HC Deb 10 November 1992 vol 213 cc743-58 3.30 pm
The Attorney-General (Sir Nicholas Lyell)

Madam Speaker, with permission I should like to make a statement on the Matrix Churchill case.

As the House will be aware, counsel for the prosecution in the Matrix Churchill case informed the court yesterday that, in the light of the evidence given by Mr. Alan Clark in cross-examination, he had concluded that it would no longer be right to seek a conviction in the case; and that the prosecuting authority, the commissioners of Customs and Excise, had accepted that conclusion. Both he and the commissioners were satisfied that during the course of cross-examination Mr. Clark had given evidence that was inconsistent with a written statement that he had made in 1991 and with what he had said in an interview with an officer of Customs and Excise in September 1992.

The case raises important questions about the operation of export licensing policy in relation to Iraq during the period to which the events related. The Government will therefore ensure that a full and independent inquiry into those events is undertaken by a judge. This will encompass the operations of all relevant departments and agencies. I am glad to tell the House that Lord Justice Scott has agreed to undertake that task. The precise terms of reference will need to be discussed with the judge. It is hoped to make them available to the House later this week. The judge will have access to all relevant papers and will be able to invite evidence from anyone he thinks fit. It will be for him to decide the extent to which he sits in public. His report and evidence will be published except insofar as, in the light of his advice, publication is contrary to the public interest.

The inquiry will be set up and conducted as speedily as possible, having regard to the need not to prejudice any further criminal inquiries or proceedings. On that aspect, I should say that the Commissioners have referred the papers in the case to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Any further action is a matter for them.

Finally, it has been alleged that Ministers, by signing public interest immunity certificates, gave orders that departmental papers should be kept from defence lawyers in an attempt at a cover-up. That is a complete misunderstanding of the law in that area and thus a distortion of the truth. It is the law, expressly enunciated by the courts, that Ministers have a duty to claim public interest immunity either in respect of specific documents or recognised classes of document the production of which would in principle be contrary to the public interest. This duty cannot be waived.

Once a proper claim has been made, it is for the court to look at the papers if it thinks fit, to balance the competing public interests and to determine whether the interests of justice in the particular case require disclosure of some or all of the documents in issue. Such a claim must be made irrespective of whether it is embarrassing to the Government either to reveal or to withhold. In this case, it was at the express invitation of prosecuting counsel that the judge looked at all the material before he made his ruling.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)

I welcome the judicial inquiry, but I express my concern that it will be limited to policy. Will it include the conduct of Ministers? I am also concerned that the judge will be able only to "invite" evidence. Will he be able to summon witnesses and to have them examined on oath?

The signing of public immunity certificates is a matter to be approached with care and not in a cavalier fashion. Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman consider whether the exercise of the signing of these certificates has been approached in a responsible fashion? Is it not astonishing that, in the pursuit of the purported interest of the state, Ministers who signed public immunity certificates were prepared to connive at the sacrifice of the accused men and render them liable to long terms of imprisonment? On what authority was counsel for the Crown able to tell the court that the documents sought to be excluded contained—I quote a report today— nothing of assistance to the defence"? That was not upheld by the court.

Since controversial matters involving defence exports certainly in my time—I as a Defence Minister had a responsibility for precisely these matters—were decided by Cabinet Committee, did the four Ministers agree together to issue the certificates? What restrictions were placed on the preparation of the case by Customs and Excise in relation to Government Departments and the intelligence services? Are those matters open to be examined without restriction by the learned Lord justice of appeal?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his welcome in this matter. I can tell him that the inquiry will not be limited to matters of policy; it will be able to look into all relevant aspects of the matter, and to invite such witnesses as it thinks fit to appear before it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Invite?"]

The question of public interest immunity certificates was, I believe, looked at with care, but that can be examined by the inquiry if it thinks it appropriate. I have every reason to think that the exercise was approached in a responsible fashion: I have no reason whatever to believe —indeed, I profoundly refute—the irresponsible suggestion of the right hon. and learned Gentleman that Ministers connived in relation to those certificates.

As to the documents which were opened by counsel for the prosecution in the case, counsel, as would have been expected in the light of the public interest immunity certificates, put the matters clearly before the judge, invited the judge to look at the documents and invited the judge, as would be his duty, then to make the ruling, balancing one public interest with another.

Dr. Keith Hampson (Leeds, North-West)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, in paragraph 128 of the report on exports to Iraq, the Select Committee on Trade and Industry expressed deep disquiet at the independence and authority of Customs and Excise? Is it not the case that Customs and Excise is not answerable to the Treasury with respect to prosecuting decisions, nor, unlike the Crown prosecution service, is it accountable to the Attorney-General? Is not that unacceptable unaccountability? Will he review its status?

The Attorney-General

The important thing is that the Customs and Excise is an independent prosecuting authority and it exercises its judgment independently, as the House would expect.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

The Attorney-General must know that to say that the judge has the power to "invite" witnesses is wholly inadequate. What is required is an inquiry held under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, which would allow the judge to compel the attendance of witnesses and if necessary to commit them for contempt if they decline to answer his questions. An inquiry with the powers which the Attorney-General has spelt out will be toothless and unlikely to get to the truth of the matter.

Will the scope of the inquiry include an examination of the circumstances that surrounded the Iraqi supergun affair, in which it is increasingly clear that the Select Committee on Trade and Industry was thwarted and frustrated by Ministers and Departments?

Why cannot the Attorney-General bring himself to express some sense of regret and apology to the three innocent men who found themselves in the dock?

The Attorney-General

As one with responsibilities in the area of prosecution, I am extremely conscious of the fact that the power to prosecute is an extremely invasive power, which must be exercised by any independent prosecuting authority extremely carefully. I recognise the hon. and learned Gentleman's point in that respect.

The hon. and learned Gentleman should bear in mind that an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 can have compensating disadvantages as well as the advantages that he pointed out. There is no reason to anticipate that any relevant witness will fail to attend the inquiry carried out by Lord Justice Scott; in view of inquiries in recent years, such as the one into BCCI, it is nonsense to suggest that Lord Justice Scott's inquiry is likely to be toothless.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

I greatly appreciate my right hon. and learned Friend's readiness to come to the House so quickly and to instigate an independent judicial inquiry. It must be reassuring to know that it will be for the learned judge, not Her Majesty's Government, to decide what it is in the public interest to make public.

Why did not the three Departments of State, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Defence and the Department of Trade and Industry, immediately make known what was ultimately known to the court, thereby preventing the need for this unnecessary trial?

The Attorney-General

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome for the speedy setting up of the inquiry. As he says, the judge will be able to decide and to give his guidance on the points that he mentioned, including publication?

As to what any Department knew or did not know at any particular time, that is a matter for the learned judge and the inquiry.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

The right hon. and learned Gentleman consistently dodges the questions asked by Opposition Members about whether the inquiry will have the right to summon Ministers—because it is the conduct of Ministers that is at the heart of this scandal.

He said in his statement that the denial by Mr. Alan Clark of his participation in the meeting at the Department of Trade and Industry on 20 January 1988 was inconsistent with the truth—namely, that Mr. Clark had lied. Yet the Prime Minister, writing to me on 17 February this year after I had written to him about Mr. Clark's conduct, wrote back to me upholding Mr. Clark's denial. Did the Prime Minister make inquiries about Mr. Alan Clark's resort to untruth and then deliberately purvey his untruth; or did he simply not bother to make inquiries—a different kind of dereliction of duty?

The Attorney-General

Yes, the inquiry will have the power to summon Ministers, and I am confident that they will all attend. That is a different question from the powers under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921.

With regard to the right hon. Gentleman's second point, he clearly has not read his papers or listened carefully to what I have said, because I made no comment on whether Mr. Clark's denial was at any stage inconsistent with the truth. What I told the House, and what prosecuting counsel told the learned judge when he withdrew the case, was that what Mr. Alan Clark had said in his original statement and what he had said under cross-examination had been different. It will be for the inquiry to sort out the results of that.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

I, too, am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for the announcement of the inquiry, but is there not a major ethical and moral point in the fact that a prosecution can be mounted which might take away the liberty of three business men when Ministers appeared to know that there was basis on which the trial should not proceed and that there would have been a grave miscarriage of justice if those men had been found guilty, convicted and possibly imprisoned?

Secondly, is there not a question of trust between the House and its Ministers in that, when we are told that a policy is such, it is such and there is not deviation from the honour and integrity of Government in their relations with the House?

The Attorney-General

In so far as there are questions. succinctly analysed by my hon. Friend, which need to be put and answered, it is the very purpose of announcing the judicial inquiry that they may be examined and answered.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that he continues to dodge the issue, which surely cannot be covered by the inquiry, of what he will do to put right the dreadful wrong done to the three Coventry business men who have suffered enormously and quite unjustifiably? What will happen to the case that apparently continues against BSA Tools Ltd. and its chairman and owner, Mr. Keith Bailey? Does that go on? Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman tell us anything about those companies that allegedly settled before the matter went to court?

The Attorney-General

The answer to the second question is no. I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman about the second case to which he referred, but I can look into the matter and write to him.

On the hon. Gentleman's first point, as I emphasised to the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North-East (Mr. Campbell) earlier, the process of prosecution is invasive. It is not to be taken lightly, and it is to be examined carefully and independently of Government by the independent prosecuting authority. But if there is a prosecution, which subsequently fails or is withdrawn for any particular reason, representations can be made, but it has never been the policy for there to be formal compensation in those circumstances. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and the House generally know that.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

On behalf of my constituent, Mr. Peter Allen, one of the men acquitted yesterday at the Old Bailey, I welcome the announcement of the independent judicial inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Justice Scott. Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that it is not unheard of for prosecutions to founder, but will he also accept that this is a unique case in which the understanding of Mr. Alan Clark now appears to have been fundamentally at odds with that of Customs and Excise which initiated the prosecution?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept that, as a direct result of the conflict, my constituent has spent the past two years out of work and under the shadow of a sentence of imprisonment, accused of doing no more than he understood he was being encouraged to do? What guidance is given to Ministers to ensure consistency in interpretation of trade sanction regulations, and what steps will be taken to acquaint the prosecuting authorities with that advice?

Finally, what steps will be taken to draw the attention of Customs and Excise and the Department of Trade and Industry to the financial consequences of their actions for my constituent, who has lost heavily as a result of the matter? Is he not entitled to some sort of compensation?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend has raised four points. First—yes, although the word "unique" is always difficult to use, this case involves special circumstances. That is why the inquiry is being set up: so that those circumstances can be looked into carefully, impartially and independently.

Secondly, let me say this to my hon. Friend, and to other hon. Members who have said, "What about an apology?", and that sort of thing. I hope that I have made it clear already that I recognise what an invasive action prosecution of anyone is. I fully recognise, and I sympathise—[interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. The House. knows that these are very serious and important matters. [Interruption.] Order. When Back Benchers are putting questions and Ministers are attempting to answer, we ought to have order in the House. It is only within the framework of order that we can proceed at all.

The Attorney-General

As I was saying, I fully recognise the pressures under which prosecution puts any defendant. I am sure that the House will understand that.

My hon. Friend's third point concerned guidance. The question of guidance will be very much a matter for the inquiry, and one that the inquiry can look into—both what was given and what perhaps ought to have been given, if they were different.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked about financial compensation. As I said a moment ago, there is no formalised system of financial compensation in these circumstances. It is one of the facts of our constitution that prosecutions must be looked into very carefully and independently, and must be decided on; but then, as a matter of law, that is that.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman not now give a full apology to those concerned, and stop hiding behind the framework of the law? Will he also ensure that the whole inquiry is held in public? I understood him to say in answer to the last question that witnesses would now be "summoned", not invited, and I believe that that is absolutely necessary. I remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, when the Select Committee on Trade and Industry looked into the matter, we found that people were disappearing and could not be traced. We want everyone to come forward, including those who profited from the deal—the Savoy mafia, for instance. It has even been said that the former Prime Minister's family benefited financially.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman, like other hon. Members, has raised the question of the form that the inquiry will take. I think that I can set his mind at rest —as much as is humanly possible—by saying that there can be no question of any Minister who has been requested to appear before the inquiry not appearing. There are, however, disadvantages in holding an inquiry under the 1921 Act, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree if he looked into the matter.

As I have said many times, I understand the point about the pressures that prosecutions bring. That is why I have emphasised that they must be looked at carefully, impartially and independently, so that such pressures are not brought without the most careful thought.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

First, will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 presents difficulties in relation to whether a prosecution can take place after the evidence has been given? Secondly, Mr. Alan Clark gave evidence on oath. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, within the context of the judicial inquiry that has been announced, no person—be he a Minister or otherwise—will be immune from having to give evidence on oath, so that the same will apply to him as applied to Mr. Alan Clark? Had he given evidence that was contrary to the truth, he would have been guilty of perjury.

The Attorney-General

I agree that there are difficulties with the 1921 Act, one of which my hon. Friend has identified.

The question of form and procedure in the holding of the inquiry is, to a considerable extent, a matter for the learned judge who will undertake it, and I will not comment further.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Why should the House of Commons have to wait for a judge for the answer to a very simple, straightforward question: on what date of what year did No. 10 Downing street and other senior Ministers first know about the Matrix Churchill situation? It is a very simple question with a factual answer that Parliament deserves to hear.

The Attorney-General

For all the hon. Gentleman's comments, I suspect that that question will require very careful examination. If the House were to be offered a very simple answer, as the hon. Gentleman said, it might well not be satisfied. I suggest that a full and independent judicial inquiry is what the House is entitled to, and is what the hon. Gentleman should look forward to.

Mr. Geoffrey Dickens (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that this is a very important issue and that we welcome the judicial independent inquiry under Lord Justice Scott? Is it right, however, that this honourable House should divert its attention from the regeneration of our commerce, trade and industry and many other matters? Would it not be wise for hon. Members to concentrate on the running of the country and to leave these important inquiries to a judge and an independent tribunal that has been set up to find the truth?

The Attorney-General

My hon. Friend is right—that it is because of the importance and complexity of the issue that this type of inquiry has been set up, and that it is because it is someone who can set aside time and apply a judicial mind to these issues that a very senior judge has been invited to hold it.

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

To revert to the experience of the three men who were prosecuted, why will the Attorney-General not simply say, "Sorry"?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman invites me to make comments about the prosecution decisions of an independent prosecution authority. That prosecuting authority took its decisions, difficult as they were, very carefully. I have recognised, as a matter of principle, that these decisions are extremely invasive. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman can take it from what I have said that I know that nobody should be prosecuted lightly, and that if anybody is prosecuted unnecessarily, then they have suffered hardship—and that I regret.

Mr. Roger Knapman (Stroud)

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement, and particularly the judicial inquiry. Can he confirm that it is for the judge to decide whether the publication of further documents is in the national interest?

The Attorney-General

Yes, I can confirm that. An inquiry of this nature involves the judge looking into documents for which, just as in the court case, public interest immunity, as a matter of law, has to be claimed. The learned judge will no doubt be motivated and governed by the same principles when he makes his detailed inquiry and gives his advice as to what should be published.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Attorney-General aware that, apart from the legal and administrative matters to which he referred, the real issue is a political issue? Why was it that Ministers supplied arms to a regime that had already used chemical weapons against the Kurds, then sent our troops in to fight an army that had been armed, in part, by British manufacturers, and then, when the war was over, tried to get a big contract to sell more tanks to Kuwait? Is it not a fact that the international arms trade is a greater danger to the peace of humanity than either the AIDS epidemic or the drugs trade? Is it not time that Ministers took responsibility for what they clearly did, which was to put profit above human life in promoting the arms trade?

The Attorney-General

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, what is clear is that he is certainly prejudging the issue, which is to be looked at in detail and independently.

Mr. Rupert Allason (Torbay)

Although I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's announcement of the appointment of Lord Justice Scott, does he not recognise that there are grave reservations about his announcement that not all of Lord Justice Scott's report will automatically be published? Does he not also recognise that, in recent years, there has been a tendency, going back to the Security Commission's report on the Bettaney case, for appendices not to be published, appendices that subsequently were leaked and were discovered only lo contain matters of political embarrassment—nothing that could ever really be described as not in the national interest?

The Attorney-General

I should be surprised in the extreme if Lord Justice Scott did not publish something simply because it was thought to be of political embarrassment. My hon. Friend is probably in as good a position as anybody to know the sensitivity of the matters that the learned Lord Justice will have to consider, whose independent advice will offer guidance on what should be published.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

Does the Attorney-General accept that there is an urgent need, in this inquiry or elsewhere, for clarification of the doctrine of ministerial responsibility for the policy and conduct of Departments? Does he understand that there is a growing feeling that no one ever accepts responsibility in this Government under any circumstances? Will he give a definition of what constitutes ministerial responsibility?

The Attorney-General

There could be no better way of examining whether ministerial responsibility should be pinned in any particular area than to have a detailed and independent inquiry. No doubt the hon. Gentleman will wait its outcome.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that the full and independent inquiry will be widely welcomed outside the House? Does he further accept that it is a matter of great concern that the only country in the middle east to which we do not sell arms is the only democracy in the middle east?

The Attorney-General

I recognise and am grateful for my hon. Friend's welcome for the inquiry, and I note his point.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

Can the Attorney-General assure us that Lord Justice Scott's terms of reference will be drawn wide enough to encompass allegations of other instances where Ministers may have been flexible in interpreting their roles in the arms embargo, in particular in relation to International Military Services and Astra. Unless that is so, we shall not be able to see whether there is a pattern to this sordid affair.

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman is asking about the width of the terms of reference, and I think it is already clear from what I have said that they will be widely drawn.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

Although I appreciate the very critical points that have been made, will the Ministers confirm that the terms of reference will be wide enough to include the impossible problem that is faced by the British Government and industry when sanctions are imposed but other countries openly, blatantly and massively break them? For example, the German Government had 200 firms selling chemical weapons and extended Scud missiles in Iraq. Will the Attorney-General ensure that the terms of reference are wide enough to acknowledge that Britain has been the mug of the sanctions game time and again? We want sanctions to be properly imposed rather than inquiries into individual instances of this sort.

The Attorney-General

I am sure that the terms of reference will be quite wide enough to enable those important surrounding points made by my hon. Friend to be given proper consideration.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is not the reality of the matter the fact that, for some time, the Government gave the impression to all and sundry that they were not selling arms to Iraq? Now the truth is out. To what extent does the House expect Ministers to continue in their positions? When do Ministers of this squalid Tory Government resign?

We have an example here of at least three Ministers knowing that three men in court were likely to be sent down the line, yet they sat by, hanging on to their seats, ministerial cars and all the rest, hoping to Christ that they would not have to face the music. Ministers should now decide to resign, but the Attorney-General comes along and sticks up a judge—probably one of their Tory friends —instead of having a proper inquiry. The result is that the whitewash and cover-up will continue.

The Attorney-General

The longer the hon. Gentleman continued, the less I thought he was interested in an independent impartial inquiry into anything. He opened his remarks by asking about the reality of the matter; the purpose of the inquiry is to discover the reality of the matter.

Mr. Graham Riddick (Colne Valley)

Is it not the case that, contrary to the impression that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) sought to convey, the vast majority of armaments sold to Iraq in the 1980s came not from this country but from socialist France and the communist countries of eastern Europe?

The Attorney-General

I have noted my hon. Friend's point.

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

Did Mr. Alan Clark meet officials or Ministers at the Ministry of Defence or the Department of Trade and Industry before the trial?

The Attorney-General

Any actions by Mr. Alan Clark when he was a Minister, or by other Ministers, are the subject of the inquiry.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

Further to an earlier question, may I make a correction? There is another democracy in the area, and that is Iran. The recent United Nations report showed that Iran was the wounded party and not the initiater of the war during—

Madam Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Lady that hon. Members should be asking questions on a statement, not making statements themselves.

Miss Nicholson

Will the terms of reference of the inquiry be wide enough to offer the European Community potential alterations of rules? Some of the evidence that I have gleaned during my recent visits to Iran and Iraq has shown that France was indeed exporting chemical weapon components to Iraq during the period covered by the statement and the inquiry.

The Attorney-General

It will be for Lord Justice Scott to decide how far any questions concerning European rules are relevant to the subject of his inquiry.

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East)

Is the right hon. and supposedly learned Gentleman fully satisfied that, from the Government's point of view, the judge who has been put up is, in that classic phrase, "one of us"?

The Attorney-General

I think that, on reflection, even the hon. Gentleman will find that comment unworthy of him.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is the Attorney-General aware that one of the most disturbing aspects of the case is that, if the judge had decided otherwise regarding the documents in question, the defendants might well have gone to prison—including Paul Henderson who, it should be remembered, was willing to risk his life for his country and is proud of having done so? Yet Ministers signed documents that would have sent him to prison in Britain. Could there be a greater contrast than that between the honour and integrity of the judge in the court case and the record and reputation of Ministers, who were apparently quite willing to send innocent people to prison and who—if they have any honour left—should certainly consider resigning as quickly as possible, and long before the judicial inquiry?

The Attorney-General

I doubt whether the hon. Gentleman wishes to distort the position, but I believe that he deeply misunderstands it, and consequently fundamentally distorts it. Once he realises that, I think that he will wish to withdraw the remarks that he has made.

Sir Peter Emery (Honiton)

Will Lord Justice Scott be able to spend all his time on the inquiry, because, although it needs to be done fully and completely, we should like the report as soon as is humanly possible?

The Attorney-General

I know that Lord Justice Scott is free to begin in the very near future, and I have no reason to think that his conduct of the inquiry is likely to be in any way impeded by any other duties.

Sir David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that, on 31 January 1991, I called in the House for the setting up of just such a high-level inquiry into arms sales to Iraq so that never again will our forces be faced with an enemy armed partly by ourselves"? The Prime Minister refused an inquiry, and replied: for some considerable time we have not supplied arms to Iraq for precisely that reason."—[Official Report, 31 January 1991: Vol. 184, c. 1102.] Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman assure me that the terms of reference for this inquiry, which are still to be settled, will be wide enough to establish why that answer was different from the truth?

The Attorney-General

I am not at all sure that the answer was different from the truth at all, but I think that I can give the right hon. Gentleman the assurance that the terms of the inquiry will be wide enough to enable all his concerns to be carefully looked into and evaluated.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

The Attorney-General said that he expected that Ministers, having been invited to appear at the inquiry, would not refuse to do that. That does not mean to say that they could not necessarily refuse. Will that also mean that civil servants and others will be able to attend—and will be compelled to attend?

The Attorney-General

I do not anticipate that any relevant witness will refuse to attend. The reason that I frame my answers in this form is that, if we go to different 1921 Act rules, one has disadvantages which I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would wish to have.

Dr. John Reid (Motherwell, North)

Following on from that question, why was the Attorney-General surprised earlier when someone mentioned the connivance of Ministers? Is it not at least clear from the trial that, as late as November 1989, a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office who is now in the Cabinet, a Minister at the Ministry of Defence who has now resigned and another Minister at the Department of Trade and Industry were conniving, colluding together and conspiring to act in entirely the opposite direction to Government policy?

In the light of that, does the Attorney-General accept that the difference between the inquiry that he has announced today and one held under the 1921 Act is that those Ministers or their successors cannot be obliged to attend and answer questions? Is the Attorney-General announcing a judicial inquiry today not in a spirit of openness, but precisely to prevent and pre-empt an inquiry under the 1921 Act which would force them to turn up and answer questions under oath?

The Attorney-General

The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstands the framework. What I have said to the House—I repeat this clearly to the hon. Gentleman—is that I am quite satisfied that any relevant witness, including Ministers and civil servants, will give their evidence. I cannot imagine how they could refuse without calling upon themselves the utmost condemnation. However, the hon. Gentleman should not prejudge the issue. It is for the inquiry to look into the very points that he has raised and then give its independent view.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the Attorney-General agree that this is a classic example where, if the rules in the DPP v. Ward with regard to disclosure had been upheld, justice could have been served better? It is not time that the Attorney-General's guidelines on disclosure extended to all branches, parties and prosecuting authorities in a way that is most effective and efficient, so that innocent people can never again be put at risk before the courts of our land? It is not good enough simply to say that one regrets it: it is a disgrace and a shame on our society. It is a test of our judicial system which luckily had a judge in it prepared to stand by the rules and to see fair play done.

The Attorney-General

I am absolutely surprised that the hon. Gentleman, who understands these matters better than some, should phrase his question like that. There is no question of the requirements of the DPP v. Ward having been anything other than fully complied with, but if the hon. Gentleman believes so, he just does riot understand what he is talking about. The point is that there will not be a full inquiry into the matters and the substance of the matters which underlie the hon. Gentleman's question.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

My right hon. and learned Friend has confirmed that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise are an indpendent prosecuting body. That may be a unique power of Government, in that it does not fall under the Attorney-General's Department. Will the terms of reference of Lord Justice Scott's inquiry be wide enough to discover whether the prosecuting power of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise should come under the Attorney-General and his Department?

The Attorney-General

I see no reason, if Lord Justice Scott should think that that question was relevant for him to answer, why he should not give guidance about it. However, fundamentally his inquiry is to look into the facts of the matter and the way in which it was handled.

Mr. John Morris

Is it not astonishing that the Attorney-General has not acknowledged that the prosecution went appallingly wrong and that there is no acknowledgement that the Crown prosecutor, learned counsel, could no longer accept the evidence of a former Minister? Who will decide what is to be published—the Government or the judge? As the Attorney-General has repeatedly said that prosecution is invasive, on what basis was counsel for the Crown able to tell the court that the documents that it was sought to exclude contained nothing of assistance to the defence?

The Attorney-General

The case was prosecuted by experienced and responsible leading counsel, who examined the issues extremely closely, as I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will accept.

The prosecution had to be withdrawn, and it was proper that it was withdrawn. The prosecution was withdrawn on the advice of the leading counsel because evidence which was in his possession in a statement was contradicted in the witness box. Thus, part of the important foundation of the prosecution case had altered. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will fully recognise that, in those circumstances, it would not have been proper to proceed.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked who on the inquiry would decide the issues to which he referred. I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman realises that the point of having an independent inquiry by a learned Lord Justice is so that the Lord Justice will decide the issues [An hon. Member: "But will he be allowed to publish what he likes?"] I have said it about five times.

Leading counsel for the Crown presented, as it was the Minister's legal duty to do, the public interest immunity statements, and expressly invited the learned judge who was trying the case to read the documents and exercise his independent judgment according to law as to where the balance of public interest lay. That is what he did.

Mr. Kaufman

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I seek your assistance. You said that the matter was extremely important. When the Attorney-General was asked whether Ministers could be summoned to the inquiry, he said yes. He then went on to say that Ministers would be invited to attend and he was sure that they would not decline.

It would be wrong for the House to move on to further business before the Attorney-General clarifies whether Ministers will be summoned and have no right not to attend or whether they will be invited to attend with the right not to attend.

Madam Speaker

That is not a point of order for the Chair. [Interruption.] Order. I am in charge here.

The Attorney-General

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I shall clarify the position. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) would undoubtedly wish to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the 1921 Act to which I have referred many times.

My response to his point of order and the factual matter that he put into the ether is that Ministers can be ordered to attend by the Prime Minister. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, any Ministers so ordered—the Prime Minister has just told me that Ministers will be so ordered—who do not attend, which I find inconceivable, would be unlikely to remain Ministers for long if they did not obey such as order.

Several Hon. Members


Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you confirm that when an hon. Member intends to raise a matter in the House about another Member it is the courtesy of the House that he should inform the Member involved in advance? The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) named me yesterday on a matter of privilege. Do you also agree that, as the hon. Member derives his evidence from a Murdoch newspaper which he normally would despise, and as those sentiments are about as sincere as Colonel Sander's sentiments for chickens, the matter is bogus? If I need an hon. Member to defend me, I will not seek help from the whippersnapper opposite.

Madam Speaker

I know full well that the hon. Lady can defend herself on every matter, and I can tell her and the House that I do not make my rulings on what the papers say.

Mr. Benn

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I would like your advice on how the House is left following today's statement. Is it the case that no further questions can be put or answered on the many issues that have come up in the questioning, on the grounds that it is sub judice? I hope that you will not answer today, because it is an important question.

If a Minister can set up a judicial inquiry and no questions can be put on the matter for the next 18 months, on the grounds of the sub judice rule, parliamentary accountability will disappear overnight. Will you reflect carefully on that matter and give us guidance, because I regard it as potentially a great threat to the accountability of Ministers to the House of Commons?

Madam Speaker

It is my understanding that the sub judice rule does not apply to inquiries.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. I hope that hon. Members' points of order are not points of frustration, because I see numbers of hon. Members rising whom I was not able to call. I am not prepared to prolong this.

Mr. Jimmy Boyce (Rotherham)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you give me some guidance? The Attorney-General has left Opposition Members, at least, completely baffled as to the next stage in the procedure. Given that his terms of reference for the judicial inquiry were that it will be full, impartial and independent, can you use your good offices to bring the Attorney-General back here when he has drawn then up?

Madam Speaker

Regrettably, the hon. Member credits me with more authority than I have.

Mr. Dalyell

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

The hon. Gentleman was called during the statement. Is it a point of order for me?

Mr. Dalyell

Further to the point of order raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), Madam Speaker. This morning, the Table Office accepted two identical questions from me—one for the Prime Minister and one for the Secretary of State for Defence —asking on what date they were first alerted to the Matrix Churchill situation. In the light of the answer to my right hon. Friend, are we saying that there is no need for Ministers to answer such questions, even if they remain on the Order Paper, on the grounds that the matter is sub judice, because that raises deep questions—

Madam Speaker

Order. It is quite the opposite. As I have already said, the inquiry is not sub judice. The hon. Gentleman has told me and the House that his questions were accepted.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Can you assist me further? lf, as we have been told, the sanction against Ministers who refuse to give evidence is that they would lose their jobs, what sanction would the House have over former Ministers who decline to give evidence? Is there any way in which you can assist me on that matter?

Madam Speaker

The inquiry is not being conducted by the House, and therefore I should have thought that the House had no authority over former Ministers.

Mr. Bermingham

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. Perhaps you could assist me. I listened to the statement and to all the questions and answers, but I remain puzzled about our policy with regard to the shipment of machinery, which is capable of making munitions, to various middle eastern countries. Perhaps the relevant Minister—be it from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Prime Minister or someone else—could get up and tell me their departmental policies.

Madam Speaker

Hon. Members must not ask the Chair to attempt to interpret Government policy in that way.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. I appeal to you, in your capacity as the defender of Back Benchers' rights, to recognise that a matter arises from this debate which calls for a statement to the House. I have examined dozens of questions and answers that I have received since 1987, and it is clear that the answers given to me by Mr. Alan Clark and other Ministers were untrue. Can the wrong that has been done to the House be undone by a statement from the Leader of the House and from the Government—a statement in which they will go through all the untruthful answers of the past four years and give us truthful replies?

Madam Speaker

I have no authority to instruct any Minister to come to the Dispatch Box, but the comments made by the hon. Member have obviously been heard by those on the Treasury Bench this afternoon.

Mr. Litherland

It was stated that the Prime Minister could instruct any Minister to attend the inquiry. I ask your guidance, Madam Speaker. Who can instruct the Prime Minister to attend the inquiry and make available his knowledge of this situation?

Madam Speaker

The points of order that hon. Members are now raising are by no means a matter for the Speaker.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen)

In relation to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), can you clarify whether it is not a fact that nothing that has been said this afternoon would preclude him from referring the matter to the Committee of Privileges?

Madam Speaker

If any hon. Member wishes to make any reference to the matters of privilege, he or she should, in the normal way, write to me.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

It will be within your recollection, Madam Speaker, that, three years ago, the then Attorney-General came to the House and announced a judicial inquiry into the Guildford and Woolwich pub bombings, and that, once it became clear that the judge in charge of that inquiry, Sir John May, was not willing to participate in a whitewash, the inquiry was nobbled. No Attorney-General has since come to the House to explain the fate of that inquiry. In order that we may know how seriously to take the inquiry just announced, could we first of all hear a statement from the Attorney-General about what happened to the last one?

Madam Speaker

I have already told the House that I have not been informed that any Minister is seeking to make a further statement today.

Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

Can you help me by making it clear whether officers of MI5 and MI6 will be under a compulsion to tell the inquiry whether they advised the former Prime Minister of her son's arms dealings in this area and his involvement in the shipment of munitions to Iraq?

Madam Speaker

Certainly not; that is not a matter for the Speaker.

Mr. Llew Smith (Blaenau, Gwent)

Would the Attorney-General care to explain the links between the Government and the firm, Allivane, which supplied equipment to Iraq and Iran at the time of the Iraq-Iran war?

Madam Speaker

These are not points of order. Hon. Members are attempting to prolong the debate.