has referred are manifestations of that problem. Will he address himself to the principal issue rather than to the minutiae?
§ Mr. Dalyell
I have addressed my mind to that. I was present during the evidence given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan). He argued before the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) that from his experience as Prime Minister those two jobs should be separate. I strongly agree with the public statements of Lord Bancroft, Lord Allen of Abbeydale and many others on that matter.
The reason why civil servants are not being disciplined is outlined in a book that I wrote. I hesitate to refer to "Thatcher: Patterns of Deceit". It states:After some press coverage in The Times Diary and The Guardian of this debate, I was given the following information which I am authorised to use, by a participant at a dinner for the Turkish Minister of Technology, Mustafa Tinaz Titiz, on 30 January at Lancaster House.At this dinner officials of the Department of Trade and Industry, in a position to know, raged about the behaviour of politicians for all who cared to listen. They were extremely angry at the fact that the blame for the leaking, the selective leaking, of the Solicitor-General's letter had been put on them and their colleagues at the DTI. It could be argued, they said, that what the Prime Minister had told the House of Commons, in a narrow sense, was technically correct: that there were no telephone calls for 'permission to leak or selectively leak'.Why?
Because there was no need for such telephone calls.The agreement to leak had been reached between the Prime Minister and an uneasy right hon. Gentleman for Richmond, who had demurred, but was eager to please the PM, before ever inducing the Solicitor-General to write a letter to the then Defence Secretary [Michael Heseltine].When my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the Opposition [Neil Kinnock], questioned the Prime Minister on her actions, he did not get very far. Nor did I do any better, nor any of the rest of us, because we were all like an audience looking at a conjuror and looking at the wrong part of the trick to see how the conjuror did it. The hanky panky of the selective leaking was at the very beginning of the performance and did 857 not take place after the letter was formulated. The latter was the point we were all looking at, because even the most hardened of us had not expected that degree of cynical, underhand behaviour from a British Prime Minister.To be fair to Colette Bowe, although she had the instruction to leak from Mr. Bernard Ingham, she certainly kicked out against what she was being expected to do. The House will remember that she said very little, but what she did say in public was that every enquiry should be referred to Number 10 Downing Street. No wonder! Nor, technically, was Mr. Bernard Ingham lying to the Armstrong Enquiry: just possibly he did not discuss the leak after the letter had been leaked, with the Prime Minister. Such a discussion would have been superflous, since Mr. Ingham knew, a priori, explicitly what the Prime Minister wanted done, and what had been cooked up beforehand between the Prime Minister and her uncomfortable Trade Secretary.Will the Minister answer the specific charge against his Prime Minister that the 'dirty work', the decision to leak a Law Officer's letter, took place before it was suggested to the Solicitor-General that he should write the letter.Now, Mr. Speaker, I hope that the Law Officers will study what I have just said, because the House of Commons is entitled to know what the right hon. Gentleman for Wimbledon and the right hon. Gentleman for Royal Tunbridge Wells think about what I have just said. Put in colloquial language, the Solicitor-General was set-up, used and abused. No wonder the Law Officers were reported as being on the very verge of resignation. But I chide them not, because had they resigned on this issue, at that time, their whole Government would have been at risk and that would be a fearful responsibility to take on their shoulders.However, the Law Officers do now owe the House of Commons the truth as to what did occur.Let us be clear. It is nauseating what this Prime Minister has done in her tantrums. Mad with anger against her erstwhile Defence Secretary, she and Bernard Ingham, with the eventual acquiescence, but against the better judgment of, her Trade Secretary hit on the idea of putting the right hon. Gentleman for Henley wrong in law and making him look publicly foolish. So these three cook up the scheme of getting one of the Law Officers — the other one, the Attorney-General, was away sick — to send a letter, which they intended to leak wholly or in part. Leaking it, Mr. Speaker, selectively or in full, was the raison d'être of the letter— that was its purpose— to do down the infernal nuisance, that the right hon. Gentleman for Henley had by then become. So they prompt the Solicitor-General to write his letter. The right hon. Gentleman for Tunbridge Wells imagines, naturally enough, that every Law Officer's letter to a Minister of the Crown is strictly confidential. In all innocence, he writes the letter. Routinely, a copy goes to Downing Street. I understand from those who have worked in Number 10, both under Lord Wilson and under the right hon. Gentleman for Bexley that any Law Officer's letter, because it may have consequences for the Courts, is handled with the utmost care, and rightly so.Can one imagine the career diplomat, Mr. Heath's Press Secretary, Sir Donald Maitland, using a Law Officer's letter for such a purpose. It is inconceivable! Moreover, it is a pertinent question to ask why a Law Officer's letter went anywhere near Mr. Ingham's desk, unless the whole purpose was to make use, or abuse, of it in public? The only way in which the Downing Street Civil Service machine would allow a Law Officer's letter anywhere near the Press Office would be because they knew they had to act under Prime Ministerial instruction.To continue the narrative: Mr. Bernard Ingham, knowing his Prime Minister's predetermined plan, orders a protesting Colette Bowe to leak the Solicitor-General's letter to Chris Moncrieff at the Press Association. They imagine that the leaked letter will serve its purpose of helping to discredit the right hon. Gentleman for Henley: that it will be a two-day wonder, ephemeral and quickly forgotten like so many two-day wonders in British politics. They take the view that the situation will be manageable, and that the House of Commons will, as usual, move on to other interests.Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, an outraged Government employee, livid at the treatment of the Civil Service meted out to them by the Prime Minister, confirmed 858 my information that it was Colette Bowe who phoned Mr. Moncrieff, and that Miss Bowe acted under Ministerial and Prime Ministerial instructions. Otherwise, I would not have named her in this House. With the naming of Colette Bowe, the situation which the Prime Minister and her accomplices thought was manageable, became unmanageable. The paramount consideration now became the need to protect the position of the Prime Minister. The only way to do this was to put the onus, the blame, on understandings, or misunderstandings, between Civil Servants, no matter that. it involved impugning, without good reason, the competence and integrity of Civil Servants caught up in an impossible situation.I expect the Minister with responsibility for the Civil Service to say something about the honour of the Civil Service.
Finally, I say this, and I really mean it: it is now up to right hon. and hon. Members of the Conservative party to reflect upon whether they should continue to be led by a person whose whole detailed background, in my view, as a Member of the House of Commons for 24 years shows her to be unsuitable to lead one of the great parties of our country and to be the occupant of No. 10 Downing street.
§ Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)
I have literally one minute, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in which to speak. I want to bring back to the attention of the House the fourth report of the Select Committee on Defence, of which I was a signatory. For the last quarter of an hour the speech of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was nothing but pure froth and speculation. It had nothing to do with the report that I signed. After the hon. Gentleman's peroration, I am, as a member of the Conservative party, proud to be led by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Also I want to bring back to the attention of the House paragraph 183 of the report, the most important paragraph, which states quite dearly thatThe evidence is that the action of the Prime Minister's office on 6 January in relation to the disclosure was without her direct authority … We accept this.Every national newspaper that I have read this morning says, in essence, that the Prime Minister has been cleared by this report. That is the important point.
I refer the hon. Gentleman, since he did not refer to it, to paragraph 184 where he will see that Sir Robert Armstrong said:'I have inquired about it separately and my inquiries confirmed what the Prime Minister said, that there was a discussion on Tuesday 7 January, in which she was told in general terms of those contacts.'The hon. Gentleman referred to ministerial responsibility. The whole point is that this misunderstanding came about and that this unauthorised disclosure was made without the approval of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. There is no ministerial responsibility.
As for the inquiries of Sir Robert Armstrong, I refer the House to paragraph 190 of the report. The Committee's comment was:This was normal procedure.As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Sir I. Percival) said yesterday, just because there has been an authorised disclosure it does not necessarily mean that it has been authorised by a Minister. The report is quite clear. It clears the Prime Minister.
§ The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Richard Luce)
My hon. Friend the Member for 859 Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) introduces a refreshing sense of perspective into the debate. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is well known in the House and outside for his persistence and determination in pursuing issues. We respect him for that. But I have to let him into a secret. He does sometimes get so obsessed with an issue that he loses his balance and objectivity. One obsession he has is that there is a continual conspiracy in Government against the nation. This impression that he gives, that he lives in a world of illusions, does very often diminish the credibility of his case. Indeed he is notorious for raising issues which fascinate a part of Westminster and the press but which bore the rest of the country stiff. [Interruption.] I do not think that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is interested in listening to the reply, because he is simply not interested in objective discussion.
The third and fourth reports from the Defence Committee on Westland were received by the Government only yesterday. These reports are based on lengthy inquiries that the Committee has conducted and the Government will naturally be studying them carefully before responding to Parliament in due course. I note that the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) recognised yesterday the need for the Government to have time to reply. That is why I find it all the more astonishing that the hon. Member for Linlithgow was expecting there to be an immediate reply from the Government within 24 hours of the issuing of a substantial report. He knows all the conventions of the House and it is only reasonable that the Government should have time to reply.
In responding to the points that the hon. Member has made, I do not propose to go over the entire series of events in detail. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave full accounts to the House on 23 and 27 January and has answered many questions in the House since then. Sir Robert Armstrong gave extensive and detailed evidence to the Committee on two occasions; and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has answered numerous questions in the House concerning his position and that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General.
But the hon. Gentleman has insisted on making several points, often despite the information already made available, and I propose to deal briefly in the time available with a few of them and to raise related issues.
First, on the Prime Minister's involvement, the hon. Gentleman continues to allege that the disclosure of the Solicitor-General's letter was made in some way with the Prime Minister's authority. The Committee report states clearly in paragraph 183:The Prime Minister stated that she had no knowledge on 6 January of what was taking place. We accept this.I hope that in the light of that clear conclusion from the Committee we shall hear no more from hon. Members on this matter.
§ Mr. Luce
No; I have been given absolutely no time. The hon. Member for Linlithgow has taken up a large part of the debate, and I should have time to respond to it.
The hon. Gentleman repeated his earlier allegation concerning the Attorney-General, suggesting that my right 860 hon. and learned Friend knew when he instituted the inquiry that the disclosure had been authorised by the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. I refer the House to the reply given yesterday by the Attorney-General in which he made the position abundantly clear. As it is on the record, there is no need for me to repeat the reply, in view of the importance of answering some of the other points. As it was a full reply that put on the record his response to the allegation, I can add no more to it.
I now deal with the hon. Gentleman's allegations about individual civil servants. He was right to say that I am the Minister responsible for the Civil Service. I have the greatest admiration for the professionalism, impartiality and loyalty of civil servants which they bring to Governments of every complexion. Once again, I refer hon. Members to what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House yesterday on this matter:First, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I have total confidence in our officials referred to in the report. As the House will be aware, those responsible for decisions on disciplinary action have already concluded that there was no case for such action. Secondly, I do not accept that Committee's comments on the role of the head of the home Civil Service. He continues to enjoy the Government's total confidence. He is a very distinguished public servant, who has performed great service to Governments of both parties."—[Official Report, 24 July 1986; Vol. 102, c. 590.]The Select Committee said that it finds extraordinary the fact that no disciplinary action was taken against any of the officials concerned in the disclosure of the Solicitor-General's letter. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already expressed to the House, in her speech on 27 January, her regret at the manner in which the disclosure was made. As the head of the home Civil Service said in his evidence to the Select Committee, clearly things were done in this affair which would have been better done differently, and in that sense people made wrong judgments. The question is whether those errors of judgment were such as to call for disciplinary action. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, those responsible for decisions about disciplinary action concluded that there was no case for such action in these instances.
As the Committee's report acknowledges, the disclosure was made with the authority of the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Indeed, the House will need little reminding that my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Britian), in his statement to this House on 27 January, accepted full responsibility for the fact and form of the disclosure. He went on to make it clear that officials acted in accordance with his wishes and instructions.
The overriding importance of the principle of ministerial accountability has been stressed in the Government's response to the seventh report from the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister presented to the House yesterday.
§ Mr. Morris
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves this point, will he address his mind to the Select Committee's request in paragraph 231? In the absence of ministerial authority, civil servants were not allowed to give evidence and Ministers did not answer questions fully. At the end of the paragraph, the Select Committee says, "This we now do", in relation to making a special request for the authority of the House.
§ Sir Humphrey Atkins (Spelthorne)
The right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris) said that the Select Committee has requested the support of the House in obtaining the attendance of civil servants. If he reads paragraph 231 again, he will see that that is not the case at all. We said that we wished to complete our inquiry as far as possible on the evidence before us before reporting to the House, and then we said, "This we now do." The right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite wrong.
§ Mr. Luce
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for clarifying the position.
The Government's response to the seventh report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee stated:Any attempt to make civil servants directly accountable to Parliament, other than the strictly defined case of the Accounting Officer's responsibility, would be difficult to reconcile with Minister's responsibility for their departments and civil servants' duty to their Ministers.That is an important point. The response makes several other points about ministerial accountability.
It is important to quote from the Procedure Committee's report, which stated:It would not, however, be appropriate for the House to seek directly or through its committees to enforce its right to secure information from the Executive at a level below that of the ministerial head of the department concerned … since such a practice would tend to undermine rather than strengthen the accountability of Ministers to the House.I should mention the increasing tendency to summon officals to appear at Select Committee hearings. The House must reflect carefully on this important issue, especially the tendency to examine the performance and conduct of individual officials. I hope that the Select Committees will return to the principles that have hitherto been accepted as the basis upon which officials give evidence to Select Committees.
In the last few minutes available to me, I shall deal with Sir Robert Armstrong. The hon. Member for Linlithgow singled out for special criticism the head of the home Civil Service and the Prime Minister's chief press secretary. They have long been accustomed to such allegations from the hon. Gentleman. But that is no reason for leaving those allegations unanswered, and my right hon. Friend 862 the Prime Minister has made it clear to the House many times, including yesterday afternoon, that they retain her total confidence. She has asked me to confirm that again this morning.
The Select Committee's report claims that Sir Robert Armstrong's dual role as Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service may have caused a conflict of interest in the conduct of the inquiry. The Government's response to the seventh report from the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee already makes it clear that they see no grounds for changing this arrangement, and nothing said in the Defence Select Committee's report affects that.
The Select Committee said that the head of the Home Civil Service failed to give a lead in this case. I cannot accept that view. He has stated on the record, in evidence to the Select Committee which has been reported and broadcast, that it would have been much better not to have disclosed the information in the way in which it was disclosed. He issued a note of guidance in February last year on the duties and responsibilities of civil servants in relation to Ministers. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee has accepted the validity of those principles, and they have been reaffirmed by the Government in the response to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee which was published yesterday.
The head of the Home Civil Service conducted, with assistance from a colleague from the Cabinet Office (Management and Personnel Office), the inquiry into the disclosure of the Solicitor-General's letter and reported fully to the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General on the disclosure. He took the view, in my judgment rightly, that it would not be fair or reasonable to expect the officials who had given an account of their role to him and co-operated fully in the inquiry to appear before the Select Committee. He offered to give evidence to the Select Committee, and answered its questions fully and fairly at two sessions lasting altogether for nearly five hours. Far from that being a failure of leadership, it demonstrates the exercise of leadership with great responsibility and integrity.
If I had had more time, I would have tried to deal with some other issues, including the guidelines that are being given to civil servants on matters of conscience. However, the hon. Member for Linlithgow will see, in the reply that the Government gave yesterday, that we acknowledge that some changes might be considered. Discussions will take place to see whether changes can be made to take the issue a stage further. The matters to which I have referred are but a few of those raised in the Committee's report. The Government will, of course, be making their full views known in due course.
§ It being Eleven o'clock, MR. SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings, pursuant to Standing Order No. 5 ( Friday sittings).