HC Deb 28 March 1994 vol 240 cc629-30
30. Mr. Wareing

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what discussions he has recently initiated with governmental colleagues on the issue of open government.

Mr. Waldegrave

I am engaged in final discussions with colleagues on the code of practice, which will come into effect on 4 April 1994.

Mr. Wareing

In view of the Chancellor's recent statement about the correctness of the telling of lies by Ministers, will the code of practice be entitled "If You Believe This, You Will Believe Anything"? May I suggest the provision of guidelines to let people know the sort of questions that may or may not be answered correctly by Ministers—or might a reprint of the Tory party's election manifesto suffice?

Mr. Waldegrave

I shall seek authority from a former Member of Parliament for Bristol, South-East. I refer to Sir Stafford Cripps, whose words on those matters were, I think, definitive.

Mr. Jacques Arnold

Will my right hon. Friend have a word about open government with the leader of Tameside borough council who, when asked for an inquiry into the Tameside Enterprises Ltd. scandal involving old people's homes, responded to the seven councillors concerned by suspending the lot of them?

Mr. Waldegrave

That would be rather drastic action—even for you, Madam Speaker, when you are faced with some of the problems that occasionally occur.

Mr. Matthew Taylor

The ombudsman's current remit in regard to the code of practice does not include personnel matters. That is understandable in relation to individual cases, but may we have an assurance that, on freedom of information principles, it will cover information relating to any material about the political backgrounds of individuals who may be subject to appointment or approval by Ministers in Departments?

Mr. Waldegrave

I should need to examine the code closely, but I think that, if the information were collected and available, it would probably be covered.

Mr. Meacher

How can the Government pretend that they support open government when five years ago—as we now know—they allowed three men to go to prison for engaging in illegal arms deals with Iran, rather than reveal that they had fully colluded in those men's activities? Furthermore, three years later they would have allowed three Matrix Churchill executives to go to prison for engaging in arms deals with Iraq, rather than reveal that they had fully colluded in those activities as well.

As Minister with responsibility for open government, the right hon. Gentleman has said that he believes that it is right, in exceptional circumstances, to lie to Parliament. Does he also think it right—even in exceptional circumstances—to allow innocent men to go to prison to protect a Government cover-up? If he does not, how can he remain a member of a Government who clearly do?

Mr. Waldegrave

I now understand why Hugo Young said, in a recent article, that the peak of the hon. Gentleman's career occurred when he was junior Minister for garbage in the last Labour Government. I think that he would be wise at least to read the evidence about public immunity that is being presented to Scott. He will find that public immunity was, quite correctly, claimed on various occasions by Labour Ministers as well.