[Relevant documents: First Special Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1997–98, on Sierra Leone: Exchange of Correspondence with the Foreign Secretary, HC 760; Second Special Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1997–98, on Sierra Leone: Further Exchanges of Correspondence with the Foreign Secretary, HC 852.]3.43 pm
§ Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)
I beg to move,That this House considers that it is wrong in principle for the Executive to seek unilaterally to impose prior conditions on the release of information properly sought by a Select Committee in pursuit of the responsibilities given to it by the House.The words of the motion are, of course, those of the concluding paragraph of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee's second special report—perhaps the most important sentence of any Select Committee report in this Parliament.
Those words assert a general principle about the relationship between the House of Commons and the Executive—a relationship which is at the centre of our role as Members of Parliament. Although the motion was triggered by a specific incident, it does not refer to any particular Select Committee—or, indeed, to the Executive run by any particular party. It is a clear assertion of the rights of the House to hold the Executive to account.
My argument is, first, that the Select Committee is entitled to the support of the House in that assertion and, secondly, that in view of the change in the overall terms of trade between the House and the Executive, it is in the interest of the House to reassert itself on this issue to prevent any further erosion of its ability to hold the Executive to account.
Most Opposition days focus on disputes between Government and Opposition, but this one focuses on a dispute between Government and Parliament. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee is appointed by the House, and it operates under powers given to it by the House. I pay tribute to the work of that Select Committee, under the chairmanship of the widely respected hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson). Indeed, I pay tribute to the work of other Select Committees, too.
I believe that that work has confirmed the reputation of Select Committees as one of the most effective instruments developed over the past 20 years for holding Governments to account. If the House were not to stand shoulder to shoulder with its Select Committee on this issue, that would damage the reputation and the credibility not just of this Select Committee but of all Select Committees. For that reason—
§ Sir George Young
I want to make a bit more progress, after which I shall give way.
866 The motion is thus of interest to every Member who serves on a Select Committee, and to all Members who value the key role that they play in holding the Government to account.
§ Mr. Bennett
Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it was right for the Government regularly to give Select Committees information on a confidential basis throughout the previous Parliament, whereas it is no longer right to do so now? Is that not humbug?
§ Sir George Young
No, it is not humbug at all. There is no precedent for the issue that confronts the House this afternoon—no precedent whereby a Select Committee has come to the House and asked for its support in resolving a dispute with the Government.
The arguments for supporting the Select Committee are well set out in paragraph 3 of its second report.
§ Sir George Young
I shall give way in a moment, but first I should like to make more progress.
It is worth reminding the House that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee consists of seven Labour Members, including the Chairman, four Conservatives and one Liberal Democrat. The Committee has been carrying out an inquiry into Sierra Leone, in the course of which it has asked for certain documents from the Foreign Office—
§ Sir George Young
No, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) in a moment.
§ Sir George Young
The Select Committee is carrying out an investigation into Sierra Leone, in the course of which it has asked for certain documents from the Foreign Office and has asked a number of questions of witnesses.
§ Sir George Young
Thank you, Madam Speaker.
867 Key documents have not been handed over, and a number of questions have not been answered, on the grounds of what is called the "Legg defence"—that the parallel inquiry commissioned by the Foreign Secretary might be prejudiced by the prior release of documents and the answering of questions asked by the Select Committee. We need to be told today by the Leader of the House when Sir Thomas Legg plans to report.
The "High Noon" scenario—here I use the words of the Chairman of the Select Committee—has arisen because the Select Committee rejects the Legg defence as a matter of principle. As an aside, I add that the Foreign Secretary's assertion that prior release might prejudice Legg is an astonishing assertion in the light of his subsequent statement in his letter to the Chairman dated 30 June, in which he stated thatthere was no ministerial conspiracy to breach the arms embargo. There was no connivance within Whitehall to breach the arms embargo".Those are precisely the allegations that Sir Thomas Legg has been invited to investigate, which the Foreign Secretary himself has pre-empted.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
I understand that the documents can be provided in confidence to the Committee. I can recall repeated occasions throughout the previous five Parliaments when the Public Accounts Committee and the Defence Select Committee were given information on exactly the same basis. Even the Agriculture Committee was given information; the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton)—who is sitting behind the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young)—was on the Committee when it was given information on the same basis about BSE. Repeatedly, Select Committees have been subject over the years to exactly the same rules as set out in the latest communication to the Committee.
§ Sir George Young
There is no resolution of the dispute between the Select Committee and the Foreign Office on the issue of telegrams. One of the key issues is that of timing, and that is why the Select Committee has not resolved the issue with the Foreign Office.
§ Sir George Young
No, I want to make more progress. I will give way in a moment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] I will in a moment. I have just given way to the hon. Member for Workington.
The Select Committee goes on to make the fundamental point thatno area of Government expenditure, administration or policy can be 'ring-fenced' from parliamentary scrutiny by the establishment of a Government enquiry, however eminent are those conducting it.That is the key point in answer to the hon. Member for Workington. That principle must be right.
868 I do not doubt the competence of Sir Thomas Legg. However, he is not a judge, his internal departmental inquiry has no legal or constitutional standing, it is meeting in private and we have no idea how it is being conducted and what questions are being asked of whom. It will report to the Foreign Secretary, who will then publish the report. If that principle of ring-fencing is conceded, any Government can stop any Select Committee investigating anything by the simple device of choosing their inquisitor and asking him to investigate. I have to say to the House that that is unacceptable.
§ Mr. Rowlands
There was indeed a dispute between the Committee and the Foreign Secretary because he was clearly placing conditions on access to information and on the question of timing. However, in his latest letter to the Committee, the Foreign Secretary makes it clear that no such condition will be placed on access to the information in confidence.
§ Sir George Young
The key issue is that of principle—of whether central Government can ring-fence an area of inquiry and say to a Select Committee, "Thou shalt not investigate this subject." That key issue is more important than the issue raised by the hon. Gentleman.
The Times on 1 July put the issue well:It is perfectly possible for the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee to shape an inquiry that complements rather than competes with the Legg investigation. The Foreign Secretary has stalled for long enough. He should start to co-operate fully with Parliament.The case for the Select Committee has been strengthened since the publication of the report by the revelation that the territory fenced off for the inquiry could be extensive. The Press Association report of Sir John Kerr's recent appearance before the Select Committee reports him as saying:In order not to prejudice the inquiry, I have to fence off the area where the inquiry may roam. I do not know where it is roaming. The beast may roam wherever it wants"—precipitating, quite rightly, an intervention from the Chairman:Don't you believe the committee has rights?The reality behind all that is that the Government have made some errors of judgment. Their mishandling of the issue has meant that it has escalated from a dispute about sanctions busting into a constitutional confrontation between Parliament and the Executive. We have had abrasive—indeed, defiant—language from the Foreign Secretary, and a spectacular failure of diplomacy. If the Foreign Secretary cannot build a good working relationship with his hon. Friends on the Select Committee, what chance has he with the rest of the world? For this, I am afraid, the Government have no one else to blame. There is no conceivable argument that the spin doctors can deploy that pins the crisis on anyone but themselves.
Let me quote the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). She said:When we have a Government with a majority of 179, it makes the role and rights of Select Committees absolutely crucial. It has always been understood that they have the right to call persons and papers. The Government is now saying that we can only have papers at the discretion of Ministers and that must be wrong and cuts across the intentions of the House in setting up Select Committees. This is 869 now bigger than Sierra Leone. The Government has given the unfortunate impression that it is seeking to hide behind the Legg inquiry to avoid a wider public inquiry.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
A moment ago, the right hon. Gentleman praised members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. However, he may wish to issue a qualification about me because I voted against the insertion of paragraph 6 on the grounds that those persons being investigated by Sir Thomas Legg deserved to be given a fair hearing. I voted against that proposal—I have campaigned on this platform throughout—on the proviso that, as soon as the Legg report was published, the Foreign Secretary would appear before the Select Committee to be cross-examined on the report's findings and recommendations. I believe that it is far more appropriate and useful for a Select Committee to cross-examine a Minister about a report than to have a debate in this dear green place.
§ Sir George Young
I am not sure that I agree with the way in which the hon. Gentleman phrased the last part of his intervention. However, in making that concession, he has conceded that the Government can impose restrictions on what the Foreign Affairs Select Committee may investigate. That is not a concession which I am prepared to make.
While the Foreign Affairs Select Committee is having the most difficulty on this subject, it is not the only one. On 1 July, the Defence Select Committee published its sixth report on the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. Paragraph 13 of the report states:We are disappointed that Ministers felt unable to provide the DERA Corporate Plan to the Committee as requested, and we call upon Ministers, as we did in our evidence session in March, to clarify how 'advice to Ministers' ought to be construed and reconsider its application in this particular case. Access to such key documents is essential if a select committee is to have a meaningful and well-informed scrutiny role. Restrictions on such access can only undermine departmental accountability to Parliament, and should be used very sparingly.The Defence Select Committee might be expected to be more belligerent than the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in seeking a solution.
Yesterday, when confronted with a different embarrassment, the Government's response was "give us the evidence." However, that is the call that the Select Committee has made in respect of today's debate. It would be unacceptable for a Select Committee to knock on the Government's front door, ask for information to which it is entitled and be refused, while those with close connections with the Government can allegedly get information through the back door to which they are not entitled.
The lack of respect that the Foreign Secretary has shown for the Select Committee's work has been compounded by the failure of the Leader of the House to find time to debate it. The Select Committee's request for a debate was not a normal request. It was not a case of a Select Committee making recommendations to Government, the Government responding to those recommendations and the Leader of the House being asked for time for a debate. We all understand the difficulty in finding time for debates. In this case, the Select Committee issued a special report about a deadlock that it had reached with the Government, and its conclusion was to ask the House for its views at an early date to resolve that deadlock.
870 Opposition Front Benchers have raised the matter at business questions no fewer than seven times: twice on 25 June, twice on 11 June, once on 4 June, and twice on 21 May. The requests were refused each time. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) also wrote to the Leader of the House on 21 May, making a total of eight requests for this debate. She was told in a reply of 1 June that the Leader of the House proposed to deal with the report in the usual way. The reply stated:As with all Select Committee reports, if a debate is considered appropriate, we will then decide whether Government time can be found for such a debate.That decision sits uneasily with paragraph 26 of the document "Departmental Evidence and Response to Select Committees", which was last reprinted in January 1997. It says:The Government has given a commitment that where there is evidence of widespread general concern in the House regarding an alleged Ministerial refusal to divulge information to a Select Committee, it would seek to provide time for the House to express its view.However, the Government turned a deaf ear to the Select Committee's request for support. The right hon. Lady did find time for a debate last night on freedom of information, and the introduction to that White Paper—
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)
Before the right hon. Gentleman leaves the point about finding time for Select Committee debates when there is a problem with evidence, may I ask whether he recalls the debate that took place on 25 June 1979 when he voted against Select Committees' having the automatic right to demand time to debate such issues?
§ Sir George Young
We know that 1979 was the year in which the previous Government established Select Committees—a most important innovation in holding the Government to account. That innovation is under threat as a result of the actions of the Leader of the House.
The Leader of the House found time for a debate last night on freedom of information. The introduction to the White Paper, Cm 3818, began with the words:Unnecessary secrecy in Government leads to arrogance in governance and defective decision-making. The perception of excessive secrecy has become a corrosive influence in the decline of public confidence in Government".Those words may come to haunt the Government.
The Opposition have made time for this debate because we believe that it is important enough to devote an entire Opposition day to it. We believe that the Select Committee deserves better treatment than it is receiving, and we also believe that in tonight's vote the Select Committee deserves support in the Lobby.
I turn briefly to the other half of my argument—that this issue encapsulates a broader one that has been simmering away for some time but has been brought to the boil since 1 May by a number of changes initiated by the new Government. Those changes have further eroded the institution of Parliament and tilted the terms of trade towards the Executive. Unless the House makes a stand, that erosion, which affects every one of us who is not in government, will continue. I refer briefly to those trends because I believe that we need to place the debate in a broader context.
871 I believe that we are moving towards a more presidential style of government, with a reduced role for Cabinet and for formal Cabinet sub-committees. We have seen the politicisation of the information service within government, as civil servants have been replaced by those sympathetic to the Labour party. We are threatened with an appointed second Chamber as an interim solution that may last indefinitely. We have seen more special advisers and an increasing tendency for Government decisions to appear in the press before they appear in the House. The convention on such matters is not an outdated relic. Its purpose is to ensure that changes in Government policy are subjected to critical and democratic scrutiny when they are announced.
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)
I am trying to follow the right hon. Gentleman with great care. Is he not aware that when he talks about the abandonment of Cabinet government, some of us have the strange idea that he was a member of the Cabinet of Baroness Thatcher of somewhere or other?
§ Sir George Young
The hon. Lady is wrong. I was never in Baroness Thatcher's Cabinet. [Interruption.] The noble Lady and I got on very well—we got on so well that she twice appointed me to her Government.
I shall touch on one change that affects the ability of the House to hold the Executive to account. One of the most effective checks on the Government, as on previous ones, is opposition from within it. However, unparalleled steps are being taken to muzzle that independence, and that impacts directly on our debate today. The rules of the parliamentary Labour party impose a tight grip on the independence of Back Benchers. They state:Members shall consult the Chief Whip before tabling any Motion, Amendment or Prayer".The standing orders continue:A reprimand may be given by the Chief Whip in writing, and reported … to the CLP of the member concerned.The House is entitled to an assurance during today's debate that no Labour Member who supports the motion before the House will be disciplined under the PLP's standing orders. To discipline a Member for upholding the rights of the Commons against the Executive would be to undermine the very basis on which we serve in this place.
The media also have a role to play.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
Before the right hon. Gentleman launches into strictures, may I point out that as one who voted against a three-line Whip on, for example, the Gulf war, I never received a reprimand? Would it not, however, be only polite and good manners to let a Chief Whip know what one was going to do? If one is to vote against a three-line Whip of one's party, is it not elementary good manners to let the Chief Whip know?
§ Sir George Young
The PLP rules go further than that. The hon. Gentleman should not table an amendment to a Bill going through the House without, first, touching base with the Whips. I think that that is an intrusion on the rights of Members.
The media also have a role to play in holding the Executive to account. Much of the information referred to in the motion is denied to the media as well. On 27 June, 872 The Times showed that the media are finding their task harder, as the House finds its task harder. It said:Ministers shun BBC inquisitors for chats on sofa.The Times tells us that a serious rift has opened up between the Government and the BBC over "invisible Ministers" who seem to have vanished from the airwaves. Broadcasters complain about senior Labour figures refusing to appear on serious television and radio shows with tough inquisitors such as Jeremy Paxman, John Humphrys and Nick Clarke. Set against the broader context of the Executive taking additional steps to get their way, the motion assumes greater significance.
The matter should be resolved by putting to one side the political divisions that take up so much of our time in the House, and by focusing on our common responsibilities as Members. That is why my party has announced a free vote, and we urge the Labour party to do the same, as some of its Back Benchers have requested.
To those Labour Members who have not yet decided how to vote, I say this: on 1 May last year, many voters decided that our democratic traditions might be harmed if the same party was returned for a fifth time. If the Government continue on their present path, the electorate will come to that conclusion after one term. The growing suspicion that the Government will stop at nothing to get their way would be confirmed if they used their large majority to crush the wishes of a Select Committee. Such a response would, paradoxically, be good for the Opposition and bad for the Government. But, because it would be a disaster for Parliament, I urge all hon. Members to vote for the Opposition motion.
§ 4.5 pm
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Ann Taylor)
I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:reaffirms that, in accordance with the House's Resolution of 19th March 1997 and the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information (Second Edition, January 1997), Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament; recalls that the House approved on 18th May 1998 the Government's commitment to an urgent outside investigation and publication of a full report of the Sierra Leone arms investigation; believes that nothing should be done to prejudice the conduct of that inquiry by premature public disclosure of parts of the evidence; and notes that the Foreign Secretary remains ready to make available to the Foreign Affairs Committee, on a confidential basis, the telegrams it has requested.I make it clear at the outset that there is one point on which I agree with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young). Today's debate is about two separate issues. They are closely related, but it is right to define the two separate elements of the debate. The first, as the right hon. Gentleman said, is what principles should govern the release of papers by Government to a Select Committee. The second, as the right hon. Gentleman also said, is the specific example that is before the Foreign Affairs Committee at the moment. That is why I have tabled the amendment.
Originally, I was tempted simply to accept the Opposition's motion, despite the fact that it was based on a split report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, because it would be easy to argue that there is no difference between this Government and their predecessor on the question of what principles should govern the release of documents.
873 However, my right hon. and hon. Friends and I thought it right to table the amendment, partly because we thought it right to reaffirm the motion that was passed in March 1997, and partly because the Opposition, during business questions last week, made it clear that the context in which they wanted the debate to take place was the Sierra Leone situation.
I want to give some background in terms of the principles that should govern the release of information by the Government to Select Committees. I start by reading the resolution that was passed in the House on 19 March 1997 without dissent, without a Division. That resolution states:Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament, refusing to provide information only when disclosure would not be in the public interest, which should be decided in accordance with relevant statute and the Government's Code of Practice on Access to Government Information (Second Edition, January 1997)".—[Official Report, 19 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 1046–47.]The motion, tabled by a Conservative Minister, was accepted unanimously by the House.
At paragraph 4.a), the code of access to Government information clearly refers to exempting informationwhose disclosure could prejudice the administration of justice (including fair trial), legal proceedings or the proceedings of any tribunal, public inquiry or other formal investigations (whether actual or likely) or whose disclosure is, has been, or is likely to be addressed in the context of such proceedings.Paragraph 10 refers to informationwhich is or will soon be published, or whose disclosure, where the material relates to a planned or potential announcement or publication, could cause harm".The resolution in respect of the code of access to Government information drawn up by the previous Conservative Government was accepted unanimously by the House. Why? Every hon. Member knew that there was a need for limitations in some circumstances.
The Minister on whose advice the resolution was drawn up, Roger Freeman, described that day as historic, because Parliament was setting out for the first time what the relationship should be between the Executive and Parliament in terms of such information. As my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) said, the previous Conservative Government denied information to Select Committees on many occasions, so this is not a new issue.
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
My right hon. Friend is being too kind in her account of the history of this matter, because the resolution and the form of words were, in essence, the product of a Select Committee with which some of us had a connection. The form of words came forward because the history of the Scott inquiry was prefaced by the inability of the Trade and Industry Select Committee to be helped by the Government in its inquiry. The Committee was disabled in its investigations, which is an indictment of the previous Government. Even when the Scott inquiry reported, Conservative Members simply went into the Lobby in massed party support for defiance of that report. That is the history of the resolution and what really went on.
§ Mrs. Taylor
My hon. Friend is right to point out the background, and I had intended to mention the 874 Scott inquiry. The Conservative Government also refused to answer parliamentary questions on matters that were covered by the partially public Scott inquiry, and many concerns were raised in the House and in that Select Committee at the time.
Information was refused to the House or to Select Committees not only in respect of the Scott inquiry, however. For example, the Defence Committee was refused by a Conservative Secretary of State copies of the defence costs study on naval stores and reports produced for the Ministry of Defence by outside consultants; the MOD refused the Defence Committee access to a report on the operational capability of medical services; the Conservative Government refused to allow the intelligence services to give formal evidence or informal briefings to the Foreign Affairs Committee on their work in combating proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; and a Conservative Secretary of State for Transport, the post once held by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire, was asked about channel tunnel rail link blight, but would not give information about internal departmental discussions.
I do not say that, on every single occasion, the Conservative Government were wrong to say that there were good reasons why information should not be given, but it is important to register the fact that all Governments have on occasion thought that there had to be a limit on the information given to Select Committees. I hardly need remind the House that, during the previous Parliament, the hon. Member for Havant (Mr. Willetts) resigned from the Front Bench following a Standards and Privileges Committee report on the improper pressure that was put on a Select Committee by a Whip. I hope that we will not have any lectures from the Conservative party on this matter.
On the specific case before the Foreign Affairs Committee, the right hon. Gentleman has outlined some of the chronology, and perhaps I can follow on from what he said. He mentioned the first special report, which I think was published on Thursday 22 May. That asked for the views of the House. The Committee was, of course, split in reaching that recommendation and, at business questions that day, I said that I would look at the issues. Subsequently, there was an exchange of correspondence between the Foreign Secretary and the Select Committee, and a second special Committee report was produced. I think that it was published on Thursday 25 June. At business questions that day, I undertook to discuss that report with the Foreign Secretary before making any decision on the Opposition's request for a debate.
Two other things happened at that time. The first was that the Foreign Secretary wrote to the Chairman of the Committee, following up suggestions that had come out of informal suggestions on a way forward. Secondly, on 1 July, the Opposition informed me that they had chosen this subject for debate today. Also around the same time, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee wrote to the Prime Minister following an exchange at Prime Minister's Questions the day before. That letter made it clear thatThe Committee has not yet taken a collective view on the proposals set out in paragraph 3 of the Foreign Secretary's letter of 30th June.875 Paragraph 3 of the Foreign Secretary's letter of 30 June said:You also know that I was willing to entertain your proposed compromise by which the telegrams could be made available to the Select Committee now, subject to an assurance of confidentiality until the Legg Report is published.Later in that letter, the Foreign Secretary also offered to give evidence to the Select Committee if that was required. Subsequently, the Foreign Affairs Committee decided to invite the Foreign Secretary to give oral evidence on 14 July.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
May we make it absolutely clear, so that there can be no misunderstanding, what the suggested compromise was? It was that the documents should be made available after the Legg committee had reported. Indeed, that suggestion—[Interruption.] May I finish my remarks without interruption? I wish to make it clear that that was the position at that time. That was the compromise offered by the Chairman at that moment, but it was not accepted.
§ Mrs. Taylor
No. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension. What the Foreign Secretary said was that the confidentiality of those telegrams should be respected until after the Legg report was published.
§ Mr. Illsley
May I explain to my right hon. Friend that the Foreign Affairs Committee was offered a compromise in respect of the telegrams as early as 21 May? Committee members were offered an opportunity to view those telegrams on the same basis as under the Pergau dam inquiry.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The more members of the Committee enlighten the House the better.
The current position is as follows: the Select Committee Chairman has proposed to his Committee a compromise, which the Foreign Secretary has accepted but on which the Foreign Affairs Committee has yet to reach a decision. The Foreign Secretary has offered to give evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee again and the Committee is considering whether it will accept his offer of the date of 16 July.
§ Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)
I am sure that the Chairman of the Select Committee, if he catches your eye, Madam Speaker, will explain that the compromise that the right hon. Lady said he offered was quite different from the compromise referred to in the Foreign Secretary's letter. The Chairman's compromise was rejected by the Committee, whereas the compromise referred to by the Foreign Secretary and which the right hon. Lady has mentioned has yet to be put to the Committee.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I said that in a letter of 2 July to the Prime Minister, the Chairman of the Select Committee said thatthe Committee has not yet taken a collective decision on the proposal set out in the third paragraph".That refers to the third paragraph of the Foreign Secretary's letter, which I have just quoted.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
The right hon. Lady has referred to a number of letters. During our 876 exchanges, reference has been made to a letter of today's date from the Foreign Secretary. Can any letters that the right hon. Lady is quoting from, or has seen, be placed in the Library before the end of the debate?
§ Mrs. Taylor
The letters to which I have referred have been written by the Foreign Secretary or by the Chairman of the Select Committee. The proper procedure is probably for the Chairman of the Select Committee to be responsible for any letters that he has written. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) is very concerned that procedures should be followed, and I am sure that he would be quite stressed if we did not do so. From my point of view, there is no problem in releasing any copies of letters on this issue sent by the Foreign Secretary or any other Minister. However, the Chairman of the Select Committee should make such decisions on any letters over which he has rights.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
The point that I am making to the right hon. Lady is simple. She is quoting from letters. She has obviously obtained those letters, and it would appear from what she has been saying that we have not seen all of them. I am merely asking for a simple, clear and unequivocal undertaking that anything that she has quoted from or referred to during her speech will be placed in the Library before the end of the debate.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have said that I have no objection at all to every letter being placed in the Library or anywhere else. The Chairman of the Select Committee is entitled to give his view if he has a problem. I have not said anything that is particularly revealing. Most of what I have quoted is in the public domain.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
The right hon. Lady has obtained the letters from somewhere. All I am asking is that we have the privilege of seeing the letters from which she is quoting.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have already said that I have no objection to that—nor do my ministerial colleagues—but I do not want to trespass on the rights of the Select Committee. If the Chairman of the Select Committee were to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, he could tell us whether he wishes those letters to be made public. The hon. Member for South Staffordshire would be the first to remind me that I should not disclose those letters. I am saying that ministerial letters can be disclosed, but letters written by the Chairman of the Select Committee are not for me to disclose. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
It may assist if I tell the House that the only letters that are not in the public domain—I believe that the letter of 30 June is—are a letter that I wrote to the Prime Minister shortly afterwards with enclosures, a letter from the Foreign Secretary to me of 6 July and the reply to that letter of 7 July. I should be happy for those to be made available to the House.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am sure that that will be helpful to the House. I have not quoted from the last two letters to which 877 my hon. Friend referred: I have quoted from the letters that are already in the public domain. Anything else is a matter for the Chairman of the Select Committee.
I was reminding the House of the current position. The Chairman of the Select Committee has proposed to the Committee a compromise that the Foreign Secretary has accepted, but on which the Committee is yet to reach a decision. The Foreign Secretary has offered to give evidence to the Select Committee again, and has suggested a date that is close to the date requested by the Committee.
§ Mr. Rowlands
I apologise for interrupting my right hon. Friend.
The closing words of the amendment state thatthe Foreign Secretary remains ready to make available to the Foreign Affairs Committee, on a confidential basis, the telegrams it has requested.Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that that no longer refers, as it did originally, to the period post-Legg? That was the condition that caused the aggro and the argument between the Committee and the Foreign Secretary. If my right hon. Friend will confirm that the position has changed, I think that the point will have been made.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The position, clearly, is that the confidentiality of those telegrams must be respected until Legg has reported. That is what is important, and that is what we have made clear all along. Having established that that is the current position, I hardly think that it constitutes a crisis, or a clash, that cannot be resolved.
I remind the House that, following an Opposition day debate on 18 May, the House agreed a motion including the wordsThat this House … congratulates the Government on its commitment to an urgent outside investigation and publication of a full report.That was the Opposition day debate on Sierra Leone, during which the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee said:Perhaps it would be unwise"—of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that is—to attempt to duplicate or parallel the inquiry being conducted under the auspices of the Foreign Office, which will publish its report."—[Official Report, 18 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 621.]
§ Mr. Rowlands
I am sorry to interrupt my right hon. Friend again, but I am trying to help the House. As my right hon. Friend said, no one has ever disputed the need for confidentiality before the publication of the Legg report: that has never been a subject of dispute between the Committee and the Foreign Secretary. The subject of the dispute was the fact that the Foreign Secretary was not willing to make the summary and telegrams available to the Committee, in confidence, before Legg reported. Does not the wording of the amendment make it clear that the conditional timetable that caused the row in the first place is no longer a matter of difference between us? Does it not make it clear that the Foreign Secretary will allow members of the Committee—under the arrangements that were made—to have access to the telegrams before Legg reports?
§ Mrs. Taylor
I have made that clear, but I must disagree with my hon. Friend. There was a dispute about 878 whether that confidentiality should be respected on the part of some people—I do not say on the part of my hon. Friend.
§ Ms Abbott
As a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, I am not aware that there was ever any dispute about the confidentiality of the telegrams. The dispute was always about the conditions that the Foreign Secretary sought to attach to releasing the telegrams—conditions which the majority of Committee members from all parties found unacceptable.
§ Mrs. Taylor
Perhaps the Committee should have considered inviting the Foreign Secretary to talk directly to its members earlier. If it had, the problem would not have arisen. I think that the advice given by the Chairman of the Committee on 18 May was very wise.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)
On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Does the Leader of the House not recall the first Foreign Affairs Committee report—
§ Mrs. Taylor
As I was saying, I think that the Committee and the House were wise to heed the advice given during that debate.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I am going to make progress now. I think it was wise of the Chairman to advise the Committee not to try to conduct a parallel inquiry, or to duplicate the work of the Legg inquiry. That is clearly what he said during the debate. It is, of course, entirely open to the Foreign Affairs Committee to follow up the matter in any way it wishes.
§ Mrs. Taylor
No. I recall how often the right hon. Lady gave way when she was in government. I was going to refer to a specific question that was raised by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. That concerned the timing of the Legg inquiry. That is, of course, an independent inquiry, so it is up to Sir Thomas Legg to determine the timing, but he is well aware of the urgency of the matter, and we hope that his report will be available some time this month. However, the precise timing is up to him.
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
If it is clear that members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee can see the telegrams in question on the basis that they wish to see them, what is the purpose of this debate? It is resolved. We are wasting our time and I trust that, when 879 my right hon. Friend has completed her speech, the Opposition will withdraw their motion. It is simply a waste of the time of the House of Commons.
§ Mrs. Taylor
The reason why we are having the debate is that the Opposition have to attack the style of the Government because they have no policies of their own.
§ Sir George Young
The reason why we are having a debate is that the Foreign Affairs Select Committee asked for one.
§ Mrs. Taylor
I look forward, then, to future Opposition day debates being determined by resolutions from Select Committees, and perhaps some of the other pressure that we are under to hold Select Committee debates on Wednesday mornings can be taken away because the Opposition are going to find time for them all. We are having the debate because the Tories have no policies and have not adjusted to the fact that they are in opposition.
§ Mrs. Taylor
No, I will not give way. I am moving to the conclusion of my speech. I think that we have heard enough from members of the Select Committee. I gave way to one person who was not on the Select Committee and I think that we got a clear view of what other hon. Members think about this debate.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has a cheek in saying that this debate is about the balance of power between the Executive and Government. He was a member of a Government who allowed quangos to mushroom. The Tories packed the 40,000-plus appointments with their supporters. The concept of public accountability was completely undermined by the previous Government. The former Deputy Prime Minister told the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee:The paraphernalia of so-called public accountability is nothing better than a bureaucratic overhead".In contrast, this Government have devolved power, opened quangos and started the process of local government renewal. We have published a White Paper on freedom of information, and improved accountability to Parliament.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire serves on the Modernisation Committee. His deputy used to serve on it. I do not think that this Government have acted arrogantly when they have sought to programme major Bills rather than guillotine them. We have made the proceedings of Parliament more transparent and comprehensible by revising the Order Paper and explanatory memorandums. We have taken decisions to publish Bills in draft form to allow pre-legislative scrutiny by Select Committees and extended scrutiny of European legislation to cover pillars two and three of the European Union and to allow pre-Council meetings, so that Ministers can talk to hon. Members about their objectives there.
We have given the Opposition many of the debates that they have asked for on the Floor of the House. We have taken the devolution Bills, the European convention on human rights and other Bills on the Floor of the House, 880 which could have been split, as other hon. Members had requested, but we have been reasonable—some might say over-reasonable—in meeting the requests.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire asked me for a debate on Derbyshire local authority financing; we found time for that. He asked for a debate on lone parent regulations tonight; we found time for that. His predecessor asked for a debate on the health service; that is to be held on Thursday. They asked for a debate on NATO enlargement; that is to be held on Friday 17 July. Recently, we gave two days for the remaining stages of the Finance Bill, even though, in the event, the Opposition were not able to use those two days and we were having to use that time to best effect. Some people would say that I have been far too generous in accommodating the demands that have been made of me.
If the Government are at all arrogant, it is that we are arrogant enough to believe that we have a responsibility to deliver to the people of Britain the legislation and policies for which they voted. The Conservatives clearly find it extremely difficult to adjust to opposition. That is presumably why they sometimes break some of the conventions of the House and tell the press that they have applied for private notice questions. That never happened when we were in opposition. The Conservatives are so adrift that the shadow Chancellor has asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether he can receive the Government's press cuttings service on a daily basis because he is so bereft of any service of that kind.
The truth is that after 18 years of Tory centralisation, arrogance and contempt for Parliament, we now have a Government who are meeting their pledges and renewing the democratic process. The Conservative party simply cannot adjust to being in opposition.
§ Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)
I am afraid that there is substantial confusion between the two compromises. I must tell the Leader of the House that I hope that the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), will make it clear that the compromise put to the Committee is the one referred to in the Chairman's letter to the Prime Minister of 2 July. That letter states:The next day, in seeking to find a way out of the impasse, and entirely on my own initiative, I instructed the Clerk to send all Members of the Committee a possible package deal (copy enclosed) I had devised.That is attached to the back of the Chairman's letter. Unfortunately—I am not suggesting that it was deliberate; it was entirely inadvertent—the Prime Minister at Prime Minister's Question Time last Wednesday and the Leader of the House at business questions on Thursday, claimed that the Select Committee had rejected a quite different compromise, which as I have said, has not yet been put to the Committee.
However, that is not the essence of the debate and the fundamental question before the House. That issue—I believe that there is only one—is whether the House accepts that accountability to it should be suspended during the period in which a Minister sets up a departmental inquiry; a departmental inquiry which does not raise the issue of the sub judice rule. That is the key issue and, for reasons that I shall explain, it is not as yet wholly resolved.
881 The House secures accountability through three separate channels of information. It does so on the Floor of the House with the ability of hon. Members to ask written and oral questions. It secures accountability in front of Select Committees by the power of the House to call for papers. It also secures accountability by Select Committees exercising their powers to require witnesses to answer their questions. Those are the three key channels of information that secure accountability to the House. Each of those three channels follows different rules, procedures and precedents, and it is important to separate each of them and to deal with them in turn.
It is worth reminding the House about the first channel—that of accountability through the answering of oral and written questions. It is perhaps surprising that, over the centuries through which the House has been performing its democratic function, it has never enshrined in resolutions reflected in "Erskine May" clear requirements on Ministers to answer oral or written questions put by hon. Members on the Floor of the House. I could find only one exception in "Erskine May", and that was the resolution passed by the House in 1962 at the time of the Profumo affair. The House clearly resolved that it was a grave contempt for a Minister, in answering questions, knowingly to lie to the House. Beyond that, there are no specific requirements on Ministers when answering questions to the House.
This is no party point, because I believe that the practice that has been followed by this Government is the same as that followed by previous Governments. It is easy for Ministers to decline to answer questions, to give insufficient answers to questions, or to block lines of questioning—which in turn means that the Table Office will accept no further questions on that subject.
Like many other hon. Members who tabled oral and written questions to the Foreign Secretary and other Ministers, I was frustrated to receive a reply couched in the Legg terms of reference, but I do not have any grounds for complaint because the House has not given me or any other Member a means of redress through a resolution that would place a clear requirement on Ministers to answer oral or written questions.
Against that background, the remaining two channels of information—and, therefore, accountability to the Select Committee system—are all important. First, there is the power to send for papers. This matter is clearly spelt out in the resolutions that set up the Foreign Affairs Committee and the other Select Committees. "Erskine May" makes it clear that the powers of individual Select Committees to send for papers are heavily qualified when they are internal departmental papers. Indeed, "Erskine May" refers to the Address procedure—which, ultimately, would have to be used if the House required a Minister to produce a given departmental paper.
Because this is such a grey area, the practice has been to conduct a negotiation in each and every case, and such a negotiation has been conducted by the Foreign Affairs Committee in this instance. However, I must say that although the Foreign Secretary has been perfectly within his rights, as laid down in "Erskine May", in taking up successive positions, he has been unwise to proceed in that way over the past several weeks. The reality is that the right hon. Gentleman has been steadily driven 882 backwards to three different positions. His initial position, in responding to the Select Committee's requirement, was to refuse any access to the documents. Following the Select Committee's rejection of that, he moved to a second position, which was to offer the documents, but only after the Legg committee had reported. He has now moved to a third position; that of offering the Select Committee the documents subject to their remaining confidential. The Select Committee has still to reach a view on that offer.
This is a significant grey area. I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, in his place. The Liaison Committee would do a considerable service to all Select Committees and to the House if it examined the matter afresh. I appreciate that its final report at the end of the last Parliament referred to the powers of Select Committees to send for papers, but the issue is deserving of more detailed examination. I invite the right hon. Gentleman and his Committee to consider further whether clearer guidance might be given, through recommendations from the Liaison Committee, on the ambit of Select Committees' power to send for papers where those papers lie within Government Departments.
§ Mr. Illsley
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the three positions taken by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the telegrams. Will he admit that by 2 June the Clerk to the Foreign Affairs Committee had advised all members of the Committee that the Foreign Secretary's offer went even further than the Pergau dam precedent?
§ Sir John Stanley
I understand that the Clerk did advise the Committee of that point, but it was for the Committee to decide whether that was acceptable—and, by a majority, it decided that it was not.
§ Mr. Rowlands
We are following the right hon. Gentleman's case with great interest. I have read Douglas Hurd's February 1994 letter to the Foreign Affairs Committee about the Pergau dam, in which he put two sets of papers beyond the reach of the Select Committee: any official advice to Ministers internally and any memorandum or minutes between Ministers. Those documents were not to be made available to Select Committees. I simply make that point for the completeness of the right hon. Gentleman's case and to add to his explanation of the current position.
§ Sir John Stanley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. If the Liaison Committee carries out a further investigation into how the power to send for papers should be used by Select Committees, I am sure that it will want to look in detail at all previous precedents, including that of the Pergau dam.
The third channel of information, to which the Leader of the House did not refer in her response to my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), is the most important issue for the House and the debate. "Erskine May" is very clear about the powers of Select Committees to require witnesses to answer questions. I have already said that the channel of seeking answers to questions on the Floor of the House can be blocked by Ministers almost at will, without redress for hon. Members; the channel of sending for 883 papers is still murky and unnavigable water; but the power of Select Committees to require witnesses to answer questions is at the heart of this debate. On page 109, "Erskine May" states:Witnesses…who have refused to answer questions…have been considered guilty of contempt.On page 651, "Erskine May" states:However, committees, being extensions of the House, possess substantial powers to require answers to questions.Footnote 1 is important. It states:These powers have been confirmed from time to time. In 1947 the House of Commons resolved 'that the refusal of a witness before a select committee to answer any question which may be put to him is a contempt of the House and an infraction of the undoubted right of this House to conduct any inquiry which may be necessary in the public interest'".The key right of Select Committees is the right to require answers from those appearing in front of them as witnesses, whether they be Ministers, officials or anybody else. It is that right which is at the centre of this debate. It is that right which is threatened with encroachment—
§ Sir John Stanley
I am referring not to Ministers' capacity to provide papers but to their answering questions as witnesses.
I was somewhat saddened to read that in his letter of 30 June, the Foreign Secretary refers to members of the Select Committee who prefer confrontation to a solution. I have to make it clear that the Foreign Affairs Committee is not engaged in a confrontation with the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary is engaged in a confrontation with the powers of the House, through the Select Committee system, to require witnesses to answer questions. That is the key issue.
In fairness to the Foreign Secretary, he has yet to appear on the matter before the Foreign Affairs Committee, although he has appeared several times at one remove through his permanent secretary, Sir John Kerr. In accordance with what is clearly stated in "Erskine May", the Committee is entitled to presume that an official who appears in front of a Select Committee is appearing on behalf of and under the instructions of the Minister in question. However, the House's powers in dealing with witnesses appearing before Select Committees will be determined when the Foreign Secretary comes before the Committee on Thursday 16 July.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)
Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Foreign Secretary made the offer to appear before the Select Committee? Was it not at the Foreign Secretary's behest that he will appear before the Select Committee?
§ Sir John Stanley
I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. At its most recent meeting, the Committee decided to require Sir John Kerr to come for a further evidence session and then to send also for the Foreign Secretary. That decision was conveyed to the Foreign Secretary. I make it quite clear that I am not suggesting any unwillingness by the Foreign Secretary to appear 884 Nevertheless, I make the point that, at its last meeting, the Committee decided—I think unanimously—that the Foreign Secretary should appear before it.
On 16 July, when the Foreign Secretary appears before the Select Committee, it will remain to be seen whether he seeks to continue to refuse to answer questions asked of him in his capacity as a witness, on the ground that the Legg inquiry is sitting. I trust that he will not.
The one thing that can be said is that the confidentiality issue is a red herring. If the Foreign Secretary believes that the answers to the questions need to be given in private, the issue can be easily resolved. He can make that request to the Committee Chairman, who will undoubtedly give him an answer at the time.
The issue is whether the Foreign Secretary, whether in public or in a private hearing of the Foreign Affairs Committee, is or is not prepared to answer questions asked of him in his capacity as a witness before the Committee. I earnestly hope that he will. I particularly hope that the House will hold fast to what is probably the most important power of accountability it has—its unqualified right to secure answers from witnesses before Select Committees.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
I adopt much of what the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) has said in this debate. He said that production of documents to Committees is a murky area, and suggested that the matter should be clarified by the Liaison Committee. I agree entirely with that suggestion.
The right hon. Member made some points on the contempt issue, which arose during the Committee's examination of Sir John Kerr, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is difficult to believe that the House would wish to pursue a senior civil service for contempt in such circumstances—basically on the grounds of principle and agent. As the right hon. Gentleman said, that problem is likely to arise, if at all, only when the Foreign Secretary appears before the Committee on 16 July.
By letter to me, of 6 July, the Foreign Secretary has already said:I will not be able, before the completion of the report, to disclose information on matters which may fall within Sir Thomas Legg's remit.We may then be in a position of deciding to discuss that evidence in camera. We will have to wait until 14 or 16 July to decide the matter. In the same letter of 6 July, the Foreign Secretary agreed to come before the Committee, both pre-Legg and again after publication of the Legg report.
§ Mr. Anderson
There is a range of reasons why, on 16 July, the Committee may or may not decide to go into private session. The matter will be determined as a consequence of points made by the Foreign Secretary—for example, on highly sensitive personnel matters, or on 885 other confidential matters that could cause any reasonable Committee to agree that it should consider evidence in private session. However, the Committee will have democratically to consider that matter first at our 14 July meeting.
I have on the board in my office a reproduction of a banner of the Penrhiwceiber miners lodge, in south Wales, which declares simply "Knowledge is power". Perhaps that says it all. A classic statement of the powers of the House was less succinct. It was in Redlich and Ilbert's "The Procedure of the House of Commons", which was published in 1908 and reproduced by Sir Richard Barlas in his memorandum to the first report of the Procedure Committee 1977–78 and holds:In the unlimited character of the claim for information, which may in principle be made at any time, there lies a fundamental parliamentary right of the highest importance; it is a right which, both constitutionally and practically is a condition precedent to all efficient parliamentary government.Sir Richard, who was then the Clerk of the House, followed that quotation by observing:The powers both as exercised by the House and its Select Committees are, however, circumscribed by qualifications, apparent contradictions, and lack of opportunity to exercise the powers which undoubtedly exist.Today's debate provides a rare parliamentary opportunity to examine the validity of certain qualifications that the Government have sought to impose on the supply of information.
I should like to offer several rather general reflections. First, our constitutional liberties were established only by struggles between government and Parliament. Those struggles reached a crisis point when the King wished to rely on the claim to divine right, which Parliament denied. I have always considered myself to be a roundhead, by both conviction and appearance. Although subsequent changes were less dramatic, they resulted—from precedent to precedent, effectively by case law—in the broadening of those liberties, as Parliament progressively extended its powers of control over the Executive.
Secondly, the tension or conflict between the Executive and legislature is both natural and inevitable, because Parliament and the Government have different objectives and perspectives. To ensure greater accountability and greater transparency, Parliament needs constantly to update the instruments that are available. With the 20th century explosion of information and expertise, Parliament itself has to become more expert and has to have greater access to information. The establishment of Select Committees in 1979 was a major institutional change to that end.
Thirdly, we may look with envy at the powers of the Committees of the United States Congress, but, as parliamentarians, we cannot realistically expect to transplant their experience to our country. The separation of powers in the US constitution and the looser concept of party mean that, in the US, the context and culture is fundamentally different. Our parties are more disciplined and our political culture more confrontational. It is not unknown for political leaders to change their perspective when moving from Government to Opposition, and vice versa. I recall the fulminations of a senior Conservative against what he termed elective dictatorship under the Labour Government of 1974–79, but that same senior 886 Conservative was curiously silent when Baroness Thatcher abolished the Greater London Council and introduced the poll tax.
§ Mr. Winnick
Although I am all for Select Committees doing the work that they do—I am a member of a Select Committee myself—does my hon. Friend agree that the last thing we want is to emulate the United States? There, the Committees have all the power and authority, and the Senate itself hardly debates the issues. During the Vietnam War, it was the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, not the Senate, that debated the issue. I am not in favour of more power being taken from this Chamber.
§ Mr. Anderson
I hope that I made it absolutely clear that it would be wrong to seek to transplant the US experience to our own quite different culture—"advice and consent" and various constitutional powers available to the US Congress are not available to our Parliament. It is more difficult for Select Committees to have a non-partisan debate against the background of a highly charged partisan debate in the Chamber. Parliament has to make the Government accountable, yet all its Members are elected to oppose or sustain that same Government. Therein lies part of our dilemma.
Fourthly, the problems of accountability are particularly acute in the field of foreign affairs where events move speedily, and often in crisis. There is a culture of secrecy. This is often necessary because of on-going negotiations with foreign Governments, or because of the activities of the intelligence services. Traditionally in our country, the conduct of foreign relations is Executive led and, indeed, based on the Crown prerogative. Our own Foreign Affairs Committee is probably the least powerful of all the Foreign Affairs Committees of the European Union, and we look perhaps with envy at that of Denmark or, indeed, that of Austria with its Main Committee.
Fifthly, it is hardly surprising that some of the major problems of defining the murky area, to which the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling referred, have arisen in the relationship between the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There are two main precedents. The first is to be found in the 1984–85 Session. In its inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the sinking of the General Belgrano, the Foreign Affairs Committee sought various intelligence reports which were known colloquially as the "crown jewels". Eventually, the Government in that instance agreed to give the Committee access "under appropriate security conditions". The Committee visited the Ministry of Defence to read the documents but was not allowed to make notes.
The other major precedent occurred in the 1993–94 Session. In its Pergau inquiry, the Committee was refused access to certain communications between the British and Malaysian Governments, to communications between Ministers and to advice given to Ministers. As for intergovernmental documents—those between the Malaysian and UK Governments—the Committee did in fact receive non-classified summaries. To verify the accuracy of those summaries, certain members of the 887 Committee were allowed to inspect the documents themselves. Summaries of other documents were supplied, and the Committee commented in its report:The information … requested was eventually provided under various arrangements",and it was later published as evidence.
Thus, the formal position is that the Foreign Affairs Committee cannot itself order the Foreign Secretary to produce papers. There are practical difficulties, both procedural and partisan, in exercising the powers available. It is significant that in the two key precedents—those involving the General Belgrano and the Pergau dam—the Committee was persuaded to agree a compromise with the Government, and a way was found around the difficulties.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
As I understand the current position, the Foreign Secretary has now allowed the equivalent of the arrangements that were made to examine confidential information which, in the case of the General Belgrano, involved the Ministry of Defence. I understand that he has made arrangements for the Committee to examine the telegrams that the Committee wants to see and to allow its members to make the necessary notes from them, which is in addition to what was granted in the Belgrano case. Therefore, the Committee has access to the documentation, and the Foreign Secretary has withdrawn the proviso that the information cannot be used before the Legg inquiry has reported. Is that correct?
§ Mr. Anderson
The dispute between the Foreign Secretary and the Committee has indeed moved on. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling set out the position. Originally, the dispute was on a fairly narrow but important constitutional point. The Foreign Secretary told the Committee that it could see the documents but only after the Legg inquiry, which he had appointed, had reported. He said that, until that time, any disclosure might in his view, and in that of Sir Thomas Legg, prejudice the inquiry. The Committee was not prepared to accept that condition.
Obviously, the Legg inquiry is likely to report very shortly, but it is conceivable that, at some future date, a Minister might appoint a similar person, or similar persons, to conduct an inquiry that might last several months or, indeed, years. It would be absurd to suggest to a parliamentary Committee that its inquiries should be stayed, pending the outcome of that inquiry. That is the narrow but important constitutional point on which the Committee has stood firm. Clearly, as is set out in the third paragraph of his letter to me of 30 June, the Foreign Secretary appears to have lifted that condition.
I want to emphasise the fact that the Committee stood firm. We decided as a Committee, dare I say, not to blink first. We have not blinked, and the position has moved on from that which prevailed at the time when the important sentence that forms the basis of the Opposition's motion was drafted and accepted by the Committee.
§ Dr. Godman
I am grateful that we have moved on as a Committee. We were offered a summary of the telegrams. If Committee members are given access to the telegrams before the publication of the Legg report, we will be better equipped to analyse the report itself. 888 I remind my hon. Friend that the Committee has been divided all along on the reports. My position is clear. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary should be called to give evidence to the Select Committee following the publication of the Legg report so that we can cross-examine him and then the House should debate that report and the special report of our evidence session with the Foreign Secretary. That makes a hell of a lot better sense than simply having a debate. Every Select Committee Chairman, if he or she is honest, will agree with that.
§ Mr. Anderson
My hon. Friend is correct in both points. He has set out his own position clearly and emphasised that there has not been total consensus in the Select Committee.
§ Ms Abbott
As my hon. Friend will confirm, there has not been consensus, but there has always been a clear majority. Will he confirm that it has taken two months from 12 May, when we originally wrote to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary requesting the telegrams, for him to come forward yesterday with an unconditional offer of the sight of a summary of the telegrams? Does my hon. Friend agree that if we had not reported the matter to the House—not once but twice—it is unlikely that the Foreign Secretary would have made that concession?
§ Mr. Anderson
The offer was made in his letter of 30 June and it is fair to say that, both prior to that and subsequently, there have been on-going negotiations.
§ Mr. David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden)
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman's speech, and I understand that it is a difficult issue, but there is a fundamental point of principle that matters to other Chairmen and members of Select Committees. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) has got it wrong. The fundamental issue is the access of the Select Committee to original papers. The right to interrogate the Foreign Secretary is also important, but it is not the issue in dispute. I wanted to be clear about the following point: are members of the Select Committee being given access to the telegrams, or simply to a summary of them? A summary, written by the people who may be culpable, is not the same as access to the telegrams.
§ Mr. Anderson
The position is summed up in the third paragraph of the letter of 6 July from the Foreign Secretary to me. It is a long letter, but the relevant paragraph reads as follows:In your letter you also refer to the proposed compromise by which a summary of the telegrams would be available to members of the Committee, subject to appropriate arrangements to ensure confidentiality, with two nominated members of the Committee able to visit the FCO to verify the accuracy of that summary by reference to the telegrams themselves. If the Committee accept this compromise, I will ask the responsible FCO officials to produce, as rapidly as possible, a summary.So a summary is on offer.
§ Sir George Young
It is a very important letter, perhaps produced in response to today's debate. Will the hon. Gentleman make arrangements for right hon. and hon. Members who are interested to have a copy of it?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)
Order. Perhaps it would be helpful if I informed the House that various letters which have been referred to in the debate are available in the Library and will also be copied to the Vote Office.
§ Mrs. Ann Taylor
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. May I confirm that all the relevant correspondence is in the Vote Office? The Clerk to the Foreign Affairs Committee has arranged that.
§ Sir Peter Emery
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. How can a letter sent to the Foreign Affairs Committee and not yet considered by that Committee, about matters on which the Foreign Affairs Committee has not reached a conclusion and where the Foreign Affairs Committee has the absolute right to decide whether or not evidence presented to it is published, be revealed before the Foreign Affairs Committee has taken a decision to that effect?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
That may be more in the nature of a question that might be pursued with the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. However, a request was made during today's debate that relevant documents that were being quoted from should be made available and there has been a response to that request in order to facilitate the debate.
§ Mr. Anderson
I am in a no-win situation. My point throughout has been that if the Foreign Affairs Committee is making the case for accountability and transparency, it should set an example. I would be properly criticised by the House had I decided to withhold that important letter from the House. Therefore, as Chairman, I took the decision not only to make that letter available, but, last Friday, to insist that all the relevant transcripts—which would not normally have been available to the House yet—were provided for today's debate, hopefully by way of example. Had I not done so, I would properly have been subject to criticism.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)
We just heard an intervention by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. That surprised me as the Government amendment clearly mentions that the telegrams are accessible. Had the right hon. Gentleman read the Order Paper, his intervention would have been unnecessary.
§ Mr. Anderson
I shall give way to my hon. Friend, who is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
§ Mr. Illsley
Will my hon. Friend make clear to the House that the compromise mentioned in the letter that has been circulated to Committee members today is the Chairman's own compromise and that the Foreign Secretary is responding to the compromise suggested by the Chairman of the Committee. The letter states: "In your letter"—that is the Chairman's letter—you also refer to the proposed compromise".890 The compromise was proposed by the Chairman of the Committee and was available some 10 days ago. So the compromise was available days ago and the Foreign Affairs Committee refused to take it on.
§ Mr. Anderson
I would put this gloss and explanation on my hon. Friend's point: knowing that the two precedents—General Belgrano and Pergau—amounted to a compromise between the Executive and the legislature, or between the Government and the Foreign Affairs Committee, on my own initiative I sought to obtain a compromise and I asked the Select Committee for authority to go ahead with it. On Friday June 26, I instructed the Clerk to send the Committee my own proposal which was for a summary and confidential access. I suggested that the Foreign Secretary would send the summary of the telegrams to the Committee to be seen under secure conditions, but I coupled that with my own view that, not as a condition of the above, but in consequence, the Committee would agree to stay all further proceedings on or arising from the Sandline affair until after the publication of the Legg report. That was my proposed compromise.
It is fair to say that the Foreign Secretary has gone much further towards the Committee than my suggestion. He did so in the third paragraph of his letter of 30 June in that he did not put his proposal in the context of the Committee staying all further proceedings. That was confirmed in an exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) and Sir John Kerr, the permanent under-secretary, and further confirmed by the Foreign Secretary's letter of 6 July. So it is clear that the Foreign Secretary has gone rather further than the compromise that I originally suggested.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman and I realise that he is able to make only slow progress with his speech, but it is absolutely crucial that we understand this. The compromise that was referred to in the letter of 30 June was unacceptable to the Foreign Affairs Committee because it suggested that we could no longer pursue our inquiries into any matter relating to Sierra Leone. I believe that the hon. Gentleman is now telling the House that that condition is no longer applicable, and that the Foreign Secretary in his letter of 6 July is clear that no such condition applies to the arrangements for seeing the telegrams. If that is the case, it is a major step forward. The Foreign Secretary has backed down and I welcome it, but we must be clear about it.
§ Mr. Anderson
I agree that that is a major step forward, but my construction of paragraph 3 of the letter of 30 June is that the Foreign Secretary was not even then insisting that we do not carry matters forward until after the Legg report. Paragraph 3 states:You also know that I was willing to entertain your proposed compromise by which the telegrams could be made available to the Select Committee now, subject to an assurance of confidentiality until the Legg Report is published.If there were any ambiguity in paragraph 3, that—as was said by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is a valued member of the Committee—has been overtaken by the clarification. Any ambiguities have been removed by the Foreign Secretary's letter to me of 6 July.
891 It is right that Select Committees try to understand the legitimate interests of the Executive. Equally, Governments must understand the rights and privileges of the House. The Foreign Office should be as open and accountable as possible, but we must understand that there are matters, such as personnel matters or matters of prejudice to on-going negotiations, which, if explained to a Committee, a reasonable Committee would wholly accept.
I shall skate as speedily as I can over the remaining letters and the current problem as set out in our two special reports. The special report of 21 May that the Committee made to the House speaks for itself. The Committee had asked on 12 May that the Secretary of State provide copies of those telegrams. Again, the Foreign Office had been reminded by a further letter of the precedent of the "crown jewels". The Secretary of State had effectively at that time refused access, mentioning the Legg report.
The second special report of the Select Committee was dated 23 June. It included the letter of 1 June from the Secretary of State who, after meeting me, wrote that he was prepared now to follow the Pergau precedent, but only—this was the important condition, which proved offensive to the Committee—after the publication of the Legg report. After that, the Committee met and rejected the reason for delay. We gave as our reasons, first, that the documents would remain confidential with the Committee, and secondly, that it was wrong in principle that a Secretary of State should establish a Committee and then seek to shelter behind it as a means of refusing access to information.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
Throughout the debate, there has been reference to Legg and the fact that potential disciplinary action should not be prejudiced. That is a dangerous precedent, because the same argument could be advanced in the case of any Select Committee. I shall postulate a hypothetical example to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and to the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons. If Mr. Derek Draper's boss decided to hold an internal inquiry that could lead to disciplinary proceedings, would the Standards and Privileges Select Committee decline to investigate the matter until Mr. Derek Draper's boss had completed his investigations? I do not like discrimination in favour of Government. If we accept the argument that Legg can put everything on ice, it could be advanced by every employer in the country.
§ Mr. Anderson
I would say that the discrimination is in favour not of Government, but of individuals and the natural justice that allows an individual not to be pilloried without the opportunity to reply. The matter should not be imposed unilaterally by any Minister, but should be put to a Committee. If there were a sensitive personnel matter, a reasonable Committee would, I hope, agree.
In an attempt to make progress, I shall not quote paragraphs 5 and 6 of the second report, but it is true that one sentence has been drawn from paragraph 6 by the motion and not put in the original context. It is not a general request. In the context of paragraphs 5 and 6, the condition of waiting until Legg was the Committee's main concern.
§ Mr. David Davis
I apologise for intervening again. I understand the difficulty that the hon. Gentleman is 892 facing, and I sympathise. May I extend the point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay)? We have in the House clear guidelines on sub judice matters, which apply to Select Committees, to protect the rights of individuals. They are limited to well-defined items from the criminal courts, courts martial, civil courts and tribunals set up under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921. Even so, the Speaker has the right to waive that sub judice protection. We are discussing an extension of that, on the say-so of any Government Minister, without limit. That is the danger to which we must face up.
§ Mr. Anderson
Not on the say-so of any Government Minister, and not without limits. If, in the circumstances of a particular case, a Committee could be persuaded that to go public might prejudice a particular individual in subsequent disciplinary proceedings, in my judgment a reasonable Committee might then conclude that it should respond positively. Those are the conditions that I would place on the matter.
I shall try to make progress. The key fact is that an offer was made on 30 June. I quoted the element in paragraph 3 of the Secretary of State's report. That same day, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) put the following question to Sir John Kerr:Am I right in interpreting paragraph 3 correctly, that the Foreign Secretary is willing to make the telegraphs available to the Committee right now subject only to an assurance of confidentiality until the Legg Report is published? Is that his position?Sir John Kerr replied:That is my understanding, yes.I congratulate my hon. Friend on putting his finger on the key question.
The Committee has not yet reached a view on the further steps and on the welcome move made by the Foreign Secretary. When the Committee further considers the matter on Bastille day, 14 July, it will be my recommendation to the Committee that we accept the position now put to us by the Foreign Secretary.
§ Dr. Godman
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for displaying his characteristic courtesy. With an appalling lack of modesty, may I remind him of the following question that I asked Sir John Kerr? I refer to paragraph 478 of the document, on page 38. I asked:Is the Foreign Secretary aware of the paramount importance of confidentiality attached by the House to unreported evidence and to the heavy penalties the House imposes on those who, if you like, transgress the rule of the House?Sir John Kerr answered, as my hon. Friend may recall:I cannot answer for him but I would have thought the chances are yes, indeed.
§ Mr. Anderson
I thank my hon. Friend. Perhaps the Foreign Secretary had not fully appreciated two matters—first, that the Committee can move into private session, and secondly, that if my right hon. Friend feared that a member or members of the Committee would leak any confidential information and cause prejudice, strong weapons are available to the House. There is the precedent, which my hon. Friend cited, of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in about 1978, who was brought before the House because of such a leak. In my judgment, those two matters are important.
893 The Secretary of State's new offer gives the Committee the substance of what it has requested from the start, and as I have said, I shall certainly recommend on 14 July that the Committee accept it. An offer was made on 6 July to meet the Committee on 16 July, before the publication of the Legg report, and again on 28 July, after publication, with a promise that if the Committee accepted the compromise in the Foreign Secretary's letter of 30 June, he would instruct his officials to prepare a summary as rapidly as possible.
I replied today, first accepting both offers of meetings, on 16 July and on 28 July—ad referendum, after discussion by the Committee, because we try to run a democratic Committee—and secondly, expressing the hope that if the Committee accepts the offer on 14 July, the relevant documents can be made available speedily.
In conclusion, I must speak about the motion, and my difficulties with it. First, the motion is expressed in absolute terms, when some qualification of the principle is clearly necessary. Paragraph 6 of the second special report, from which it has been lifted, must be read in the context of the preceding paragraph, paragraph 5.
Secondly, the motion has been overtaken by events. There are always dangers in proceeding from the particular to the general. The words that the motion takes from our second special report were originally used in the context of the idea that a Government should not set up its own inquiry and thereafter shelter behind that inquiry to prevent a Select Committee from having access to relevant documents.
The Committee has never sought to establish the principle that it has an unqualified right of access to all documents. That would be against precedent and reason—the precedents both of the Belgrano and of Pergau. It would also be against the principle that there must be circumstances in which Government and Parliament will agree that, for good reasons, documents will be withheld and may remain confidential.
In my judgment there is now within the grasp of the Foreign Affairs Committee the establishment of the principle that we sought to establish. We were determined not to blink first—a phrase that I have borrowed from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). I shall therefore recommend to the Committee that we accept the offer. Unfortunately, the Foreign Secretary chose not to make that offer immediately. Perhaps he had not fully appreciated the points about confidentiality, or about the weapons available to the House if Members breach that confidentiality.
That said, it is clear that the Foreign Secretary has moved, and that the Committee has not yet reached a collective view, so the motion has been overtaken by events. It is in any case too absolute in its claims.
§ Mr. Wells
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, especially as he is summing up; he has exercised what his hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) described as his characteristic courtesy. There is one outstanding point that I hope that he will address—a point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley). Is the Foreign Secretary prepared to come before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and if the 894 Committee agrees to go into confidential mode, is he prepared, under confidence, to answer the Committee's questions relating to the inquiry that it is undertaking into the circumstances surrounding the supply of arms to Sierra Leone?
§ Mr. Anderson
That is an important question; we are dealing with a moving situation. I hope that when we reach the discussion with the Foreign Secretary on 16 July, my right hon. Friend will, indeed, speak fully and openly. If he says that there are some matters that are confidential, it will then be necessary for the Committee to decide, with the Foreign Secretary, whether it is appropriate to go into private session. However, we have not yet reached that position.
I hope that the House will now agree that if the Committee accepts the offer on the table, it will successfully have stood its ground, and this whole affair will be seen as an important precedent establishing the principle that we set out as important in our second special report—a principle that we have now established for the House.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
This is a debate which, for a number of reasons, should not be happening. The first of those reasons is the 11th-hour climbdown by the Foreign Secretary. Had that happened a little earlier, I am sure that it would have satisfied the Foreign Affairs Committee, on which I serve, on the narrow point of the telegrams.
Secondly, it is regrettable that the debate is taking place in official Opposition time, because that suggests a political polarity about the issue which, on the evidence of our discussions in the Committee, should not be there.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we have repeatedly asked the Leader of the House to provide time? We accept that the present procedure is a regrettable alternative, but I do not think that we would have reached this stage had we not tabled the motion; certainly there would have been no debate.
§ Mr. Heath
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course he is right; the matter would not have come to the House. None the less, I still think that it is regrettable that it has done so in a context that means that it will be seen as a polarised issue, rather than, as it should be, as a matter for the consideration of all hon. Members in all parts of the House.
§ Mr. Davis
I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon for intervening so soon, but is he aware that I agree with him that it is unfortunate that we have had to hold the debate in Opposition time, because of the colour that it casts on the debate? However, the Government have not only failed to respond to those eight requests; they have ignored their own guidelines in the Osmotherley rules, under which the Government have given a commitment in the past that where there is evidence of widespread 895 general concern in the House regarding alleged ministerial refusal to divulge information, they would seek to provide time for the House to debate that matter.
§ Mr. Heath
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I accept his point entirely.
The last reason why we should not be having this debate is that the Government should not be in the position in which, as a result of their actions over recent weeks, they find themselves. The old cliché, "When you are in hole, stop digging," is appropriate, because the hole is entirely of the Foreign Secretary's making. Moreover, the depth of the hole is disproportionate to anything that may or may not be found at the bottom of it.
I do not understand why the Foreign Office and the Foreign Secretary have allowed the affair to progress in such a manner to a point at which a major matter of principle is involved, although we started with a Select Committee simply doing its job in a straightforward way. That is strange, coming from the Foreign Secretary of all people. I have considerable respect for him, and I am disappointed in the line that he has chosen to take.
It is a misfortune that many hon. Members have focused so tightly on the issue of the telegrams, because there is a much wider issue—the fact that we have been given a blank refusal to answer a series of wider questions that we have sought to put to the permanent secretary and others. That is especially so, as the arguments adduced by the permanent secretary on behalf of the Foreign Secretary seem so inadequate.
As other hon. Members have said, the issue is not essentially about Sierra Leone but about the rights of a Committee of the House, and about the duty of the legislature to scrutinise the Executive. It is crucial that we do not give any future Minister the "get out of gaol free" card that says that simply setting up an internal inquiry is a sufficient reason for avoiding answering questions properly put by a Select Committee.
I must say, although in doing so I may lose the support of some hon. Members in this corner of the House, that I find it ironic that the motion should have been tabled by the Conservative party, with its record on arms to Iraq and the Scott report. It is not surprising that no quotation from the Scott report has been given so far in the debate; perhaps I can correct that imbalance. On page 503, paragraph D4.58 of volume 1 of the Scott report says:If, and to the extent that, the account given by a Minister to Parliament, whether in answering PQs, or in a debate, or to a Select Committee, withholds information on the matter under review, it is not a full account, and the obligation to account for what has happened, or for what is being done, has, prima facie, not been discharged. Without the provision of full information it is not possible for Parliament, or for that matter the public, to hold the executive fully to account. It follows, in my opinion, that the withholding of information by an accountable Minister should never be based on reasons of convenience or for the avoidance of political embarrassment and should always require special and strong justification.Those are vital words in terms of this debate. We must ask what is the "special and strong justification" given by the Foreign Secretary in this case.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
As a fellow member of the Select Committee, may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman thinks that this game could have been circumvented if the Committee had decided to carry out an investigation into 896 whether arms were supplied to anyone in Sierra Leone, and if we had decided to send for the Secretary of State as the responsible Cabinet Minister? We could have confronted all this head on at the time. Would not that have been the best way forward?
§ Mr. Heath
That is an interesting suggestion. Had we done so on those terms, we would have been exactly duplicating the Legg inquiry—which the Committee has been at pains not to do.
That was the first objection from the Secretary of State—that the Committee was duplicating the work of the Legg inquiry. That is clearly not so. If the Committee had wanted to investigate the precise area that the Legg inquiry was put in place to look into, it would have summoned Tim Spicer of Sandline; it would have summoned Mr. Penfold, the high commissioner in Sierra Leone; it would have summoned John Flynn, the special adviser; it would have summoned Colonel Andrew Gale; and it would have summoned Rupert Bowen, the slightly shadowy figure who may or may not have something to do with MI6 activity in the area. Those are the people to whom we would have wished to talk if we were looking precisely at the issue of arms sales by Sandline or others in Sierra Leone.
§ Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)
I wish to add something to the list of people whom my hon. Friend suggested. I should like the Government to provide to the Defence Committee the cables and signals between HMS Cornwall and the Ministry of Defence during February. I should like the Government to state whether there were any direct communications from the Foreign Office to the high commissioner via HMS Cornwall while she was in the area during February. Some interesting answers may come from the signals sent to and from that ship.
§ Mr. Illsley
The hon. Gentleman said that we did not want to duplicate the Legg inquiry and that had we done so, we would have called Mr. Spicer and the list of other characters. The Committee decided specifically against calling the persons to whom he has just referred. If we do not want to duplicate the Legg inquiry, why is there so much fuss about seeing the telegrams?
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman makes exactly the point that I am trying to make. I have been critical in the Committee of the adventitious nature of the inquiry on which we seem to have embarked. We do not seem to have a clear focus, but sufficient problems have been raised by the evidence that we have received to be of proper concern to the Committee. We have heard self-contradictory and wholly inadequate evidence—as would be confirmed even by those who gave that evidence—on the part of Ministers and the permanent secretary. Some of the inadequacies have had to be corrected later.
There is at least prima facie evidence of two policies being pursued in Sierra Leone, one being the official Government policy, and the other—apparently without 897 any knowledge of Ministers, whom I absolve of any responsibility—on the ground in Sierra Leone. That is worrying. There is prima facie evidence of inadequate communications within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There is prima facie evidence of a lack of focus in the arms sales controls that are in place.
Those are proper issues for the Select Committee to look into, which have nothing to do with the Legg inquiry. The second objection by the Foreign Secretary—that this is not the Committee's business and that it should be looking at other things—simply cannot be pursued. What I have just said is sufficient to debunk that suggestion.
§ Mr. Wells
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who has given way a great deal. I know how difficult it is to keep the theme of one's speech going with constant interruptions. However, he made a statement just then that I would like clarified. Did he say that two policies could be pursued by the Foreign Office—one that the Minister knows about and for which the House could hold him responsible, and another pursued by officials which, if the Minister does not know about it, would be perfectly okay?
§ Mr. Heath
I am certainly not saying that it would be perfectly okay if officers of the Government—at whatever level—were to pursue a policy that was not known or supported by Ministers of the Crown. That would be quite improper. Nor am I suggesting that that has taken place. I am saying that there is evidence which might suggest that. If that is the case, it is the proper province of the Select Committee.
The third objection by the Secretary of State is that the Committee would somehow pre-empt the Legg inquiry by conducting any line of inquiry, putting any questions or coming to any conclusions. I find that hard to reconcile with the Foreign Secretary's letter to the Chairman of the Committee, dated 30 June, in which he says quite flatly:There was no ministerial conspiracy to breach the arms embargo. There was no connivance within Whitehall to breach the arms embargo.That would appear, at first sight, to rule out any grounds for an inquiry at all—unless it is read that "Whitehall" is important, in which case it may be that the Secretary of State feels that there are people within the Government service not based in Whitehall who may have connived. If interpreted in that way, that statement suggests to me a pre-emption of the Legg inquiry. That is dangerous ground for the Secretary of State, but I assure the House that I do not believe that any member of the Select Committee would wish to pre-empt the inquiry in that way.
The fourth objection has been dealt with by other hon. Members—that somehow it was improper to look into those areas because they were effectively sub judice. Legg, as has been pointed out, is not a judicial inquiry—it is an internal inquiry, carried out by someone with legal training, but who is, essentially, a civil servant. Although I have every confidence in his credentials for doing the job that he has been asked to do, he is nevertheless a mandarin looking into the activities of mandarins for mandarins. That is different from a Select Committee of the House looking at the same issue.
Even if one accepts the Secretary of State's assertion that the Legg inquiry has a legitimacy and that the Select Committee should not at this stage look into it, the fifth 898 objection comes into play—that all the questions that we wish to put coincidentally happen to fall within the ambit of the Legg inquiry. In a glorious passage during his evidence to the Committee, the permanent secretary advanced the doctrine of the expanding reservation. He illustrated graphically how it could embrace almost any question that we chose to ask if he felt that Sir Thomas Legg might ask a question in the same general area. That cannot be a justification for not answering questions posed in a Select Committee meeting.
The inquiry's terms of reference are clear and clearly limited. The Foreign Secretary referred to them in that same letter when he mentioned the handling within the FCO of relations with Sandline. They are precisely the areas that the Committee does not wish to examine at this stage because we recognise that, if we were to do so, we would duplicate the work of the Legg inquiry. There is no justification for stating simply that one will not answer questions about matters that are within the proper province of the Committee.
The sixth objection—which I find rather insulting to the Foreign Affairs Committee, and to which the Chairman has already referred—is that we cannot be trusted to maintain confidentiality or to understand issues of national interest when disclosing information in telegrams. We are not Downing street lackeys or graduates of the Mandelson school for public relations men: we know where our responsibilities as Committee members lie. If we are entrusted with information that is confidential, we shall maintain that confidentiality in the national interest. We understand also that it is not appropriate to allow the verbatim release of telegrams that may have security connotations. That would be a gift to those who are not friendly to this country. We understand those things, and that is why we were prepared to find ways of not revealing confidences while continuing to do our work.
The Foreign Secretary has constructed a rampart against proper inquiry on the part of the Select Committee. A simple investigation of detail has been elevated into a matter of proper parliamentary principle. Civil servants and Ministers have performed lamentably, and I suspect that they have done lasting damage to their reputations. We have witnessed the refusal to answer questions, and obduracy in the face of reasonable questioning, which has served only to stiffen the Committee's resolve.
We have also had the off-stage noises. We have heard—the claims have not been substantiated—about the attempted bullying of Committee members. There has been quite extraordinary reportage in the past few days about the supposed motivation of Labour Members on the Committee. Such character assassination is wholly unacceptable. It suggests motivation that is different from their proper role as Committee members, and I have seen them perform that role with great dedication in the past year.
The Prime Minister's misleading statement to the House last week—it has been touched on this afternoon—regarding the position of the telegrams and our rejection of that position is compounded by the Government amendment on the Order Paper. No offer was made in the terms described without a conditionality attached that the Committee could not accept. In any case, the Committee did not accept or reject the offer because it was not put to the Committee.
899 We have witnessed some hon. Members attempting to politicise the issue and we have had the infelicitous use of archaic procedure in an attempt to stifle questioning in the Committee. The Leader of the House has apparently refused to bring not one, but two, special reports of the Committee before the House for discussion. This is an inglorious episode for a Government who take pride—or perhaps I should say refuge—in the rhetoric of open government. I believe that the Foreign Secretary's actions have been ill considered and, at times, intemperate. They are wholly out of true with his reputation for intelligence, principle and candour. He has piled the Ossa of obstruction on the Pelion of contempt for the Committee. Is it any surprise that the Foreign Secretary's actions have stimulated more questions and the issue has not been allowed to subside?
I believe that the Liberal Democrats are not alone in being extremely disappointed with the Government's behaviour on this issue. I suspect that some Labour Members share our disappointment and are embarrassed by the position in which the Government find themselves. There has been an attempt today at de-escalation and to accommodate the Committee on the subject of the telegrams. That is wholly welcome and I shall agree to that proposal in the Committee.
At the end of the day, we shall look back on this episode and see that Ministers have not been greatly at fault—if they have been at fault at all. I think that we shall find deficiencies in the workings of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that we should examine. Most of all, we shall find that, through their actions in respect of their relationships with the Committee, Ministers have managed to escalate a small matter into a serious matter for the whole House. I hope that, when we come to vote, the parliamentary majority will not be used to stifle the proper views of the House regarding the rights of Committees.
I have great difficulty when hon. Members start talking about the high court of Parliament; I always check the spoons when that happens because it is normally a case of pomposity overriding common sense. Nevertheless, there are times when we must stress the paramount importance of the House and its Committees in holding the Executive to account. This is one such occasion. Before I conclude, I shall give way.
§ Mr. David Davis
The hon. Gentleman is as kind as ever. He has almost answered my question in drawing conclusions from the experience of his Select Committee. Is not the most important conclusion that no future Select Committee should be faced with a ministerial inquiry—let us be clear about it—that is apparently designed to fend off questioning from that Committee?
§ Mr. Heath
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I do not accept that the inquiry was established in order to fend off questioning from the Foreign Affairs Committee. I accept that the Foreign Secretary established the inquiry in good faith. However, it has been used to stifle debate—that is the key point. I return to my earlier point: no Minister should have a "get out of gaol free" card that says that, if there is something awkward down the track, an inquiry will be established, no questions will be asked, no Select Committee will be allowed to investigate and the House will be none the wiser about 900 deficiencies in a Department or on the part of Ministers. That is unacceptable, and I invite the House to agree with that view when hon. Members vote this evening.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
I share the regret expressed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that it was decided to debate this subject on an Opposition day, which has overtones of parliamentary controversy based upon party. That is a great pity. I agree with the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), who opened the debate, that Select Committees are more important now as a result of the Government's majority. Select Committees are able to investigate matters that the House of Commons, which is overloaded on one side, cannot, and can hold the Government to account.
Apart from the six years that I spent at the Treasury, I have been a member or Chairman of a Select Committee for almost all of my parliamentary life. Even during my six years at the Treasury, I was an ex officio member of the Public Accounts Committee. The task of Select Committees has changed fundamentally: we do not realise the changes that have occurred over the years. Select Committees have grown in importance even since 1979 when the new form of Select Committees was introduced.
The task of Select Committees is not to copy or to pre-empt the sort of discussions and debates that take place in the House—there are plenty of opportunities to do that in the Chamber. Select Committees provide the opportunity to produce a report based upon proper investigation and repeat questioning of witnesses, which is not possible in the House. Everyone soon learns the tricks of being able to avoid even the most brilliant question, but one cannot do that when the question is asked again and again. That occurs frequently in Select Committees, and Ministers are called to give evidence again and again.
Those permanent secretaries who appear before the Public Accounts Committee know that, if Committee members have second thoughts about the issue several months hence, they will be brought back before the Committee for questioning. That kind of scrutiny is not possible anywhere else in our political system. There has been an extension of that over a period.
Where Select Committees are unanimous, they have enormous power. When a Committee is divided, it does not receive the same attention that it will receive when there is unanimity. I speak with some experience because, when I was the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, I had 550-odd reports, and every one was unanimous. That was not bogus or botched unanimity but genuine unanimity. As a result of that, we had enormous power. A Select Committee can have that power if it goes back to the matter again. Changes will take place that will even increase the power of a Select Committee because so much is dependent on Select Committees in this Parliament.
Good relations between the members of Select Committees are crucial. It saddens me greatly to see a Committee that is divided. It is important to establish trust between members of a Committee. I was a member of the Expenditure Committee that examined money supply back in 1979, when the then Government became addicted 901 to money supply. I had a great deal of respect for Tim Eggar and I achieved a great deal of agreement with him. We did a deal. We agreed that there were certain nonsenses in monetarism and we produced a report that showed that there were deficiencies in monetarism. That went wholly against the then Government. However, there was respect among members of the Committee for one another.
My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr. Radice) has taken this process much further. He has produced a sensible way of establishing seminars where Members discuss things among themselves. That creates confidence among people. We shall not deal with the big political issues. Of course, we cannot do that and we do not want to. We want to avoid them. However, in the limited areas in which Select Committees can operate, they should operate on a basis of trust. That trust was obviously not evident in the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. That was a great shame. It was a pity. If there had been the trust that I have described, it would not have been necessary to come to the House. Instead, the Select Committee would have come to the Liaison Committee. I had means of doing things and I was going to do them if we had not had a report. That would have been the right approach if there had been unanimity. Do not think that success will be achieved by weight of numbers in a vote. Success is achieved by agreements, and let us make those as strong as we might. That is the way to do it.
Developments have continued. I pay tribute again to my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham, who introduced confirmatory hearings. I do not know how far that will go, but developments are taking place. Developments are possible in this Parliament partly because of its nature, and I approve of that wholly.
There were other ways of dealing with the matters that are before us. I shall tell a story about myself and the Al Yamamah contract, one of the most secret matters that ever came before the Public Accounts Committee. What did I do with it? The Committee had to investigate it, but I could see that there was a possibility of leaks. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) as well as to the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that I have been a member of the Liaison Committee ever since it was set up back in 1983. There were leaks again, again and again, and I knew where most of them came from—from members of Committees. Let us not fool ourselves about that.
If we are to deal with highly secretive matters, we cannot entrust a Select Committee to deal with them. So how is it to be done? There are means of proceeding, and I adopted them in dealing with the Al Yamamah contract. I approached the then senior Conservative member of the PAC, Sir Michael Shaw—Lord Shaw as he now is—and we went into the matters surrounding the contract. I decided that we would meet in my Room. The two of us operated as a PAC. If there were matters that showed that somebody had made big commissions—there were one or two important people in the public news who were supposed to have made great fortunes out of the contract—and if I had found them, they would have gone straight back to the PAC, and we would have produced a report upon those matters. However, we did not do that. We found that there was no evidence of anything like that.
902 The National Audit Office does not have the power to follow public money wherever it goes. That is a power which I have argued for, and we are making some progress in that respect. However, we did not have such powers at the time of the A1 Yamamah contract. Although we could have our suspicions, there was no proof of anything. I was able to produce a report that showed that there were certain things that had to remain strictly confidential, strictly secret. We acted in that way. I informed the PAC of what I had done, and its members had sufficient confidence in the two of us, myself and the then Sir Michael Shaw, to accept that. There were matters involving jobs, and there could have been great problems for the country.
There is a problem with sensitive matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East rightly referred to the Pergau dam. On that occasion, the permanent secretary came along with a note of dissent. Every permanent secretary has the right to produce such a note stating that he did not agree with the expenditure of certain moneys, in effect saying, "Please do not blame me when I come before the Public Accounts Committee." That is what the permanent secretary said, and we found out that he had written his note of dissent to the then Minister for Overseas Development, Lynda Chalker, Lady Chalker as she is now. She pointed out that she was overridden by the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd. He pointed out that he was overridden by the Prime Minister.
At that point, the matter became too involved with foreign affairs for the Public Accounts Committee and so we passed it on to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. Incidentally, and most importantly, all notes of dissent now come automatically to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. That did not happen at the time I am talking about. That happened only if there was an inquiry and it was discovered that there was something wrong. It was only then that the note of dissent had any significance. Now it has significance at all times. The present Chairman of the PAC has probably by now had his initiation into notes of dissent.
§ Mr. Sheldon
In fact, they are not all that bad, which rather pleased me. However, that is another matter.
Other matters involved the Department of Trade and Industry—the export licensing matter—and arms to Iraq. These were matters of confidentiality. There is something similar in the matter that is before us. We could have a solution similar to that which was arrived at with the A1 Yamamah contract, and there could not be anything much more secretive than that issue.
The Liaison Committee had its meeting, and the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East pointed out the problems and sought the assistance of my Committee. That was a sensible thing to do. We want greater political weight to show the Government, quite rightly, that those are important matters. We agreed that I should see my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, and that there was the possibility of the Speaker becoming involved. If that failed, we agreed that possibly there would be a debate in the Chamber. As I have said, those are important matters. What I have set out is what I did. That was the solution I was going to put forward in dealing with the matter. We cannot rely on all those matters coming to a Select Committee.
903 I am not making any criticism of any member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I do not think that the present membership of that Select Committee is unique among all the Select Committees that I have known during my period of involvement. I should be very happy if it were. I cannot prove the matter either way. On the basis of experience, however, I would say that the course that has been taken is not the way to proceed. I was going to put my solution forward, but it was pre-empted by the debate, which I am rather sad about.
I had hoped for a solution similar to the one to which I have referred. The aim of a Select Committee is to maintain confidentiality where it is necessary, and I believe that I found one way to ensure that confidentiality. I look forward to its being used, perhaps, in similar circumstances whenever such a matter may arise in future. If a Government refused to co-operate—I would be surprised—the proper avenue is through the Liaison Committee, getting the support of the Chairman. That will enable us to go further into the issue.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
Given my right hon. Friend's experience and in view of what he has said, in future, putting aside the specific matter that is before us, would it not be a good idea if the Legg type of appointment were the property of the Select Committee, just as the parliamentary ombudsman reports to a Select Committee? Somebody like Sir Thomas Legg could do the initial groundwork for a report to a Select Committee, rather than there being an appointment made of a person answerable to the Executive branch of Government.
§ Mr. Sheldon
I should not like to make a comment on that particular case.
I finish with a quotation from volume 1 of the Liaison Committee's first report of 18 February 1997. Sir Terence Higgins, now Lord Higgins, produced the report, and paragraph 8 on the powers to summon persons, papers and records, said:When the Departmental Select Committee was established … it was acknowledged that committees' general powers to send for persons, papers and records did not extend to ordering the attendance of Ministers nor to the production of specific Government papers.It refers to certain undertakings and finishes by sayingThese undertakings have been amplified in the intervening period.They have continued to be amplified and they will continue to be amplified. The important aspect of this debate is to show that there is much progress yet to be made, and I look forward to seeing it.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me. I have come from Copenhagen and the parliamentary assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and I must return immediately I sit down. Therefore, I apologise to the two Front-Bench spokesmen for the fact that I shall not be here when they reply.
First, I want to clear up one matter which I raised with the Leader of the House, and on which she suggested that I was not accurate. It has been referred to, but, in my own defence, I must make it absolutely clear. I said that the aspect of the agreement that might be a compromise, 904 that was not accepted by the Foreign Affairs Committee, was set out in the note summarising the Chairman's position as put to the Foreign Secretary. It states:For its part"—the Committee's part—not as a condition of the above but in consequence, the Committee would agree to stay all further proceedings on or arising from the Sandline affair until after the publication of the Legg Report.It was that which was not accepted by the Select Committee. It is important that that should be made absolutely clear.
The Foreign Secretary, in his letter of 30 June, said:You also know that I was willing to entertain your proposed compromise".That was the compromise of the Chairman of the Select Committee, which the Select Committee had rejected. That needs to be made absolutely clear at the start.
I follow the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), for whom I have great respect. He is obviously correct to say that Select Committees have the greatest authority when they are unanimous. There is no doubt about that. For 14 years, as Chairman of the Procedure Committee, I was able to make every one of our reports unanimous and they had some effect—not as much I should like, but some effect indeed.
The difficulty in the Foreign Affairs Committee is something with which the right hon. Gentleman never had to deal as the Chairman of various Committees, and that is the Foreign Secretary's complete arrogance in dealing with the Committee's requests. The Committee wanted papers. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary had said quite openly that they had nothing to hide. According to the Prime Minister, it was all hoo-hah. We then asked for the telegrams from Sierra Leone and the notes and minutes of the five members of the Foreign Office who had met Sandline's officials during the period. If those had been produced and there was nothing to hide, the whole matter would have finished. It would have stopped. The Government would have been proved correct. When they were not produced, when those requests were not met, is it surprising that immediately people asked, "Why, what is there to hide? Why won't you produce the documents?"
§ Mr. Kilfoyle
Given the comment made earlier by the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) when he said, "The Foreign Secretary was perfectly within his rights in the position that he has taken", is the right hon. Gentleman suggesting now that the basis of his support for the Opposition's motion is a value judgment based on what he describes as the Foreign Secretary's arrogance?
§ Sir Peter Emery
Of course that is not right. Let me use an example that I did not intend to use. The Foreign Secretary wrote to the Committee on 30 June. The Committee had not had that letter before the spin doctors outside the Committee were telling the world what was in it. I remind the Minister that that was incorrect because it was entirely contrary to the proceedings set out in 905 "Departmental Evidence and Response to Select Committees", the second document of the "Ministerial Code" which is signed by the Prime Minister himself, in which it says:Once information has been supplied to a Committee it becomes 'evidence' and, subject to any agreement with the Committee on the non-publication of protectively marked information…it is entirely up to the Committee whether or not to publish it and report it".It may be well said that a letter is not evidence. Paragraph 107(b) states:A Memorandum by a Department to the Committee, or a letter from a Minister to the Chairman may be a more readily applicable form of response … Unlike a Command Paper, such responses are, formally, further evidence to the Committee and are therefore subject to the usual conventions on submitted evidence".Therefore, there was arrogance from the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office in the way in which they treated the Committee in the publication of that letter before the Committee had even had it. That is pretty arrogant in anybody's book, and I think it necessary to point it out.
The Committee is concerned not simply with an inquiry about Sandline, but with the operation of the Foreign Office—its responsibility to Ministers and the responsibility of Ministers to its civil servants. Who knew what and when with regard to arms to Sierra Leone? If Ministers knew, why did they not say that they knew, and, if they did not, why not?
I have pursued a line of questioning about the reference of Sandline to the Customs and Excise Committee set up to investigate the export of arms in breach of British regulations. I asked how many times the United Nations arms embargo and British law had been broken. When I asked the Foreign Secretary that in a debate, he said it was about 200. That was misleading. It was entirely incorrect. When, three weeks later, we nailed the response, there had been only three, one of which was Sandline.
Do we really believe that, with an ethical foreign policy, the breach of the United Nations' regulation and British law on the export of arms is so unimportant not to be referred to Ministers? I have been a parliamentary private secretary in the Foreign Office. I have great regard for the working of the Foreign Office, but I find it nearly unbelievable that something of that nature, which was brought about on 18 February, is supposedly not seen by the Foreign Secretary until the end of April or the beginning of May. I said in questioning that I found it unbelievable that that had not been referred to Ministers. It was an Exocet in a Red Box. It was likely to cause parliamentary questions to be asked—indeed, it was likely to cause an inquiry—and here we are debating it. Is the Foreign Office really so inefficient that those matters were not referred to Ministers? If that is the case, something has to be done about it; if it is not, there are great worries. Parliament has a right to investigate the matter and carry it further to make certain that we can put our finger on where the problems are.
Everyone is suggesting that we have the correct solution because we have forced the Foreign Secretary finally to give way on our request to see documents—under security prospects, as we have always agreed—but he has given way only so far. In his letter of 6 July, 906 which is now in the public domain, but which I did not have until I came into the Chamber this afternoon, he says:I will not be able, before the completion of the report, to disclose information on matters which may fall within Sir Thomas Legg's remit.The Foreign Secretary is still saying, "The blazes with Parliament; my report and my investigation should take precedence over the work of the Select Committee." I believe that that is wrong, and the House should condemn it. No Secretary of State should have the right to appoint a committee so that he can say to any Select Committee, "I am not going to answer your questions on that matter until the committee has reported." That is what is being said.
The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) shakes his head, but the Foreign Secretary has said that hewill not be able, before the completion of the report, to disclose information on matters which may fall within Sir Thomas Legg's remit.That is plain enough, and the permanent secretary, with great embarrassment, has had to shelter behind the fact that he could not answer ordinary questions needing only a truthful answer because he had been instructed by Ministers not so to do. I shall give way, very briefly, to the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde.
§ Dr. Godman
I promise that I shall be brief; the right hon. Gentleman sounds like my old sergeant major.
I am willing to wait for Legg, on the understanding that we cross-examine my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on the text of the report and its findings. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Foreign Secretary agreed in his letter to appear before the Select Committee on Tuesday 28 July. He says:At that point, assuming that Sir Thomas Legg's report has been published, I will be in a position to respond in full to questions from the Committee.As a member of that Committee, I shall hold him to that promise.
§ Sir Peter Emery
The hon. Gentleman's point is fair and definite. He has always held the view that it was quite all right for the Select Committee to wait until after the Legg inquiry to cross-examine. My point, which has also been made by several members of the Committee, is that I do not believe that the setting up of an inquiry such as Legg's should be allowed to stop a Select Committee putting questions to the permanent secretary, who sheltered behind the Legg inquiry, or to Ministers and the Foreign Secretary, who has said in his letter that hewill not be able, before the completion of the report, to disclose information on matterswhich might concern Legg.
Legg is only a civil servant. What right has that committee to be thought greater than a Select Committee of the House? I put that to the permanent secretary at the Foreign Office, asking, "Do you consider that the Legg inquiry or your answers should take precedence over a Select Committee of the House?" For once, he gave a truthful answer—"No, I don't,"—and then he hid behind Legg for the remainder of his answers. That is what we are complaining about, and that is what we find wrong.
907 The way in which the Foreign Secretary has approached this matter has been arrogant, and we have not seen that from other Ministers; I think that he should resign. His behaviour has been quite incorrect, and the idea that he will be able to talk fairly about an ethical foreign policy when he has been so damned unethical with the Foreign Affairs Committee makes me laugh. He should go, and his resignation should be with the Prime Minister before the end of the debate.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross (Dundee, West)
I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee; I have listened to some interesting contributions to the debate, and I am sure that there will be many more.
§ Mr. Ross
They will be very interesting.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) said that the Foreign Affairs Committee was conducting an inquiry into Sierra Leone. Some of us had great difficulty following him from that point: the fact is that we are not—and never have been—conducting such an investigation. As far as I am concerned, that is the main problem, although I shall come to other problems in a moment.
It must be made clear, so that no one is in any doubt, that there is no record, in any minutes, of the Foreign Affairs Committee deciding to inquire into the actions surrounding what has happened in respect of Sierra Leone.
§ Ms Abbott
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, because he is anxious to make progress, but is not it pedantic to say that we are not conducting an inquiry into Sierra Leone? On more than one occasion, the Committee has questioned civil servants about Ministers in respect of events concerning Sierra Leone—as it is quite entitled to do as part of its general remit. Is not my hon. Friend's insistence that we are not officially conducting an inquiry rather pedantic?
§ Mr. Ross
I shall come to the reason why I believe that we were not confronted with a decision to conduct an inquiry. As my hon. Friend knows, I think that we have been involved in a game; she has been at most of the meetings where we have discussed the matter, and I have put that position forward. That game is being played in the Chamber tonight, which is why what I have said is important, not pedantic. Either we are carrying out an inquiry or we are not, and we are not.
We are trying to investigate a human rights report and the moral foreign policy that the Government have said that they intend to implement, but we cannot get on with that because we are being sidelined on issues that may or may not relate to the Sierra Leone problem.
We are not carrying out an inquiry because members of the Committee cannot agree what to do; as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said, that is the problem. Some members of the Committee want to conduct an inquiry into the whole issue of Sierra Leone; some support a parallel inquiry and believe that that would be the best way to proceed, although it may not be possible to proceed; 908 and others believe that the best way forward is to wait until Legg reports and then have an inquiry with the Foreign Secretary answering, when we have the advantage of having the report in our hands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has already posed the question, but why are we not investigating the actions of Her Majesty's Government and their agents in the coup in Sierra Leone, subsequent actions in the area and at the United Nations, and the Government's determination to restore through democratic means the rightful, elected Government of President Kabbah?
The other suggestion that has been dragged across the debate, and which has been put to me by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), is that we are not seeking to replicate the Legg inquiry. I accept that that has probably been his position throughout. However, every Committee member knows that, even on the narrow line of questioning that some hon. Members allege they wish to pursue, some would deliberately stray into the domain of the Legg report. They would intentionally cause conflict to gain party political points rather than to gain knowledge. That is what is happening in the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Wells
I do not quite follow the hon. Gentleman. If the Committee is not conducting an inquiry into Sierra Leone, why did it ask to see the confidential telegrams between the high commissioner and the Foreign Office? Was the Committee's decision to ask for those documents unanimous or was there a divided vote?
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Before my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) intervened, the hon. Gentleman referred obliquely to the hon. Members for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) as though they were Conservative party stooges. He may disagree with their judgment, but to accuse them of that is, to put it mildly, a travesty of the truth.
§ Mr. Ross
That is the hon. Gentleman's interpretation. I shall explain why I think my hon. Friends have taken the wrong position—I put it no higher than that—when we have discussed the matter. It is on the record that I have disagreed with them, but I have never suggested what the hon. Gentleman said. I do not intend to repeat his words because I do not agree with them.
I wish to explain why we are in this position. The reason that I shall give applies to at least one of my hon. Friends—I cannot speak for both of them. Some members of the Foreign Affairs Committee are playing party politics. I do not object to that, but I recognise it when I am confronted by it. The presence of the Opposition spokesperson on foreign affairs at our Committee proceedings tells me that there is a party political position on this issue. The publication of that person's evidence on the same day as the Select Committee was holding its press conference tells me that party politics are being played on this issue. The fact that 909 the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) announced at the same press conference that he had booked Committee Room 6 to hold his own press conference tells me, as a politician, that party politics are being played. The right hon. Member may disagree with me, but that is how it appears to me.
§ Sir John Stanley
I booked another Committee Room in anticipation of other Committee members wishing to stop me responding to questions from the press. My anticipation was proved wholly correct.
§ Mr. Ross
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for confirming what I said. Party politics are being played one way or another, and we are all trying to cover that up with great concern for the work of Select Committees. We are playing party politics.
I do not object to playing party politics—I spent 18 years in opposition and understand why the Conservative party is doing that—but I do object to being asked to believe that we were not engaged in a political game. Under no circumstances am I prepared to accept that.
When I objected to a line of questioning that the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling wanted to pursue, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire accused me in the House—admittedly he had the good grace to tell me that he intended to raise the matter—of invoking a procedure that had not been used since 1937–38. That was considered a great offence against both Select Committees and the House. When I tried to raise a point of order earlier today, the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin), who unfortunately has now left the Chamber, referred to the matter again from a sedentary position.
I want to make it clear to the House that the procedure was not last used 60 years ago. A note by the Clerk of the House says:Following events in the Committee last week, there has been a certain amount of comment in the House and in the media to the effect that the procedure of objecting to a question has not been used since Session 1937–38.The reference in Erskine May is indeed to that case. However, the procedure has been invoked on at least one occasion since then. That was on 25 July 1989 in the Select Committee on Members' Interests, when Sir William Shelton"—who I believe was a member of the Government at that time—objected to a question put by Mr D N Campbell-Savours. On that occasion, the question concerned was subsequently withdrawn.Thus, I was not using outdated, 60-year-old procedure but simply following on from a Conservative Member. I take it that now that I have advised the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire of the evidence supplied by the Clerk, he and other hon. Members will withdraw the accusation that I was seeking to introduce obscure procedures into the business of the House.
I hope that when the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling raises the issue with the Procedure Committee, as he claimed he would, he will refer to the incident when his then right hon. Friend used the procedure against my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours).
§ Mr. Illsley
For the information of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), the 910 issue of objecting during Select Committee proceedings was the first item on the agenda of the Procedure Committee's meeting this evening.
§ Sir John Stanley
I can inform the hon. Gentleman that when the Chairman of the Procedure Committee responded to my reference to the objection procedure, he made it clear to the Committee that one further precedent had been found in 1989. As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have already advised the Foreign Affairs Committee that my accusation that the procedure had not been used for 60 years was made after I had checked not once but twice with the House authorities. I apologised to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that, when I made that public, I was not aware of the 1989 precedent. I am happy to repeat that apology to him.
§ Mr. Ross
Obviously, I am prepared to accept that apology and I am glad that the Procedure Committee has been made aware of that tonight.
Why have we got ourselves into this position? One has only to read the special reports produced by the Select Committee to see that, despite the fact that we are not carrying out an inquiry but simply requesting information here and there—so there is no real coherence—my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has gradually moved towards assisting the Committee. However, because of the political game going on in the Committee, which is preventing us from getting on with our work, my right hon. Friend's assistance has been rejected. In some cases, it has been rejected almost out of hand.
When the Chairman proposed a compromise, even before we reached the Committee most of the Committee members had said that they would not be prepared to accept the Chairman's compromise. That has been the Chairman's problem: when he has looked for compromises, a particular part of the Committee has not been prepared to make them.
§ Dr. Godman
May I correct my hon. Friend? He said that members of the Select Committee objected to the compromise proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson). I sent the Chairman several amendments, one of which was that three members of the Committee should go to the Foreign Office to examine the telegrams to verify the accuracy of the summary. It was Conservative Members and our two hon. Friends who objected. I did not object to the compromise: I sought to amend it.
§ Mr. Ross
I absolve my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) completely. His position has been absolutely clear: he wants the Committee to be able to start an inquiry into the actions surrounding the coup in Sierra Leone and the restoration of the democratically elected Government. He has been constrained by the political game that is going on inside the Committee.
I want to put on the record the fact that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has made gradual efforts to accommodate the Committee, but they have been rejected on every occasion. I only hope that when the Committee meets on 14 July, the offer that he made in his letter of 6 July will be accepted.
911 Why have we got ourselves into this position? In the private sittings of the Committee, I have described it as the obsessional loop syndrome. Some hon. Members on the Committee—including some of my hon. Friends—are in this obsessional loop. This obsession is the result of 18 years of Conservative Governments, who have set out to—I shall not use the term "corrupt" political life—
§ Mr. Ross
They have certainly diminished political life, and have come as near as possible to corrupting it. People have begun to lose faith in politicians. We have only to look at the actions of Conservative Members: the Pergau damn incident, the Scott inquiry into arms for Iraq, the activities of the former MP for Tatton, the inquiries that I carried out as a member of the Standards and Privileges Committee into the actions of members of the Conservative Government, the Jonathan Aitken affair and the Ian Greer incident. Those events have diminished political life, and have led to people losing faith in Governments. When Governments seek to tell the truth, they are faced with the obsessional view that they must be trying to hide something. A number of members of the Committee have got themselves into this obsessional loop and no longer believe that Governments can be honest and upfront.
I object to the fact that the Committee has not been allowed to get on with the work that it should be getting on with: there are several outstanding reports that we want to get on to, but cannot. We have just visited three areas of the world as part of our human rights inquiry. We have not even managed to discuss those visits. That is an item on our agenda, but we cannot get to it because of the activities of some hon. Members in this obsessional loop. They think that the Government are hiding information or are taking action that, in fact, they are not taking.
An entry clearance inquiry was conducted more than a year ago, but it has still not reported to the House. It involved concerns expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House about relatives of their constituents who are trying to get visas in Islamabad and Delhi. That report has not been published, because we cannot get round to discussing it. We have an outstanding report on Hong Kong which cannot be published, because we cannot get round to discussing it. We have a human rights report which we hope to put before the House. It is the responsibility of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to give our colleagues a view of the report on human rights published by the Foreign Secretary, but we have not done that either because of this obsessional loop.
§ Mr. Illsley
Is it not ironic that the one issue on which we shall not produce a report is Sierra Leone?
§ Mr. Ross
Absolutely. That is because we are not carrying out an inquiry. We are in a Catch-22 situation of the worst kind.
We have a public expenditure report pending. We have examined the departmental report obliquely, and we do not know whether we will be able to raise serious concerns about Foreign Office funding. We do not know whether we shall issue a report, and we cannot get round to discussing the matter because of this obsessional loop.
We have just visited three different areas of the world as part of our human rights inquiry. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, my hon. Friend the 912 Member for Greenock and Inverclyde, and I were in Kuwait on the morning following the announcement by the special ambassador Richard Holbrooke about the two-month rolling programme. The Iraqi regime has been of serious concern to the House. Provided that they comply with the United Nations inquiry, the sanctions may be eased or lifted. We met the committee dealing with the prisoners of war and those missing in Kuwait.
When we came back, I suggested at our first meeting that we should raise with the Foreign Secretary the concerns that we had picked up on our trip. No sooner had I finished speaking than the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling pooh-poohed the idea. He dismissed the issue as not very important. He suggested that hon. Members should go on their own and speak to the Foreign Secretary informally. Three members of the Select Committee had visited Kuwait, had received evidence from the committee that represents prisoners and had information useful to the Foreign Secretary and to the Foreign Office, yet we could do nothing about it because of our Committee's obsession with the possibility that there may be something hidden in these telegrams.
§ Dr. Godman
The Committee could be in a powerful position in this deeply disquieting affair—which is how I have described it several times—if we were to conduct a comprehensive inquiry into the Sierra Leone issue following the publication of the Legg report.
§ Mr. Ross
I could not agree more. We are supposed to be a Committee that matters and is taken seriously. We are not being taken seriously because we have got ourselves into this obsessional loop. This party political game is being played out for who knows what reason. We are not doing the job for which the House gave us responsibility. We are supposed to monitor the activities of the Foreign Office, but we are not doing that as we should. The sooner this debate is over and the sooner we get back to doing the job we were given, the better it will be for the House and for the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A serious matter has been brought to my attention regarding Select Committees. I am a member of the Select Committee on European Legislation. Last Wednesday, a report was given by the Committee to the House on the manner in which the preliminary draft budget of the European Union should be debated. It had previously been thought that it would be appropriate for it to go to European Standing Committee B. I am informed that that Standing Committee will sit tomorrow, irrespective of the Select Committee's advice that this matter is so important that it should be debated on the Floor of the House.
The issue is directly relevant to the matter we are discussing now, because it is about the importance that should be given to Select Committees. The Modernisation Committee has virtually agreed that if the Select Committee on European Legislation recommends that a matter should be debated on the Floor of the House, that is what should happen. I should be grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if you would be good enough to refer this matter to Madam Speaker, and to ensure that it is treated in the appropriate fashion.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord)
That is not a matter for the Chair, and not a matter which I should 913 necessarily refer to Madam Speaker. No doubt Front-Bench Members have heard the points that the hon. Gentleman has made.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey)
I am sure the House is relieved to know that the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) is not in an obsessional loop, and has no political agenda on the Select Committee.
I speak with great modesty. Unlike the Chairman of the Liaison Committee and virtually every other member of our Committee—apart from the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath)—I have almost no experience of Select Committee life, having been a Minister for 10 years. For our purposes today, therefore, I am very much a poacher turned gamekeeper. However, I strongly endorse the view that the role of the Select Committee is as important now as it ever was.
Many of us have been appalled by the way in which the rules of engagement have been shifted by this new Labour Government, who have adopted an extraordinary approach to diminishing the role of Parliament. The Prime Minister announced that he would no longer arrive for Prime Minister's Question Time more than once a week, and that there would be no proper debate. Government information officers have been dismissed on an unprecedented scale. The Prime Minister's chief information officer apparently thinks it legitimate for him, as a civil servant, to attack the Opposition—something which, when many of us were in government, would have been considered shocking, and would not have been countenanced for a moment.
All that makes it all the more important, when there is an opportunity to scrutinise the actions of Government, for the Select Committee to hold strongly to its principles, rights and duties.
Today, there is a further debate on cash for access. That is becoming understandable to colleagues who find that delegations are refused, that there is no real attempt to answer questions seriously in the House, and that—without there being a blush—the number of planted questions has reached a level that could never have been anticipated. As for the many other ways in which Ministers believed that they were accountable to Parliament—although, of course, Governments always try to give a good gloss on what they are doing, and to make life easier for themselves—the rules have changed beyond recognition.
I believe that, although Whips' bleepers can penetrate even Committee Rooms, it is in Select Committees that progress and accountability are increasingly being demonstrated when the Whips are offside and not exercising their thumbscrews. The Agriculture Committee, the Public Administration Committee and the Standards and Privileges Committee are all beginning to make inroads, and to hold an over-mighty Government—they had a spectacular election success—to account.
I was concerned when the Leader of the House—whose job is to protect the rights of the House, and to protect Back Benchers—would not take an intervention from me. I took that badly. The right hon. Lady subsequently accepted interventions from the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) and, indeed, from my right 914 hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young); but she did not take an intervention from me. When I spoke from the Government Front Bench, my colleagues used to criticise me at length for accepting so many interventions, especially from Opposition Members.
§ Mrs. Bottomley
Indeed. I took the view that it was right to respond to as many interventions as was reasonably possible, but the Leader of the House simply would not take my intervention.
What I wanted to do was remind the Leader of the House of the Foreign Affairs Committee's outrage at the fact that it was so difficult to find time to meet the Foreign Secretary in our first session in order to prepare our report on Europe. That ties in with what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). The House authorities bounced through the parliamentary debate on the matter, so that it was not possible for our report to be considered properly. We raised the issue with the right hon. Lady on several occasions, but I am afraid that today she did not add glory to her position, or deal with my concern about her willingness to be open and frank with the House and to protect our interests.
The whole point about the Government's amendment is that they imply that the situation has not changed. The Leader of the House said that she had not seen the letter that the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee says that he has made available more widely, and which he gave permission to be raised in the debate.
Every time the Committee considers this question, it becomes curiouser and curiouser. It is right for the Committee to wish to examine not just the expenditure, but the policy and administration of the Foreign Office. When a Foreign Secretary proclaims an ethical foreign policy and heralds it in a self-advertising way, and evidence then emerges that begins to suggest that a United Nations arms embargo in Sierra Leone was breached, any self-respecting Select Committee will begin to ask questions about the gap between rhetoric and reality. That is our duty to the House.
As for administration, we have had a catalogue of discussions about what was in the box, what was not in the box, who had read what briefing, whether the briefing was there and whether the briefing was not there. Let me offer the Government some advice which—although this may seem presumptuous—they may accept, because it comes from the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He said:Doing your box is something that you have to do, because no one else can do it for you … If you send it back unmarked every document that you fail to sign or at least tick will relentlessly turn up again.915 We have heard suggestions that Foreign Office Ministers do not now mark papers as having been read. It is difficult. The right hon. Gentleman continued:You will make mistakes, some of them serious. But it is better to make your own mistakes than someone else's…do your work and do it systematically.Every debate that we have had on the Sierra Leone saga has suggested the most extraordinary state of affairs, in which it is impossible to know which Minister, which civil servant and which official has or has not done whatever. I have no doubt that, if our job is to scrutinise the Foreign Office's expenditure, administration and policy, we are complying with our duties. I have made clear my belief that this is a time when our duties are more serious than ever before. We have heard repeatedly from commentators. Peter Hennessy spoke of a Napoleonic style of government; Hugo Young, in today's Guardian, spoke of a Government who have doubled expenditure on special advisers compared with when we were in government. Our job as a Select Committee is to hold Departments to account. Government must answer to Parliament, and Select Committees seem to be the means by which that can be achieved.
Like others, I am sorry that Opposition time has had to be used for today's vital debate; but, undoubtedly, it is the debate which has produced a concession from the Foreign Secretary that suggests that we can now begin to make progress. We were obliged to take the opportunity, as all Select Committees will be the stronger for it. I hope that, at last, this Government, with their mighty majority, will begin to realise that their accountability is not through spin doctors and media manipulation—rather like that of a soviet Government of the past—but directly to Parliament. That is what matters, and the debate will help the process.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It might assist the House, following the speech of the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), if I say that, following the undertakings that were given earlier to the House by the Leader of the House and by me, the bundle of relevant letters is available to hon. Members in the Vote Office.
§ Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)
This is not so much a debate as a conversation. Few hon. Members are present. I regret that because this debate—this evening's conversation—raises several important issues and allows us to canvass what should be done in relation to the Foreign Affairs Committee and its current discussions with the Foreign Secretary on Sierra Leone and in relation to Select Committees generally and how circumstances comparable with these can be avoided during the life of this Parliament. I realise that this is a general debate, but it is a pity that a representative from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, or the parliamentary private secretaries, are not present.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
I am sure that my hon. Friend would want to acknowledge the fact that the parliamentary private secretary to the Foreign Secretary has sat through most of the debate, as has the Minister of State, 916 Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who came before the Select Committee.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I acknowledge that. I am just saying that someone from the team should have been present throughout the debate. I do not want to labour that point, but it is not an unreasonable one to make.
Frankly, the vote tonight is one of the rubrics of Parliament. It is the arguments that matter. If one can win the argument, that is important and I am not too exercised by tonight's vote. Therefore, the Chief Whip will be relieved to know, I shall dutifully follow him into the Division Lobby.
While I mention the Chief Whip, there is another important point to make that I hope he will think is positive. A lot of mythology has grown around Whips generally and around this issue in particular. Many weeks ago, the Government Chief Whip, on his own initiative—I appreciated what he said to me—told me, "I assure you that, under my stewardship, we will not fall into the same chasm as the Conservatives did in respect of the Willetts matter."
I wanted to put this on the record. The Whips Office has certainly never approached me about this matter; I think that that should be clearly understood. On occasions, I have had differences with my colleagues in the Whips Office and it would be unhealthy if that were ever to stop. None the less, in this respect, I want to put the record straight.
I do not want to delay the House too much, but there was a lot of speculation at the weekend in two Sunday newspapers that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and I had been put on the Committee so that there would be overzealous scrutiny of the Foreign Secretary—as distinct from the selection of members of the Treasury Committee, who were alleged to be favourably disposed to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Again, I am certain that that spin was wholly unattributable to and unauthorised by anyone in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but it needs to be stated that it was complete and utter rubbish. In fact, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service, who is replying for the Government this evening, can testify to that.
Incidentally, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary is a long time at the Dispatch Box—not just this evening, but throughout this Parliament. He certainly deserved that appointment. When there was a vacancy for the Labour party leadership, he twice tried to persuade me to nominate my right hon. Friend the Member for Sedgefield (Mr. Blair). I declined. He will remember that one of the reasons I declined was that I was trying to persuade my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) to agree to be nominated.
I had three conversations with my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston, urging him to stand for the Labour party leadership. I wish he had taken my advice on that occasion, just as I wish he would take my advice on some of the matters before the House tonight. I tell that story because it is a matter of fact that I admire the Foreign Secretary. I wish him well. He has done much in his period in office—for example, in relation to the human rights initiative. He is unjustifiably criticised for not being 917 quick enough on some policies he has initiated. Much has been done and that should be pointed out. However, we can be the Foreign Secretary's good friend, but we must be Parliament's first. That is what some of us who have a strong view about the role of Select Committees have put at the forefront of our approach to the Sierra Leone issue.
I have always felt that bipartisanship in Select Committees is important. It is right, in one sense, to say the Committee has been split on this issue, but one can also positively say that it has been bipartisan because members from the Government side have been prepared to take a view that is not ideal or comfortable for the Government. We have said that, on the way in which we look at the facts and circumstances, we should vote with members of other political parties.
I say to all hon. Members that it would be sad if party division were rigidly applied in Select Committees. Indeed, we would be starting on the slippery slope to eroding the efficacy not just of the Foreign Affairs Committee, but of other Select Committees. Bipartisanship is important. It is a matter of consistency for me. In my maiden speech, given on the first day Parliament sat after the 1992 general election, I referred to the importance of Select Committees. I criticised the then Government and Opposition for being tardy in setting up Select Committees after that election. Not just the existence of Select Committees, but the need for them increasingly to improve their status and effectiveness, regardless of who is in office, is paramount to me.
§ Mr. Rowlands
My hon. Friend has been making the point about bipartisanship in the Select Committee. Because of the way in which the press reported our last divisions, I should like to make it clear, as I am sure my hon. Friend will, that the vote on the second report was not a vote on an Opposition report or amendment; it was on our Chairman's report. Therefore, we were voting for the Chairman's report.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that valid point. The Chairman's stewardship of this matter has been principled. The circumstances have been difficult. Indeed, he has shown leadership in the preparation of the report and endeavoured to reach what has been referred to as a compromise. His efforts should be applauded. On this particular matter, the Select Committee was voting on the Chairman's draft.
I regret that we are debating this issue on an Opposition motion, but that is not a criticism of the Opposition; this matter needed to be brought before the House. I suspect that history will not be repeated. I think that some people will have got the message that, if such circumstances ever arise again—I hope that they will not; I think that they should be avoided—the business managers should recognise that Government time needs to be made available for these matters to be explored and rehearsed.
In her speech today, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House rehearsed many of the wrongs perpetrated by the Conservatives when they were in office in relation to scrutiny and disclosure of information, for example. She also mentioned inconsistencies in their prosecution of the Government earlier in the afternoon. Everything that she listed was valid, but we must remember, quite simply, that two wrongs do not make a right.
918 I am proud to support my Government in the House of Commons. They rightly made great play up to and during the general election of promoting openness, reforming the constitution and making Parliament more relevant. I hope that, in the immediate aftermath of this debate and generally, they will consider whether they should be bolder in making themselves more available to scrutiny than any Government before, rather than limiting scrutiny. In my view, one of the great legacies that the Government could hand down is a machinery that makes them open to scrutiny and accountable as never before. That would be a tremendous achievement and something of which they could be proud. I hope that that will be reflected upon.
When we consider how we got into this difficulty, I have to say that the Government's approach has been somewhat deficient. I must just acknowledge that the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd) is now on the Treasury Bench and I am grateful to him for being here because, in fairness to him, I inevitably want to refer to some of the circumstances by which this matter has escalated.
The Minister of State was originally due to appear before the Select Committee on a matter separate from Sierra Leone on Tuesday 5 May, after a bank holiday. In the weekend papers, matters relating to what is now known as the Sierra Leone issue had emerged. The Minister was asked whether he would be prepared to respond to questions arising from the weekend press reports and he generously agreed to do so. However, things got off to a bad start. It appears to me that the Minister of State had not been adequately briefed, partly because it was after a weekend and a bank holiday. I believe that he referred to that. There were some things that he needed to clarify subsequently, but they were not clarified until Friday. I do not want to labour that point in the House now except to say that that is indicative of how things are a little slow.
I am sure you will remember, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that on Wednesday 6 May there was a private notice question from the shadow Foreign Secretary which required the Foreign Secretary to come to the Dispatch Box. It would have been much better if my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had decided to appear at the Dispatch Box on the Tuesday afternoon. In that way, we would have had a controlled—perhaps that is the wrong term—a well-thought-out and prepared statement clarifying the position. It would have meant that the Minister of State could legitimately have declined to answer questions at the Foreign Affairs Committee meeting on Tuesday morning.
I venture to suggest that it would have been fair to the Minister of State if the Foreign Secretary had taken the initiative and said, "An important issue has appeared in the papers. There is controversy and I will speak to the House on Tuesday afternoon." That would have been better than waiting for the granting of a private notice question on the Wednesday.
§ Mr. David Heath
I have been critical of the Minister of State's evidence, but, in an attempt to be fair to him, I and other members of the Select Committee would have found it proper for him to have declined to give evidence on Sierra Leone at that first session. He could have come back at another time soon after in order to give precise 919 evidence. It was clear that he had not been briefed sufficiently to do the job that the Committee asked him to do on that occasion.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I am looking my hon. Friend the Minister of State straight in the eye. He has had many achievements and is held in high regard both politically and personally by Labour Members and, I hope, elsewhere. I rehearse these arguments simply to show how the Government got off to a bad start. Subsequently, trying to get sight of the documents and trying to obtain recognition of the fact that the Select Committee has a right and a duty to probe has been like extracting teeth from a whale. I use the word probe deliberately because the valid point was made earlier that there is no formal Select Committee inquiry.
When an issue that causes some concern and controversy is placed in the public domain, the immediate duty of a Select Committee should be to scratch the surface of that issue. That is what we were doing on the Tuesday morning when the Minister of State appeared before us and subsequently. The fact that the Foreign Secretary was not readily disposed to make information available is part of the reason for the creation of the bad spirit in which we have had to try to deal with this matter. [Interruption.] Is the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) shuffling on his bottom or does he wish to intervene?
§ Mr. David Davis
Since the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have the greatest admiration, has invited me to intervene, I shall do so. I simply want to give him another example. I see that the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) is in the Chamber. There have been occasions in the Public Accounts Committee when matters have come to the surface which were not apparent when the Committee met. A recent example is that of the Office of the National Lottery. When it first appeared before the Committee, it looked as though there was no great issue to answer, but, during the Committee's inquiries, something came up, had to be pursued. That is quintessentially the nature of Select Committee inquiries. They do not have to be fettered by guidelines, job descriptions or any of the other paraphernalia of control that we are too used to today.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
Having pointed out, with the benefit of hindsight, what I believe to have been the wrong approach by the Government, I should now do a mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. I can say, again with hindsight, that we on the Foreign Affairs Committee should have approached things differently. We should have resolved much more quickly at least to have had a formal initial inquiry and we should have announced it pretty damn quick. We should have tackled the constitutional issues with the Foreign Secretary much earlier. Had we done so, history may have been different. With hindsight, I can say that we should probably have approached things differently. I am sure that if it ever happened again, we would do so. That is history.
There is one issue to which I want to return and on which I intervened earlier; the business of the setting up of the Legg inquiry. We are told that it is independent. It is independent, but it is internal. It is not set up under the tribunal inquiries legislation. We would be setting a dangerous precedent if Parliament accepted that a 920 Minister can set up an internal inquiry and use it to dissuade a parliamentary Committee from doing the probing to which I referred earlier. I believe that it discriminates in favour of the Government.
I invite the House to consider an example. If the conduct or stewardship of the employees of an outside public or private corporation was the subject of some public concern and the Select Committee decided, as it often does, to inquire into their conduct, Parliament would not accept as sufficient ground to persuade a parliamentary Committee from doing the necessary probing the fact that the chairman of the corporation had set up an internal inquiry.
When I intervened earlier, some people said, from a sedentary position, "Trade union principle." I need no lessons in trade union principles because, before coming to the House, I had for many years been a trade union official. The Foreign Affairs Committee, like all Select Committees, is sensitive to people's rights. As has been pointed out, there is an opportunity to consider matters in camera. No Select Committee would wilfully allow its inquiry to jeopardise people's employment rights or rights of appeal, but Parliament is supreme and it is essential that the setting up of an internal inquiry by the Government should not obstruct Parliament in doing its duty.
§ Mr. David Davis
I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention not just to the parallel that he has chosen—the private sector—but to the previous inquiry in the Foreign Office. Much has been made today of the Scott inquiry. It was not set up under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, although in every other way—except for the sub judice requirement—it mimicked it. A senior judge was in charge and its general set-up was similar. Many more people were involved whose disciplinary rights could have been transgressed. The then Foreign Secretary—rightly from his point of view—did not hold back in answering parliamentary questions and in commenting in the press. Therefore, there is a precedent in the Foreign Office of an inquiry taking place, but the rights of Parliament not being withheld.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
Absolutely. If it is good for the private sector, it must be good for the Government. There should not be discrimination in favour of Ministers or Government Departments.
§ Mr. Illsley
My hon. Friend may not have been in the Chamber earlier when a former member of the Trade and Industry Committee complained about documents that were part of the Scott inquiry being kept from that Committee and about how the previous Government refused to release information.
§ Mr. Mackinlay
I did not raise the matter of the Scott inquiry, but I did state my view that although my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House trotted out all the wrongs perpetrated by the Conservative Government—we can add my hon. Friend's point to the list—two wrongs do not make a right. I expect a higher standard from a Labour Government. That is my point, and I intend to sustain it.
One issue that has not been raised was my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's comment to the effect, "What's all the fuss about? The good guys won." If my 921 right hon. Friend chooses to say that in the circumstances of the time, it increases our duty at least to scratch the surface in these matters with some expedition. I did not make the comment; my right hon. Friend did. Again, it is a matter of restraints being put on the Select Committee while the Executive can have its way.
Looking to the future, it would be better if, rather than Governments setting up inquiries and appointing people such as Legg, Parliament had at its disposal someone to carry out the initial scrutiny. That already happens in the general area of administration by way of the ombudsman. In addition, the Public Accounts Committee has the Comptroller and Auditor General, who can probe and examine on his own initiative. He can suggest matters for the PAC to examine, or the political members of the Committee might ask him to investigate certain matters. He might come back to the Committee with the judgment that there is nothing to worry about or that the matter does not justify an examination by the full Committee.
Other Select Committees need such people on their staffs—and they might well be people like Mr. Legg who would be under the instruction of and answerable to a Select Committee. I am not opposed to someone making an initial investigation. It could be conducted with some privacy, which would diminish the opportunities for malicious and malevolent complaints to be made against people. That might protect those who might subsequently have to answer disciplinary action. However, that investigation should be on the initiative of the Select Committee, not the Government, who are themselves subject to the scrutiny. I hope that that point will be taken on board by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House when she and others come to reflect on these issues and determine how they can be avoided.
§ Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)
I hope that we can conduct this debate on the common basis that we all want the supremacy of Parliament and the privileges of Select Committees to be upheld. We want to be sure that the Executive is, at all times and through us, brought to account to the electorate. Like many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), it is our privilege to be Members of Parliament. We have to uphold the highest standards and make Parliament more effective. We have to uphold its prestige and gain the respect of the electorate.
I regard this matter as a House of Commons affair and I am amazed at the partisanship that has been revealed within the Foreign Affairs Committee. As the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) said, Select Committees are at their most potent and effective when their members are working together as a team on a bipartisan basis. Of course, politics is never absent in a political arena such as the House of Commons or a Select Committee, but the effective way to call the Government to account is for the Select Committee system to be allowed to develop and to increase—rather than to reduce—its powers.
What galvanised me to take part in the debate and to support the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, was the report, presented by the hon. Member for Swansea, East 922 (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that it was the Government's contention that, first, his Committee could not investigate a matter of concern when the Foreign Secretary had established an internal inquiry and, secondly, that his Committee must await the report of that internal inquiry before the Foreign Secretary would answer questions and allow the Committee to see relevant papers.
If the House allowed that ruling to stand, we would forfeit, on behalf of the electorate, the capacity to hold the Executive to account in any meaningful way. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) listed the ways in which we could do that. We are aware of the ineffectiveness of asking questions and how that process has been undermined as a method of holding the Government to account. Select Committees are crucial to the perpetuation of the view that the House has supremacy. In fact, we may as well give up responsibility to the presenters of the "Today" programme who, over the past few years, have claimed that it is their responsibility to hold the Government to account—unelected as they are and unappointed as they are under the BBC's mandate. However, they claim that we are not doing our job. If we had allowed the Foreign Secretary's ruling to stand, we would have forfeited our rights.
In effect, our fox has been shot because the Foreign Secretary has now said that he will allow the Select Committee to look at the telegrams in summary and for that summary to be effectively scrutinised by one or two members of the Committee—presumably selected by the Committee, not by the Foreign Secretary—to verify that it is in all ways honest and truthful. That is how the matter should have been conducted initially. It is also how the previous Foreign Affairs Committee looked into the Pergau dam matter.
There was no division between Labour and Conservative Members who served on the previous Foreign Affairs Committee. The previous Committee wanted to hold the Government to account on the Pergau dam, and so it did. Government Members have made much of Pergau as a reprehensible incident in the previous Government's conduct of affairs. The previous Committee was absolutely right to hold the previous Government to account, and I support its actions. I hope that the current Select Committee will do the same with the current Government.
I should like to deal with a point that has been made by the hon. Member for Swansea, East. There are occasions on which Select Committees have to ensure that they maintain confidentiality between the Committee and the Executive. There are several obvious issues to consider in maintaining confidentiality, the first of which is reporting by high commissioners or civil servants to Ministers.
If we require all such correspondence—whether in the form of faxes, telegrams or letters—to be reported and recorded in the House, any self-respecting Minister or high commissioner will, because of fears that the correspondence will be published in full, for full public consideration, restrict the type of honesty that is necessary for efficient conduct of Government business. They will not include in their telegrams very important confidential—possibly personally libellous—information that they would otherwise report and which is necessary for a judgment to be made by Ministers.
923 It is right that Select Committees should use the mechanisms that we developed in dealing with the Pergau dam matter. The International Development Committee has already agreed with the Secretary of State for International Development to use those mechanisms when dealing with a case involving commercially sensitive information and the Trade and Industry Committee has used them.
The International Development Committee has asked the Commonwealth Development Corporation to tell us exactly why it has proposed investing in projects in competition with private sector investors. The Secretary of State has offered to let the Committee see all the information—including a summary of commercially sensitive information that we will be able to check. I think that that is the right way to go about such matters.
We require confidentiality in cases involving reporting from civil servants and high commissioners to Ministers, commercially sensitive information and serious security issues. We would not wish Select Committees to betray secrets that would in any way endanger the safety of the United Kingdom. In those three important examples, we must compromise Select Committees' rights to see absolutely every document.
We must conserve also the immediacy and relevance of Select Committee work, much of which is lost because time is not on a Committee's side. We therefore object to the Government establishing an inquiry and saying that it will be able to report in two and a half months—although, in the case of guns to Iraq, for example, it took an inquiry two years to report. Select Committees should be able immediately to call Ministers, to call for papers and to report to the House so that the House will be able immediately and relevantly to debate issues of very great concern to the country.
One of the problems with the Sierra Leone case is that we have not had such immediacy. Although I hesitate to criticise the Foreign Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for Thurrock said that the Committee perhaps should have immediately entered into discussions with Ministers. However, perhaps the Committee would have been hindered in doing so by the Foreign Secretary himself—thereby providing another reason for me to speak in this debate and to object very strongly to such action, in defence of the House's capacity to hold the Government to account and to inform the nation of the Government's actions on their behalf.
Today's debate has enabled the possibility of the Government giving way on the matter. I am not certain that we would have received quite such an emollient letter from the Foreign Secretary without the pressure that has been brought to bear on both him and the Government. I believe that, in the end, the Government have acted honourably and properly and that the Select Committee system will consequently be enhanced, which I very much welcome. The result has been achieved by work by hon. Members on both sides of the House, in defence of the very important privileges that we possess and the duties that our electors expect us to discharge.
§ Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate—first, because I am a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee; and, secondly, because I am a member of the Procedure 924 Committee, as I have been for a number of years. I am somewhat unique in the House because—despite two or three periods as an Opposition spokesperson or in the Whips office—I have been a Select Committee member since being elected to this place. I am therefore somewhat struck by the naivety of some hon. Members when they speak about Select Committees—specifically about confidentiality and bipartisanship.
I give the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) an example of confidentiality and bipartisanship from 1990, when a leak from the Energy Select Committee occurred before the Committee had even received copies of its report. The leak involved a situation in which one Secretary of State wanted to have a little dig at another Secretary of State, including in the Chairman's draft report the word "dilettante" to describe the latter Secretary of State. The description was leaked to the weekend press, which was up in arms about the leak. The Committee therefore met for the first time to deliberate on the report against a background of press derision about a Select Committee describing a Secretary of State as a "dilettante". However, the Select Committee had not even seen the report.
The upshot was that the Committee decided to delete any reference to the word "dilettante". To this day, I have not been able to trace the origins of that word in the report. However, the fact is that Select Committees leak like sieves and very rarely act in a bipartisan manner.
§ Mr. David Heath
I am not as green as the hon. Gentleman is perhaps portraying me. Of course Select Committees leak, and—dare I say it—it may have happened even within the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. However, I do not believe that there are examples of Select Committees leaking matters that are clearly identified as matters of national security or national interest. I do not believe that the Intelligence and Security Committee, for example, has ever been found guilty of leaking confidential information provided to it. I believe that we should have confidence in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to take the same responsible attitude on important matters of state.
§ Mr. Illsley
I am sure that both the House and the Foreign Secretary have that confidence in the Committee. In my view, the Foreign Secretary has acted in good faith by offering the Select Committee a summary of the telegrams, which could be verified by Committee members. The offer has been available to the Committee for a considerable time.
The Sierra Leone issue has been pushed and extended by Opposition Front Benchers. The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young), in moving the motion, had to be prompted by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) to mention the Committee's "inquiry into Sierra Leone". The Committee is not conducting an inquiry into Sierra Leone. It has no terms of reference dealing with Sandline or with Sierra Leone or anything connected with it.
At a previous meeting, Committee members agreed not to call various named individuals and not to undertake an inquiry, on the basis that it would duplicate the Legg inquiry and simply be trying to call the same witnesses, who would say, "I refuse to give evidence to the Committee on the basis that I will incriminate myself"— 925 rather as the Maxwell brothers said to the Social Security Select Committee. Although the Maxwell brothers spoke to the Committee, they said absolutely nothing. The House almost decided that they were in contempt.
That is what would have happened had we tried to hold an inquiry, but, for some reason, we decided to call for the telegrams. It has to be pointed out that we are not undertaking an inquiry into Sierra Leone. The whole issue of Sandline and arms to Sierra Leone has prevented the Committee from producing one serious, substantive report.
I am surprised that this debate is taking place on an Opposition day and that, in drafting their motion, the Opposition have taken paragraph 6 of the second special report by the Foreign Affairs Committee. It is there for all to see:it is wrong in principle for the Executive to seek unilaterally to impose prior conditionsand so on. However, the previous paragraph of the same report states:The Committee welcomes the Secretary of State's willingness to make available summaries of the telegrams and to allow nominated members…to verify them. It also welcomes the Secretary of State's willingness, as set out in his letter to the Chairman…to consider specific requests to extend the offer".I am surprised that the Opposition have decided to use paragraphs from our report as the basis for their motion. I think that it is an abuse of the House's procedures to take a report by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, or a report by any Select Committee, and debate it—
§ Mr. Illsley
I withdraw the phrase "abuse of the House's procedures"; I shall simply say that it is unusual for the Opposition to take as the subject of an Opposition day debate a report by a Select Committee. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, pointed out, perhaps there should have been other ways for the report to be debated—through the Liaison Committee, and so on.
I want to talk about confidentiality and the supposed powers of Select Committees to call for documents. If we look into the powers of a Select Committee to call for papers and documents, we find that there are none. The Standing Orders state that a Select Committee can send for papers and documents, but the power to call for papers rests with the House. The reason is that the House cannot delegate to a Committee more powers than it has itself, and the House is restricted in the powers that it has to call for documents. I shall deal with that in a moment.
There are members of the Committee, which is now split down the middle, who are quite happy with what the Secretary of State has offered. We have never accepted his offer to look at the summaries of the telegrams. We have been involved in this for weeks, but not one of us has said that we should get the Committee to agree to do that so that we can find out whether there is anything to warrant our prolonged consideration of the Sandline issue in parallel with the Legg inquiry.
As we now know, the Foreign Secretary has agreed to come to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee on two occasions—16 and 28 July. He has agreed to give 926 evidence, because we decided at the last Committee meeting to invite him—perhaps if we had decided to hold an inquiry into Sierra Leone, or if we had decided that it was now appropriate to examine the telegrams, we would not be in this situation. I believe that a great deal of the time of the House and the Select Committee has been wasted.
I said that Select Committees have no power to call for documents. The reason for that is that when Select Committees were established in 1979, the then Government did not give them any power to call for documents. The present Select Committee structure is based on the 1978 report of the Select Committee on Procedure. It is one of the better reports that the House has received because it dealt not only with Select Committees, but with many other issues which the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons is even now only just getting around to considering.
As I said, the power to call for a document rests with the House of Commons, and it rests in an address by a Member. As, since 1902 and the Balfour reforms, the agenda is now in the power of the Government, there is no opportunity for a Member to move an address for the return of a document, so, basically, that power does not exist. As long ago as 1859, "Erskine May" set out some of the conditions relating to what could and could not be called for. One condition was that a paper or document was not confidential, and another was that calling for it would not be against public policy. Even then, there were restrictions on what information the Government could make available.
When the Clerk of the Committee gave evidence to the Select Committee on Procedure in 1978, he spoke about the limitations on the House's power to send for a paper from a public Department. Before the Committee reported, he said:when sought from government departments",the document should not beof a public and official character, and should not be private or confidential.He went on to say:It is ministerial refusals to produce documents which have provided the greatest problems for Select Committees in the conduct of their inquiries…There have been other occasions on which committees may have wished to have more information in the form of papers and records from Ministers, but in such cases a compromise has been reached.They are the words of the Clerk of the Committee in 1978 before the Select Committee got around to dealing with the issue.
The Select Committee then set out its views on the release of papers. Its idea was that a refusal by the Government to release papers should be followed by a special report to the House. When the House had had the report for six days, public business should be interrupted and the matter debated. That was the Select Committee's recommendation, although it was eventually thrown out. When the Committee made that recommendation, it clearly stated:We envisage that the procedure set out above would be invoked rarely, if at all. It would stand as an ultimate weapon…We would expect that Committees would continue in certain circumstances to accept the arguments of departments and their Ministers that the provision of some information requested was undesirable and to respect the requests of some departments for some evidence to be given on a confidential basis.927 The Select Committee thereby admitted in 1978 that there was an argument for confidentiality.
In 1979, the Conservative Government acted on that report and brought into being the present Select Committee structure. I think that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne who said earlier this evening that the powers of Select Committees should be strengthened when the Government have a sizeable majority in the House, and he referred to the present Government's majority. However, the present Select Committee structure, perfect or imperfect, was set up when the Government of the day had a majority of around 150. That argument pertained in 1979, but was perhaps not taken on board.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)
That is not quite right. Select Committees were set up when the Government's majority was 44. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, at a later election it went up to 143, with 1 million fewer votes being cast for the Conservatives.
§ Mr. Illsley
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that correction, but the Government nevertheless had a substantial majority in the Parliament in which Select Committees were established. In the debate on Select Committees at the time, the then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, now Lord St. John of Fawsley, said:The Government will make available to Select Committees as much information as possible, including confidential information for which, of course, protection may have to be sought by means of the sidelining procedure."—[Official Report, 25 June 1979: Vol. 969, c. 45.]So even then there was some measure of confidentiality in respect of calls or requests for papers by Select Committees, and the Standing Orders were drawn up on that basis.
The Leader of the House referred to the code of practice that is mentioned in the Government amendment. Paragraph 4 of that code refers to the disclosure of documents in relation to inquiries or proceedings. However, paragraph 1, under the heading "Reasons for Confidentiality" sets out the exemptions to the disclosure of information, including:Information whose disclosure would harm the conduct of international relations or affairs.andInformation received in confidence from foreign governmentsand so on. Some of the information that the Foreign Affairs Committee has asked for has to be considered on that basis.
Initially, the Foreign Secretary said that the telegrams that we had requested contained confidential information, some of which might have referred to issues other than the one in which we were interested. It might have related to other Governments or individuals involved in Sierra Leone at the time.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
I am sure that my hon. Friend would wish to remind the House that the concern expressed by the Foreign Secretary related not just to what was contained in those telegrams, but to the fact that it would be the first time ever that any Foreign Secretary had allowed anyone to look at telegrams and that when it became common knowledge outside the House that such 928 telegrams were being viewed by Select Committees, the content of those telegrams would suffer and they would become less helpful.
§ Mr. Illsley
My hon. Friend makes a very good point that was also made by the Foreign Secretary and considered by the Committee—that the content of future telegrams might suffer if the senders thought that they would be made public and brought before Committees on a regular basis.
I pay tribute to the Clerk of the Foreign Affairs Committee as he has advised us very well on procedure. He has given us excellent briefing on the procedures available to the Select Committee. His advice on the issue has been very good. Let me quote from two documents prepared by the Clerk, where he states:The Foreign Secretary describes this proposal"—to make a summary of the telegrams available to the Select Committee—as following the Pergau precedent, but in one sense it goes further. In the Pergau case, it was certain agreements between the United Kingdom and Malaysia that were subject to verification by Members. In the present case, it is telegrams between Posts and London, a rather broader category of document. If the Committee accepts the Foreign Secretary's offer, this could represent a useful extension of the Pergau precedent.Not only did we refuse to look at the telegrams, but we turned down the chance of producing a precedent for future Select Committees and we missed a trick.
§ Ms Abbott
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), said a few moments ago that had we been allowed sight of the telegrams in any formal fashion it would have been the first time that an outsider had sight of Foreign Office telegrams. However, in the Select Committee, he told us that he himself, in his capacity as chairman of the Labour party Back-Bench committee on foreign affairs had had sight of such telegrams in particular circumstances. I remember thinking at the time that it was odd that there should be circumstances in which he should have sight of telegrams, but it could not possibly be appropriate for members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee to see telegrams in any formal fashion.
§ Mr. Illsley
I listened with interest to what my hon. Friend said.
I was referring to the advice received from the Clerk. Further advice stated:The practical difficulties in exercising the formal powers to require Secretaries of State to produce documents have led Committees instead to seek to negotiate a compromise with Ministers.So throughout the history of Select Committees, the issue of confidentiality has arisen and has usually led to compromise.
I agree that perhaps Select Committees do not have sufficient powers to call for documentation. Perhaps the Opposition would have done better framing today's debate around the powers of Select Committees and 929 whether or not they should be increased. I know that the Procedure Committee is considering Select Committees in the face of devolution; most Select Committee Chairmen will have received letters from the Procedure Committee on that issue. By turning down the precedent that we were offered, perhaps we missed the chance to extend the powers of Select Committees.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) that the Opposition have used the Foreign Affairs Committee as a way of prolonging interest in the Legg inquiry and keeping the issue on the agenda in view of the fact that the Legg inquiry is now proceeding. It is interesting that on the day when we were to take evidence from Sir John Kerr, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe released his evidence to the Legg inquiry. I recall hearing him on the radio that morning talking about the 464 questions and the 63 pages of evidence that he had produced for the Legg inquiry. It is also interesting that members of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe are now using the same language in their press releases. They both referred to the Secretary of State's actions as putting a blowtorch under the Select Committee structure.
The Foreign Affairs Committee has no inquiry on Sierra Leone, no terms of reference in respect of such an inquiry and no formal proceedings on Sierra Leone, so many of the issues that we are debating today are outside the remit of the Select Committee. We are not undertaking an inquiry and perhaps we should have addressed that some time ago. The Government set up the Legg inquiry to deal with the matter and, as far as I am concerned, we have been made offers that go further than those made by the previous Government in similar circumstances and we have not taken up those offers. I remain of the view that the Select Committee is being led politically. It is being used as a way of airing the issue, outside the Legg inquiry. The sooner the Legg inquiry reports and the Foreign Affairs Committee makes a decision on the matter, the better off we will all be.
§ Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey)
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley). I have been a member of a Select Committee ever since I came to the House—first the Employment Committee and then the Energy Committee, when I served with the hon. Gentleman. I, too, remember the incident of leaks and the so-called dilettante Minister. The hon. Gentleman will also recall that on that Select Committee there was what I can describe only as a Government stooge whose job was to ensure that the views of the Secretary of State of the day were forcefully presented. That did not improve the debate within the Select Committee, but none the less consensus eventually prevailed and the results of our deliberations were all the better for it.
The work conducted by right hon. and hon. Members on Select Committees is some of the most constructive and satisfying that we can do in this place. All Select Committees have difficulty in getting information out of Government Departments. There is nothing new in that. To some extent, all Select Committees leak the information that they receive. That is one of the problems 930 of getting information out of Departments in the first place. If Select Committees did not leak, they would find it much easier to get the information that they required in order to do their job properly.
I well understand the current concern about the failure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to release to the Select Committee information relating to the Sierra Leone arms investigation, so I support the motion tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends, which is about the principle that we are debating today—the role of Select Committees and how they can get information from the Government. I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on the wording in its report, which has been used in the motion tabled by the official Opposition, notwithstanding the remarks of the Chairman of the Committee about those words being taken somewhat out of context.
Rather than dealing with the specifics of the Sierra Leone affair, I shall limit my remarks to the way in which our Select Committees are working or, in some cases, are not working satisfactorily.
Ministers can run their Departments only if they have money. The only way in which they can get money is by coming to Parliament and asking us to vote for it. Once we have voted them that money, it is our job, as the elected representatives of the people who pay the taxes to produce the money, to hold Ministers accountable for the way in which they have spent that money.
It amazes me that it was not until 1979 that Parliament had the sense to establish the broader departmental Select Committee system that we now have. I endorse what hon. Members have said about the importance of being able to cross-question Ministers and civil servants. The mandarins in Whitehall are powerful. They do not like appearing before Select Committees. Some Ministers are good at it and some are not so good, but I have found that, on the whole, civil servants are reluctant to appear, and when they do, they sometimes do not perform as well as Ministers. It is also an important part of a Select Committee's work to be able to cross-question not only civil servants, but those outside Whitehall who have an interest in the matters that the Select Committee is investigating and for which the Department of State is responsible.
A number of hon. Members have referred to the importance of unanimity. Some responsibility for assisting Select Committees eventually to reach unanimity lies with the Committee of Selection, which no one has yet mentioned. The Committee of Selection has the task of deciding who serves on Select Committees. I deplore the efforts of the Whips of any party to twist the arms of members of the Committee to try to get people on a Select Committee who effectively become placemen for the party concerned.
It is the job of the Committee of Selection to find men and women of judgment. Part of the difficulty about their being given access to classified and confidential information is the way in which members of a Select Committee will use that information. Having been privy to it, it is up to members to use their judgment in the national interest and to decide whether they should disclose the information. If the members of the Select Committee display such judgment, the system will work well. However, it is up to the Committee of Selection in the first place to try to ensure that the right sort of people go on the Select Committees.
931 If the Committees are to do their job properly, they need information. Often they already have the knowledge. It is one of the features of the Select Committees on which I have served that, because of the continuity of membership of the Committee from one Parliament to another, members of a Select Committee often know more about the subject than the Ministers who come before them in the dock. That can have unfortunate consequences.
I well remember the occasion on which I was pinned up against the bookshelves of the Aye Lobby during a Division by a Minister of State who was very much larger than I was, when I was Chairman of the Defence Committee—[HON. MEMBERS: "Name him."]—I would not dream of doing such a thing; I am far too courteous—in order to persuade me that there was a certain matter that the Defence Committee should not investigate. That merely reinforced my impression that the Defence Committee certainly should investigate the matter. I may say that when the Minister came to give evidence before the Committee, he performed extremely well.
I pay tribute to the staff of Select Committees. It amazes me how much our staff manage to achieve when compared with congressional committees on Capitol Hill. On the Defence Committee we have only four Clerks, but we employ the valuable services of someone seconded from the National Audit Office, which was mentioned earlier. Every Select Committee could benefit from having a member of the NAO on its staff.
§ Mrs. Dunwoody
Does the hon. Gentleman consider that the House would benefit from having the equivalent of the general accounting office in Washington, where a unit is available to give detailed information of the kind to which he referred, and which, for us, would normally come from the National Audit Office? The general accounting office provides information on the problems of the day and advice to members as they are considering particular aspects of policy.
§ Mr. Colvin
That is a valuable contribution, which right hon. and hon. Members on the Front Benches will take on board. Select Committees tend to be reactive. The more proactive they become, the better. The hon. Lady's suggestion would be one way of assisting Select Committees to be proactive, provided of course that the rules of the House permitted it.
It is difficult to get information out of Ministers and Departments. Much of the information that the Defence and the Foreign Affairs Committees require to do their job properly impinges on national security and is therefore highly sensitive.
Our Defence Committee sees some extremely highly classified material. In fact, information on the level of classification that we are allowed to see is itself classified information, so I cannot tell the House what it is. All I can say is that when we are privy to it, we usually sit in a room in the Ministry of Defence and our notes are put through the shredding machine when we leave. In our office, less highly classified material is locked in the safe, and we frequently go into private session when we are considering the sort of information that may well have come before the Foreign Affairs Committee in relation to Sierra Leone.
That reinforces my point about hon. Members' judgment. The House of Commons Defence Committee has never leaked. There was an occasion on which part of 932 a report got out a little early, but that was purely accidental. On the whole, we are an extremely secure Committee and we have invariably succeeded in reaching a consensus on our reports. With many new members on the Committee, all the evidence is that we shall continue to reach a consensus, which is to the benefit of the work that we do and the defence of the realm.
To put the matter of classified material into context, I should say that the Committee receives details of about 50 highly classified documents in a parliamentary Session, so we see a great deal of important information.
Two problems that Select Committees face have been briefly touched on in the debate. The first involves commercially sensitive information, and the second is the matter of advice to Ministers, as it is called. Both issues concern alternatives put forward to Ministers. On Select Committees, it is our job to react to decisions that Ministers have made. Civil servants put forward alternatives to Ministers. I have seen advice to Ministers, and sometimes it is amazing how many different alternatives are put—"Well, Minister, on the one hand you can say this, but on the other hand you have to say something else"—memories of "Yes, Minister" come to mind. Many alternatives are always put forward, both as general advice and on procurement decisions, when Ministers have to decide whether to accept this or that bid for a contract.
A good case can be made for Select Committees becoming more involved in the proactive work of giving their advice to Ministers when alternatives are being considered. In the United States of America, the Appropriation Committee often does that, and it has real power. I know that the Americans' constitutional set-up is completely different from ours, but many Select Committees are now beginning to think that some of the financial decisions made by Ministers would be better if the Select Committee had some knowledge of what the alternatives were—perhaps in the form of the final shortlist before the ministerial decision is made.
Forty per cent. of this country's defence budget relates to procurement decisions, and, with our knowledge, better decisions might be made if the Defence Committee were given, in private, the sort of information on which its members could make a judgment before the Minister had to make his. The Liaison Committee was discussing that at the end of the previous Parliament—it is on the record of our Committee's proceedings—and as has already been said, the Procedure Committee is doing the same thing at the moment.
The most recent example of advice to Ministers being misused rather than used arose during the inquiries that the Defence Committee was conducting into the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. As part of the strategic defence review, about which we shall all know much more tomorrow, the Ministry of Defence examined options for the future of DERA to meet requirements for defence industrial diversification.
The options were contained in DERA's 1998 corporate plan, and the Defence Committee asked for a copy to assist us with our inquiry, which was published only last week. Ministers refused to provide a copy, and instead sent us a memorandum, arguing that the corporate plan was classified as advice to Ministers, and should not therefore be disclosed to Parliament.
933 I hope that when the Minister responds, he will clarify how advice to Ministers ought to be construed. Access to such key documents is essential if Select Committees are to have a meaningful and well-informed scrutiny role. Restrictions on such access undermine proper accountability to Parliament.
The continuing business of getting information out of Departments of State is a bit of a dogfight. In the Defence Committee, we feel that the system that we have adopted is working tolerably well—but that system relies entirely on mutual trust between the Committee and Ministers. In the case of the arms to Sierra Leone affair, that trust has broken down, which has put the whole business and process of parliamentary accountability in jeopardy.
§ Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
Contrary to what some hon. Members have said, this is a very important debate—a debate, ultimately, about the rights and powers of Select Committees. There are several reasons why it is important.
First, it is vital that the debate—both on the Floor of the House and in the media and elsewhere outside the House—about the role of the legislature versus the Executive has taken place early in this Parliament. This may be quite a long Administration, and it is important to shed some light on such matters at the outset.
The debate is also important for the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Select Committee, has set a gold standard for Select Committee Chairmen. From now on, no Chairman can afford to be less bold and resolute than he has been, in what everyone agrees were difficult circumstances. Another reason why the debate is important is that, for reasons on which I shall expound later, in this Administration we are faced with certain difficulties concerning proper parliamentary scrutiny on the Floor of the House.
Finally, the debate is important because, thanks to the offer that the Foreign Secretary has made today, never again can any Minister use an internal inquiry as a means of stopping legitimate parliamentary inquiry. The Foreign Affairs Select Committee has drawn an important line in the sand.
There has been a lot of misinformation in the debate, so, for the avoidance of doubt, let me explain that the offer by the Foreign Secretary that we are hearing about today—an offer of unconditional access to a summary of the telegrams—is the first such offer that has been made. It is not an offer which has been available for weeks and weeks.
§ Ms Abbott
Other members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee are nodding. Only today have we had sight of a letter from the Foreign Secretary conceding unconditional access to the summary. It is important to have that fact on the record, because some colleagues may inadvertently have misled the House on the subject.
934 Again for the avoidance of doubt, let me remind the House of the sequence of events. On 12 May, nearly two months ago, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee wrote to the Foreign Secretary asking for the telegrams. On the same day, I raised the matter on the Floor of the House. At that time, the Foreign Secretary rejected our proposal. Indeed, he went further and wrote back to my hon. Friend the Chairman of the Committee confirming his rejection.
On 21 May, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee published its first special report. If, as some Members have suggested this evening, the Foreign Secretary was so anxious to meet us half way and offer a deal, I wonder why he did not take the opportunity of our first special report on 21 May to come forward with unconditional access to the telegrams. He did not. On publication of our first special report, the Foreign Secretary was still saying that there would be no access to the telegrams.
On 1 June, the Foreign Secretary wrote again to the Select Committee. He had moved incrementally, but he still said that he would offer only a summary, and even that was not on offer until after the Legg inquiry had concluded. Let me say a word about that inquiry: again, today is the first time that we have heard about the possibility that it might report before the House rises for the summer recess.
All along, we have pursued the negotiations with the Foreign Secretary with the fear in some of our minds that the Legg inquiry would, as is sometimes the way with such civil service inquiries, report, conveniently, right at the end of the Session. That would give no time for any further inquiries by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. In effect, all parliamentary scrutiny of the matter would have been closed down until October when the House returned, by which time Ministers presumably imagined that everyone would have forgotten about it, and its subject matter would have been overtaken by events.
People should be clear that the point at issue was whether the Government would allow proper parliamentary scrutiny of the Sierra Leone affair now, or—as would have been the effect of the deals that the Foreign Secretary was offering a month ago—parliamentary scrutiny would be closed down until October.
On 1 June, the Foreign Secretary was saying that we could have a summary—an offer which was prised out of him—but not until after Legg had reported. On 15 June, he wrote again offering the same summary after the Legg inquiry had reported. We could get no sign whatever from him about whether we could hope to see the Legg report before the end of the Session.
On 23 June, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee published its second report. If the Foreign Secretary, as some Members have suggested, was so keen to meet the concerns of the Select Committee, he could have offered a deal at that point. Yet he waited until the day of this debate to write to the Select Committee offering unconditional access to the summary of the telegrams, which is what we have been asking for all along.
I put it to the House—and to any fair-minded person listening to the debate, or reading it subsequently—that I cannot accept that, if we had not reported to the House not once, but twice, the Foreign Secretary, would have come forward with the compromise he has offered today. That is one of the reasons why this is an important debate. The Foreign Secretary has only conceded the principle of 935 unconditional access under duress. That is why it was right and proper for the Select Committee to report to the House.
As I said, this is an important debate because it concerns the rights and responsibilities of Select Committees. As we approach the millennium, the role of Select Committees has never been more important. In practice, and for all types of reasons—most of which originated long before the Government took office on 1 May—the possibility of serious scrutiny on the Floor of the House has diminished and is diminishing.
Many decisions in relation to legislation have passed from this House to Brussels. I do not criticise that—I am pro-European. I am not arguing against it in principle—I am saying that that is the reality. Even in the short time that I have been in this House—only 10 years—I have seen more and more decisions ebbing away from the House of Commons to supranational organisations such as the legislature in Brussels.
§ Mr. Colvin
The hon. Lady has missed two other forms of devolution of the powers of this House—one to the assemblies of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and to the regional agencies in England, and the other to a reformed upper House, which will require powers over fiscal and financial matters that it does not enjoy at the moment. More and more powers will be drained from this place, yet we continue to increase our numbers. Perhaps the time has come to consider whether we need fewer Members of Parliament, rather than more.
§ Ms Abbott
The hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) makes a fascinating point, but I am well advised by you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall not follow him down that interesting path.
My central point is that this is an important debate because of the increasing difficulty of having proper scrutiny on the Floor of the House. I have talked about powers draining away to Brussels. There is also a process—for which I, as a Member, have had a ringside seat—whereby decisions which were once taken by Parliament are now, in effect, taken in the Cabinet, and decisions that were once taken in the Cabinet are now, in effect, taken by an inner circle around the Prime Minister of the day. We saw that under Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, and none of my hon. Friends would argue that that tendency has lessened under this Administration.
The size of the majority has been referred to. The honest truth is that, if the Government were to propose the massacre of the first born, they would still have no difficulty in getting it through the House of Commons, such is the size of the majority. There is also a possible tendency in some parts of the Government to pay more attention to focus groups and marketing men than to Parliament, or even to the Labour party itself.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
I have listened to my hon. Friend and I am trying to make sense of what she is saying. On the one hand, she is saying that the Select Committee has forced the Foreign Secretary to do what he has done. On the other hand, she is trying to say that the Government's 936 majority is such that they can just ignore the wishes of the House. Both cannot be right. With that majority, the Foreign Secretary could simply keep on ignoring the House.
§ Ms Abbott
The Foreign Secretary has had to make us an offer because the beauty of the Select Committee system is that it is the only area of activity in this House at this time where the writ of the Whips Office does not run. Once one is on a Select Committee, one is on it for the Parliament—and no doubt, even as I speak, some members of the Whips Office are gnashing their teeth at that evident truth.
The rights and powers of Select Committees have never been more important because of the problems of parliamentary scrutiny on the Floor of the House. The choreography on the Floor of the House that we saw under the previous Government and under Mrs. Thatcher is increasing; I am not suggesting that it all started on 1 May. Increasing numbers of hon. Members are standing up to ask questions that, clearly, they have not drafted. I often feel sorry for those people. They are often reading questions that are not merely sycophantic, but poorly drafted and not in order. I often ask my colleagues, "Why do you draft those questions for those people?" That choreography has increased, and is increasing.
There is an increasing emphasis on those on the Government Benches "being helpful"—that, we are constantly told, is the prize virtue of a Government Back Bencher. That—not representing one's constituents or holding the Government to account—is what we are increasingly judged by. On that criterion, I self-evidently fail.
When we have a debate among Government Back Benchers about the role of Parliament in scrutinising the Government, colleagues often say that questions and the business of the House of Commons do not matter. What matters is a having a quiet word with Ministers—we could call it "the doctrine of the quiet word". I am happy to have quiet words with Ministers; I often do so in relation to my constituency. However, the "quiet word" on its own does not work, and it has proven to be ineffective. Literally hundreds of colleagues had quiet words with the Labour party leadership on the cuts in lone-parent benefit. All were completely ignored.
If we set to one side the procedures of the House and rely, as Back Benchers, solely on the "quiet word", what happens to transparency and accountability? We can have transparency and accountability only if Members are prepared to use the formal processes of the House of Commons. That is what they are for.
Another reason why it is becoming increasingly hard to have proper scrutiny in the House is the tendency—which we saw under Margaret Thatcher, and which we still see under this Government—to launch policy not on the Floor of the House, but at press conferences. One of the most striking examples of that was the announcement of the handover to the Bank of England of the power to set interest rates. The single most important announcement relating to economic policy made in this Parliament—whatever we think of it—was made at a press conference. That was done, I believe, because the Minister did not want to be scrutinised not only by the Opposition, but by Labour Back Benchers. Without diverting to that issue, handing over interest rates to the Bank of England has never been Labour party policy. It was never debated at conference or by the national executive.
937 I have detained the House a little on the argument, which is important. For all types of reasons—most of which had their genesis long before we came to power on 1 May—proper, considered and sustained scrutiny of the activities of the Government is no longer possible on the Floor of the House. That is why the powers and the rights of Select Committees are so important.
No one on the Select Committee ever assumed that we had unqualified access to persons and papers, but there has always been a presumption that Select Committees should have reasonable access to persons and papers. After all, that was the only way in which they could carry out their duties. Those powers, as the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has found to its cost in the past two months, have never been put on a statutory basis. The reason for that was that it was always assumed that the Government would respect those rights of Select Committees.
The problem that we have had in the past two months is that it was not clear to us, certainly at the beginning of the tussle, that the Foreign Secretary accepted that we had a right in principle—while acknowledging practical concerns—to have access to those papers. That is why I am glad to see the concession today, whereby he is giving us—at long last—unconditional access to a summary of the telegrams.
Some misinformation has been flying around today. No member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has sought at any point to duplicate the Legg inquiry. As I said in the House when it was announced, the Legg inquiry has quite narrow terms of reference. As the Select Committee charged with oversight of the Foreign Office, we felt that we were quite entitled to inquire into wide areas concerning the internal workings of the Foreign Office and good government that could run parallel to Legg. I agree with some of my colleagues that it might have been better to announce an inquiry into Sierra Leone early in the process. However, I am surprised to see some of my colleagues proposing that idea. I am sure that some of those who are saying, "If only we had announced the inquiry" would never have voted for it at the time.
The Select Committee is not seeking to duplicate the Legg inquiry, which I stress is not a judicial inquiry. Even until today, hon. Members and Ministers have referred to that inquiry as though it made some matters sub judice. It is an internal inquiry. Until we received the Foreign Secretary's communication today, there was no clarity whatever as to when the Legg inquiry would report. The suspicion had to be that the inquiry was being used, possibly inadvertently, to kick the issue into the long grass.
In the Foreign Secretary's penultimate letter to us, in which he said that we could not see the telegrams until the Legg inquiry had concluded, he stated:The Select Committee is not entitled to persist in pursuing a parallel inquiry by summoning officials who are bound by the collective policy of the Government.We are entitled to pursue a parallel inquiry—the Foreign Secretary is quite wrong on that point. One of the avenues of exploration for the Foreign Affairs Select Committee in relation to Sierra Leone is whether there were two policies regarding that country: one policy that was expressed by Ministers and pursued in good faith, and another that was 938 pursued possibly by some officials in Whitehall and some in Sierra Leone. The only way of unravelling the truth is by taking evidence from officials.
As hon. Members have said, officials are very powerful. The limited amount of questioning that we have thus far been allowed to do of the permanent secretary has revealed that some Ministers received briefings about the Customs and Excise inquiry while others did not. We have revealed that a military attaché was sent into exile with President Kabbah—for what reason, we know not. There is a reason for questioning officials separately from Ministers. The Foreign Secretary is ill advised to suggest that the Committee had no purpose in seeking to question officials separately.
In conclusion, I congratulate the staff of the Committee. As hon. Members have said, Select Committees must work with very slender staffing resources. We owe much to the hard work, commitment and dedication of our staff. That was my experience on the Treasury Select Committee, on which I served for eight years, and now on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. I am glad that the matter was reported twice to the House. I am glad that the majority of Committee members were prepared to stand fast by a principle. If we had not stood fast by that principle, we would not have received today's concession from the Foreign Secretary. Some hon. Members may jeer and ask what it is all about, but I believe that we have established an important principle regarding the functioning of Select Committees for the duration of this Administration.
§ Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)
As ever, I shall be brief. It is a pleasure to follow the distinguished and surgical speech of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), to whom I am almost a constituency neighbour. I shall echo her comments later in my speech. I take personal comfort from her reassurance about the massacre of the first born, not least because I am first born.
I first declare an interest in the debate as a member of the Liaison Committee, although I was absent, for the first time, from its last sitting when it treated on the subject of tonight's debate. On that occasion, I was attending the final day of the Competition Bill in Committee—which was not a competing pleasure, but a competing duty. I salute the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody)—she has just left the Chamber—who is a fellow member of the Liaison Committee. She has sat through the whole debate and intervened periodically.
I should also declare an interest as being highly indirectly related to Sir John Kerr. What I am about to say will sound like an extract from the table of affinity in the "Book of Common Prayer". Lady Kerr's sister is my brother's wife. From the opposite end of the telescope, Sir John would say that I am his sister-in-law's brother-in-law.
As the debate is obviously ranging fairly widely on the subject of Select Committees, I shall—with your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker—take brief preliminary advantage and add an immediately topical footnote regarding an appearance that I once made before a Select Committee, since every Select Committee Chairman worth his or her salt always gives an examinee the 939 opportunity to do so. It relates to being characteristically roasted by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) in a sitting of the then Select Committee on National Heritage on the subject of the delays in the building of the British Library.
I did not know then—but have discovered since—the paragraph devoted to the initiation of that project in the memoirs of Joel Barnett, now Lord Barnett, Chief Secretary to the Treasury in the last Labour Government. I quote from memory, but he said, in effect, that the Treasury rules on which his Government set up the project were such that, if any economic difficulties occurred subsequently, it would be a miracle if the British Library were finished before the end of the century. When I found that paragraph, I felt a little better about the rather long gestation period of the Library—a building and a facility which, upon completion, I greatly admire.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said that he regretted that this debate was being held in Opposition time. We all regret that. I say, in a kindly way, to the Liberal Democrats that they often wish that circumstances were other than they are, but they ignore the fact that the best is often the enemy of the good. In our party, we must sometimes settle for the good because the Government deny us the best.
Moments in the debate reminded me of the narrative of that great historian the Rev. Sir Owen Chadwick entitled, "Mackenzie's Grave", which described a 19th century expedition to central Africa. I should make it clear that I realise that Sierra Leone is not in central Africa. I once asked Owen Chadwick whether he had had any need to travel to central Africa to research his book. He replied that he had not as he had had available to him in Cambridge the concurrent expedition diaries of the eight strong, and often colourful, personalities who had constituted the main dramatis personae of the expedition. Each diary recounted each day and the interactions between those personalities.
I caught some of the flavour of those interactions in the multiple exchanges in this debate between the different hon. Members who serve on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee. As, unlike Owen Chadwick, I did not have access to the diaries, there were moments today when I was also reminded of the riddles of one's youth where one is told that Mr. White, Mr. Brown, Mr. Green and Mr. Black live in houses that are, but not necessarily respectively, white, brown, green and black and then, on the basis of further information, one must work out who lives in which.
Like the diaries of "Mackenzie's Grave", today is also the stuff of history. Someone referred in the debate to the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate. When NATO was forged in the post-war years, the Chairman of that Committee was the Republican Senator Vandenberg, who obviously belonged to the opposite party from Dean Acheson, the then Secretary of State. Senator Vandenberg made his first visit to Europe in that capacity. He came down the companion way of the aircraft at Le Bourget—which is where planes landed in Paris at that time—and the assembled French press asked him to say something in French. It was a language of which he was imperfectly the master, but there came into his head a single sentence from his school days—in deference to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to the House I shall render it in English—"There have been no great men since Mirabeau". The entire French press spent the 940 next three days trying to work out the significance of that remark as uttered by the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Mirabeau has a significance for tonight's debate as he was the first man in the history of Europe to use the word "civilisation"—although, unlike Senator Vandenberg, he said it in French. The great struggle of Parliament with the king and then with the Executive obviously goes back much further than Mirabeau's creation of the word "civilisation". However, within 10 years of his using it, we saw the Wilkes affair, which convulsed my constituency in more ways than one. Tonight is just another moment in our remarkable parliamentary evolution. It is not remotely on the same scale as Wilkes, but is still significant as a thread in the tapestry.
Even during my time in the House, we saw the heroic figure of Miss Mary Frampton, then secretary to the Serjeant at Arms, crossing my constituency to summon the late Sir Charles villiers to the House to give evidence to one of the few Select Committees that then existed, when he had earlier declined to come—an episode about which Sir Richard Barlas may have been writing in the quotation given earlier in the debate. This debate itself will be a quarry for future historians.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley)—I hope that I have pronounced his constituency correctly; fortunately, it will end up by being spelt properly—described the three separate stands that the Foreign Secretary has taken towards the Select Committee. I shall not rehearse them again, but off two of those stands he has been driven by the Select Committee and by the force of events.
Some years back, I stood on the field of the battle of the Imjin river in Korea on its 40th anniversary, in the presence of Sir Anthony Farrar Hockley, at that stage the adjutant of the Gloucesters, now the gallant Gloucesters, who described most vividly how the battle had gone. What was very clear that day was just how much the three days that the Gloucesters, the Royal Ulster Rifles and the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, and a fourth Belgian battalion had held the ridge against 30,000 Chinese had mattered to the future course of the war. However, it is a little less clear to me why the Foreign Secretary has spent the best part of not three days but three months defending the Government's position on Sierra Leone, with such intended unyielding tenacity, though he has been obliged to retreat. It may be because of the old jest that the Foreign Office understands every legislature in the world except this one.
The Leader of the House said that the Opposition had initiated the debate because we found opposition difficult. I am one of the fewer than one in five on the Official Opposition Benches who has been in opposition before. I personally have found one slips back into opposition mode as if into a glove. Today's debate has belied the observation of the Leader of the House.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who has returned to the Chamber, said at 4.30 pm, more than four hours ago, that it was not clear why we were having the debate at all, given the incipient and imminent agreement between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Select Committee. The implication was that the rest of the debate would be nugatory. However, when the hon. Gentleman intervened, the game was not yet over. As I see most things in life through a filter of 941 cricket, it was rather like the final day of the Old Trafford test yesterday, when patently the game swung backwards and forwards and it was not over until the last ball was bowled. It is since the hon. Gentleman's intervention that the scale of the Foreign Secretary's retreat has become apparent. On the Select Committee of which I am a member we have noticed how those we are investigating set up internal inquiries to take a look at the issues that we are pursuing, although not, obviously, on the same scale as the Legg inquiry.
In the same way, the flurry of correspondence which has potentially led to a happy detente between the Foreign Secretary and the Select Committee may have been in part prompted, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington implied, by the subject of the debate, given that eight approaches had previously been made to the Government to conduct such a debate in Government time. As to why it had to be an Opposition day and not one offered by the Government, I am reminded, not least by the Foreign Secretary, in his letter of 6 July offering 28 July as a date for his rendezvous with the Select Committee, of the lines by the late Sir John Betjeman in his poem about Miss Joan Hunter Dunn:Her father's euonymous beckons us inTo the six o'clock news and the lime juice and gin.Six o'clock is when many cricket matches end. I am left wondering whether, like yesterday evening in Manchester, the Foreign Office has not been batting out time, though for the six o'clock news in Betjeman's poem one read the summer recess, as the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington said. In that respect, the Foreign Secretary would be holding his ground. He has never in the past been a man for Tuscany in August. In opposition, he was always happiest in August facing a television camera on the green sward further down Millbank, and it is certainly a pleasanter refuge for questions than the House.
The importance of today has been what the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), said at the end of his speech, when he commented that today's debate has been an important precedent. It will find a tiny place in parliamentary history, and it has been conducted in terms and tones, and occasional flurries, wholly worthy of that history. One of the tests that it passes today is that at a quarter to 9 it is still going strong, and the Whips on either side of the House have not had to scour and trawl the Corridors of the House to provide speakers.
§ Mr. Jimmy Hood (Clydesdale)
As we await the final of the world cup competition, it would appear tonight that the Opposition have scored an own goal. If I might borrow a phrase from the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), the fox has been shot. The debate must be somewhat embarrassing for the Opposition. If the Opposition are not embarrassed, they should be. I am sure that they are embarrassed.
As Chairman of the Select Committee on European Legislation, I welcome the opportunity to have a discussion on Select Committees. I have no problems in supporting the Government amendment. I say to right hon. and hon. Members who serve on the Select 942 Committee on Foreign Affairs that I congratulate them on getting a debate on the Floor of the House. In my function as a Committee Chairman in this place, I know how difficult it is for a Select Committee to get such a debate.
Transparency and scrutiny must be the watchwords of the House. We know that. We saw the abuse of power by the centralised control freaks in the previous Government. It is not my intention to score party political points, but it is difficult to sit in the Chamber for the hours that we have this evening listening to Her Majesty's Opposition and to forget that for at least the 11 years of my term in the House, 10 were in opposition when the Conservatives were in government. It is a bit rich to hear some of the protestations that come from Conservative Members.
I return to the need for transparency and scrutiny. The truth is that the Government are improving the procedures. The report of the Modernisation Committee, which has recently been published, will give more powers and influence to my Select Committee, which we welcome. Having said that, I will always advise Governments that Select Committees should not be seen as threats to Ministers or to political careers, as can sometimes happen. My Select Committee, the Select Committee on European Legislation, is well known to Government Departments. Sadly, scrutinising 1,200 documents a year is not a sexy pastime. It is not even sexy enough for the Lobby journalists, who keep telling us how to do our job. I am sure that The Guardian scribbler, who wrote such an article that appeared today, will have been sitting in the Press Gallery for hours listening to this very good debate.
In the Select Committee on European Legislation, we have a difficult, complex but rewarding task to scrutinise European legislation. I mention in passing the excellent speech made by the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). He addressed not the issue of Sierra Leone but the need to have transparency and scrutiny and what Select Committees are all about, how they have power, and how they should use that power for the benefit of the House.
I have been Chairman of a Select Committee during a Conservative Government and since the new Labour Government took over. That is more than six years. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Divisions that we have had in the Select Committee in coming to decisions on the many hundreds of recommendations that we make. We take our strength from our unanimity. We take our power and it is to be hoped that we use it for the benefit of the House. It is a power that we use for the House, and in so doing we do not play the partisan games that politicians sometimes indulge in.
We should always remember that Select Committees perform the duties that charge them with the responsibility of defending democracy. In defending that democracy, we defend the democratic process. Public service is an honourable profession. But because of the misconduct and, yes, dishonesty and lack of probity of a small number in public life our honourable profession is, on occasions, made a laughing stock.
In addressing this important subject, I want to put down a marker. Mention has already been made about devolution in the United Kingdom. It is important that where that devolution is taking place—in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and London—people learn from our mistakes and do 943 not fall into the same traps that we have fallen into on many occasions here. It is vital that we consider all areas of public service in defending our democracy.
My years in local government prepared me for this place. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the centralised powers in the hands of a few cliques in local government did great damage to our democratic process. After 18 years of Conservative Government, the centralisation of power resulted in central and local government being taken away from the people whom it is meant to serve.
We hear many ideas about better management, more democracy, constitutional reform and the giving of power to communities and people. Without transparency, democratic accountability and real debate, our claim to be the mother of Parliaments is shallow and transparently so. Local government has its problems. Mayors and proportional representation will not solve those problems. If the management of the political and administrative process is not addressed, democracy is seriously threatened.
When we speak about reforming our democracy and devolving power, why not look at local government and talk about having not inspectors who call in without notice, but a scrutiny process whereby back-bench councillors in scrutiny committees scrutinise their executive and management systems? I hope that we shall address that when we consider the reform of our democratic processes.
I conclude by calling for a higher priority to be given to the need for a right of information Bill. Do not let the enemies of democracy hide behind the curtains of secrecy, deceit and self-interest. We are here to protect the democratic process that we are here to use to serve our people. We need to do that, and our watchwords must be scrutiny and transparency.
§ Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)
I begin by apologising to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to the House and, in particular, to the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), who is looking particularly agitated, for not being here at the beginning of the debate. As I explained in a letter to Madam Speaker yesterday, my absence was due to a long-standing speaking engagement at the royal show, explaining the role of Select Committees to the Tenant Farmers Association. I hope that I was carrying at least some of the interesting messages of this debate to a wider audience served by my Select Committee, the Agriculture Committee.
The point has already been made by many hon. Members, and I am sure that it will be made by many more before the end of the debate, that Select Committees are becoming increasingly important in the scrutiny of the Executive. That is why today's debate is so important. I listened with great care to what the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) said about that.
I am glad that the Government and the House are determined to give increased powers to Select Committees. My Select Committee will shortly play a part in scrutinising the draft Bill to establish a Food Standards Agency. I am glad about that. I am glad that the Procedure Committee, to which I recently gave evidence, is considering Select Committees' increased ability to look at Departments' estimates. That is a good thing, too. I 944 am also glad that the Modernisation Committee has been considering the role of Select Committees in European legislation. I have reservations about resources, but that is clearly another example of the way in which Select Committees can contribute to the good working of this place. However, I have a continuing concern that those various issues are putting an increased demand on Select Committees.
Select Committees must respond to the demands properly and with responsibility. I am not always clear that Select Committees have discharged their functions responsibly. They can sometimes forget that their prime purpose is to scrutinise the Executive, not miscreants from a wider world. That is our job, and that is what the Foreign Affairs Committee is seeking to do so well at present.
I recognise that the Government are right to draw attention to the problems sometimes caused by parallel inquiries. I was a special adviser at the Department of Trade and Industry when the Trade and Industry Committee decided to consider the sale of Rover at precisely the moment when the Government were trying to sell it. It is difficult to have a commercial negotiation when a Select Committee is seeking to expose one's negotiating tactics in televised evidence sessions.
I particularly agree with what the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) said about Select Committees working best when they work on the basis of consensus. That is clearly the case. As a man who wears the party hat with pride, I have sometimes failed the test of impartiality in the Chair. I shall strive to do better in future because what the hon. Gentleman says is right.
The point has also been made that it is important to co-operate with the Department that is being shadowed. Wherever possible, a relationship of trust should exist between the Committee and the Department. It is right that I should put it on the record that just such a relationship of trust exists between the Agriculture Committee and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, for which I am grateful.
I do not want to explore the rights and wrongs of the particular case that has resulted in today's debate. The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington did that with great skill and her usual charm. Instead, I want briefly to consider the three issues of principle that the episode raises—the examination of officials bound by policy, a prejudice to the existing inquiry and the establishment of Government inquiries that Select Committees may wish to shadow.
I shall deal first with the question of officials. In a letter to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Foreign Secretary says Select Committeesare not entitled to … persist in pursuing a parallel enquiry by summoning officials who are bound by the collective policy of the Government.I have some sympathy with the second half of that statement. Select Committees must be careful to make the distinction between policy and procedure and when they have an official before them not to push him on policy issues. However, the first part of the statement is wrong; Select Committees do have the power to pursue parallel inquiries, a matter to which I shall return.
The second issue of principle is parallel inquiries and the damage that might be done to a Government-established inquiry by a Select Committee inquiry. 945 The Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Affairs Committee simply disagree about that, and the House would be right to back the views of the Committee, not those of the Foreign Secretary and the Government. In his letter of 30 June to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Foreign Secretary asserts:It is the collective view of the Government that a parallel enquiry drawing on the same papers that are currently before the Legg investigation would be prejudicial to the rapid production of a balanced and considered report.I have to ask why. I cannot understand the logic in that statement and think that there is no such threat of prejudice. If two organisations want to conduct an inquiry, so be it—the House should always have a right to conduct an inquiry.
That leads to the most important point in my deliberately brief speech—the establishment of inquiries by Governments.
§ Mr. Ernie Ross
I know that the hon. Gentleman is trying to be brief and I shall not delay him for long, but, because he was not present when the debate started, he may not understand that the problem is that we are not pursuing an inquiry.
§ Mr. Luff
I understand that point, but I want to raise the point of principle—these issues could have serious implications. In his letter to the Foreign Secretary dated 11 June, the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee stated:The Committee rejects the principle, implicit in your current position, that the establishment of a Government enquiry in a particular area precludes the supply to a Select Committee of factual material which may also fall within the scope of that enquiry. No area of Government expenditure, administration or policy can be `ring-fenced' from parliamentary scrutiny by the establishment of a Government enquiry, however eminent are those conducting it.That is the most important question that hon. Members face this evening.
The House must remain sovereign and its Select Committees must remain sovereign to determine their own agenda—no matter what may be happening in the Executive or in the wider world—and subject only to the rules of sub judice.
§ Mr. Winnick
The hon. Gentleman was unable to be present earlier and he has given his apology, but he may be unaware that many examples were given, especially by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), of a number of Select Committees being involved in constant disputes with Departments during the previous Parliament, when the hon. Gentleman's party was in power. Departments would not supply information that Select Committees wanted and, although some of those disputes occurred when the hon. Gentleman was a Member of Parliament, I cannot remember his protesting about them in the House.
§ Mr. Luff
No party has a monopoly of virtue on this issue and I do not want to trade party points on it. I understand what the hon. Gentleman says—I have some sympathy for it—but we have to establish the point of principle that the Legg inquiry must not be used as a precedent to prevent Select Committee from looking into certain subjects. There is a risk that that will happen.
946 Select Committees must be free to determine their own agenda and should not be told by the Government that they are not free to pursue inquiries because the Government have conducted or are conducting inquiries. That could be the implication of the issues that we are discussing and my Committee has been faced with that dilemma.
The Government have established an inquiry into bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which has won a freedom of information award, of which Sir Nicholas Phillips is rightly very proud, for use of the internet. I regularly follow the BSE inquiry on the internet: it is a fine inquiry, but it should be with £10 million or so to spend. My Committee has a budget for staff and other ancillary costs of about a third of a million pounds a year—to do all our work. We could not possibly match the BSE inquiry, so we did not even have a decision to take: such a well-resourced inquiry would always outshine anything that we could produce.
That brings me back to the resourcing of Select Committees, which is important. If the Government had put the BSE inquiry out to competitive tender, my Select Committee might have bid for it and perhaps carried it out at lower cost than the Phillips inquiry. Like every other Select Committee member who has spoken in the debate, I am intensely proud of the staff who serve us. That unites hon. Members: we are well served by the Clerks and their assistants and we should thank them publicly for the work they do.
The debate has highlighted three important matters. First, we agree as a House that Select Committees should have increased powers. That would be a good thing which would build on the reform established by the previous Government. I am glad that this Government are taking that process forward. Secondly, we also agree that we need to increase resources if we are to do our job well and effectively, although that is a problem. Thirdly, the simple message that the House must send out in the vote this evening is that Select Committees should be free to set their own agendas; they should not have them determined by the Executive.
§ 9.2 pm
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) for the handsome apology that he offered for his unavoidable absence at the beginning of the debate. He mentioned me during his apology. I have no complaint whatever about being the last Back Bencher to be called to speak; you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be able to confirm that I have spoken frequently in the House this year, mainly about Northern Ireland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) was, to a large extent, correct when he intervened on the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire to say that we are not conducting an inquiry. I differ slightly from my hon. Friend on this issue. The Committee, which is deeply divided not only on votes on the Chairman's draft report but on other matters, has drifted into an ad hoc examination of what I have described as a deeply disquieting affair.
Not long ago, Sir John Kerr appeared before the Select Committee to discuss expenditure. I asked him about the cost of the new embassy in Moscow and said that, at £81.35 million, it was costing more than our new 947 Scottish Parliament. He replied that, as a Glaswegian, he knew that security risks in Edinburgh are not as high as they are in Moscow. I wanted to ask why some of that money was not spent on employing more representatives down by way of the Caspian sea, but we drifted into another examination into Sierra Leone.
The Committee is deeply divided. The hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin), who is no longer in the Chamber, talked about consensus and unanimity, both of which are utterly absent from the Select Committee. I speak as a member of the Committee. I have demanded formal votes on a number of issues during the Committee's proceedings. I make no complaint about that.
In case anyone thinks that I am a stooge of the Whips Office, perhaps I may explain. My hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) is not in the Chamber at the moment, but I nominated him to chair the Committee, much to the anger of the then Deputy Chief Whip, Don Dixon, who, like me, is a former shipwright. He gave me a shipwright's interview after that particular Committee meeting. Thus my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale owes his position to me and others who supported me when I nominated him.
My colleagues on the Committee know where I stand on the Legg report: we drifted into that absurd inquiry. I have always demanded that a comprehensive, thorough inquiry should start when the Legg report is published. The Foreign Secretary should appear before the Committee to be cross-examined on its findings and recommendations. When that happens—hopefully in about three weeks' time—we may find that we can reveal inadequacies in the Legg inquiry. My hon. Friends and others on the Committee may then be willing to listen to my advocacy of a comprehensive investigation once the Legg committee has reported.
I am pleased that there has been some support for my view that it is much better—for hon. Members and the public—for a Minister to be cross-examined by intelligent members of a Select Committee than for a debate to be initiated in the Chamber. I heard a Committee Chairman—a former Minister—say that it is the easiest thing in the world to brush people off when one is at the Dispatch Box. It is impossible for a Back Bencher to cross-examine a Minister in a debate because if it is a popular debate the Speaker will impose a 10-minute limit on speeches. In a Select Committee hearing, however, there is no way a Minister or an official can dodge the column. He or she is there to be cross-examined, and that is what I want to happen later this month. I want the Foreign Secretary, perhaps accompanied by Sir John Kerr, to give evidence once we have copies of the Legg report before us.
I established some time ago that the Legg inquiry is utterly different from a judicial inquiry. In a question that I put to Sir John Kerr on 9 June, which appears on page 9 of the minutes of evidence, I said that he would surely agree with me thatWith regard to the status of the Legg enquiry I take on board what you have said and the seriousness with which you made those observations but the Legg enquiry, is it not, is utterly different … from, say, the enquiry into Bloody Sunday which is being conducted by Lord Saville".That inquiry begins its public proceedings in Derry on 20 July if the families do not walk away from it because of the sparseness of legal representation that Saville has 948 proposed for them—but that is another story. Lord Saville is accompanied by two international jurists from New Zealand and Canada. That inquiry is utterly different from Legg, as I said on 9 June.
I told Sir John Kerr that, in the interests of natural justice, I did not want to be a party to an ad hoc inquiry that damaged the interests of officials who faced a judicial tribunal or some form of disciplinary action.
I agree with what has been said about the need to maintain the independence of Select Committees. The comment made by the hon. Member for Romsey—that Select Committees should offer advice to Ministers on alternatives—was strange. Select Committees must remain independent of the Executive. I cannot see how the role of critic and adviser can be mixed.
In general terms, I agree with much of what has been said about the role of Select Committees vis-a-vis the Executive. I shall not be a Member of the Scottish Parliament—the wife may be and perhaps someone's son will be—but I want Back-Bench Committees in that Parliament to have the power to cross-examine the First Minister. I want the same to happen in the Northern Ireland Assembly.
§ Dr. Godman
My hon. Friend will have to be patient for a moment, because I am in full spate—speaking as a trout fisherman.
We have heard some Holy Willie speeches about the goodness and rightness of some members of the Committee. We also heard a remarkably fine speech—hon. Members will forgive me for focusing on one speech—by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). He warned us about the danger facing Committees—particularly the Foreign Affairs Committee—of falling into disrepute. I am glad that he has regained his place. I listened to him carefully. He is right about sustained leaking—not that that is happening in the Foreign Affairs Committee. The divisions in that Committee could bring it into disrepute. The classic example of that was the Scottish Affairs Committee between 1982 and 1987. Despite the remarkable efforts of Mr. David Lambie, the then Chairman, there were leaks from that Committee all the time.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West will remember the Scott Lithgow inquiry, which examined a shipyard in my constituency that faced collapse with the loss of 5,500 jobs. There were 99 Divisions on the Chairman's draft report, which was not very long. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne laughs. I said, "Let's go for the century and get into the Guinness book of parliamentary records." That report, which could have been substantial, was ridiculed when it was published.
As a member of the Committee—not that I was a leaker, you understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I moved a motion for a minority report because I was so disgusted by the way in which members of the Government were behaving. I seem to recall that one was the late Nicholas Fairbairn—I should now be murmuring, "De mortuis nil nisi bonum". He and others, including Mr. Forsyth, set out to wreck what could have been a good report.
§ Ms Abbott
I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend's speech. I think that he may be in danger of giving 949 the House a mistaken impression. Earlier, he suggested that there was some opposition on the Foreign Affairs Committee to the notion that it should take evidence from the Foreign Secretary after the publication of the Legg report.
I do not think that anyone ever opposed the taking of evidence from the Foreign Secretary after publication of the report; in fact, it goes without saying that the Committee would take evidence on a major report of that kind. The point at issue was whether we should close down the inquiry until Legg had reported—given that, at that point, we did not know whether the inquiry would finish in the summer or the autumn.
§ Dr. Godman
My hon. Friend clearly was not listening diligently enough. I referred earlier to my questions to Sir John Kerr. I said that the Committee could be trusted with the telegrams. In fact, I was complimented by the Chairman of the Committee on getting to the heart of the matter.
I think that the famous, or infamous, telegrams should be scrutinised by members of the Committee. I disagree with the Chairman, who suggested that two Committee members should go to the Foreign Office so that the accuracy of the summary of the telegrams could be assessed; I believe that three should go there. I suggested that to the Chairman when I sought to amend his memorandum. I think that two Labour members and one Opposition member should go to the Foreign Office to check the accuracy of the summary. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was not present when I said that.
Let me tell the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that no one has attempted to bully me. Let us get that straight: no one in the House could bully me. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—an old friend—on the rare occasions when I vote against the Government, I always inform the Chief Whip first. We are two courteous fellows, my hon. Friend and me.
I think that the most important speech was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. What I want to avoid is the possibility of the Committee's falling into disrepute. I do not want what happened to the Scottish Affairs Committee to happen to us. After the publication of the Scott Lithgow report, that Select Committee took on some of the appurtenances of a Standing Committee: it was Labour versus Conservatives. Occasionally a few Liberals attended, but we know what certain parties—the Scottish National party and others—are like in terms of poor attendance. In any event, the discussion became very adversarial.
The Gartcosh report is another example. Mr. Forsyth—later Sir Michael—said at one meeting at which we were debating a draft report, "I will go for 24 hours on this." Journalists said to us, "This is mad: this is not what a Select Committee should be doing." We should at all costs avoid such a fate.
I must finish my speech before I upset the Front Benchers, but let me say one more thing. I reminded Sir John Kerr and the Foreign Secretary that, as can be seen in subsection (j) of paragraph 28 of the ministerial code,Every effort should be made to avoid leaving significant announcements to the last day before a Recess.950 I said that I wanted the Legg report to be published long before the recess so that we could have the Foreign Secretary in front of us to be cross-examined on the report's findings. My view is that we should have a statement from the Dispatch Box—presumably on the day the report is published—followed by a meeting of the Select Committee at which the Foreign Secretary is cross-examined, followed by a full day's debate. Members could then have, in preparation for that debate, the Legg report and the Foreign Affairs Committee's special report on the evidence session with the Foreign Secretary. That is the way I should like things to proceed. I suspect that they will not proceed in that way.
I deeply regret the divisions in the Select Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne is right: a majority and a minority report were not worth much. It is much better to aim for unanimity and consensus and I hope that, in future, the Select Committee can aim for unanimity and even a modicum of harmony among its members. That is a long shot at the moment, but this is an important Select Committee. It is no more important than others perhaps, but it is in danger of being ignored by the House and the outside world, and that would be a matter for profound regret.
By all means let us examine the telegrams. I should like to be one of those who go along to the Foreign Office to assess the accuracy of what has been given to all members of the Select Committee. I suspect that other good and honourable members will be chosen, but that offer is there. I voted against that paragraph in the report when it was put forward as an amendment; it became paragraph 6. I will vote against the motion because we have now obtained concessions from the Foreign Secretary.
It might have been better if we had decided as a Select Committee to carry out a thorough investigation of this deeply disquieting affair, but I believe the opportunity is still with us. The Foreign Secretary—I am delighted to see him coming in for my final words—has, I believe, offered to come in front of us; I think that one date is 28 July. I hope that, before that date, Sir Thomas Legg will publish his report so that we can cross-examine the Foreign Secretary on its findings. From there, the Committee—who knows?—might reach a unanimous decision to go ahead with a comprehensive investigation into this affair.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)
I think that we all agree with the closing words of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) expressing the hope that the Select Committee will be able to come to some unanimous conclusions, but we must begin by considering why this debate has been held. It has been a very good debate. It has been extremely useful and it has achieved something, but it has been held because of two sentences in two reports by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
In their first special report, the Select Committee's members had as their final comment the simple words:The views of the House are sought.In their second special report, they ended their sixth paragraph with these clear, emphatic words:The views of the House are sought at an early date.951 The Leader of the House well knows that, for some weeks now, we have been requesting a debate, so that the House's views could indeed be ascertained. I regret that she did not feel able to find the time. It was only because she did not feel able to do so that we, for the House as a whole, decided to devote this Opposition day to this subject. Although there are some hon. Members who have regretted that, I do not think that there are many because, coming through all the speeches, although there have been differences of emphasis and degree, have been two strong points. First, there is a desire on both sides of the House to see the Select Committee system work. Secondly, there is a recognition that the debate has achieved something.
We can feel justified in choosing this subject by the exchange of letters we have seen today—I am glad to see the Foreign Secretary on the Front Bench. We are all grateful to the Foreign Secretary for what he said in the letter of 6 July and everyone in the House is grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for agreeing that the documents should be made available to every Member of the House.
Since the Foreign Secretary is present, I can tell him that there is one point in the 6 July letter which causes me some concern. The letter states:I will not be able, before the completion of the report, to disclose information on matters that may fall within Sir Thomas Legg's remit.I hope that that does not negate the rest of the letter. I take the letter to be a genuine attempt by the Foreign Secretary to move towards the Select Committee. I hope that that is the case and I trust that there will be smoother progress henceforth.
We have heard some remarkable speeches in the debate, but none so remarkable as that made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). It was an absolutely masterly and courageous speech. She spoke without fear or favour and she spoke as a Member of the House of Commons. As I listened to her I could not help but remember some of my experiences some years ago when I found myself frozen out on certain Select Committees. I was not nominated to chair a Committee that I had hoped to chair, and so on. I hope that that fate will not befall her. She is an outstanding parliamentarian and she reminded us that we are all, first and foremost, Members of Parliament.
The trouble today is that so many come here with the ambition to serve in government and they tend to forget that the prime role of Parliament is to hold the Executive to account and to scrutinise, not only their legislation, but their actions. That is the reason behind the creation of the departmental Select Committees. From the start, they have laboured under severe limitations. They have never had the power to ensure that their reports are debated on the Floor of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) reminded us in his excellent speech, the power of the Committee of Selection has occasionally militated against the expressed desire of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) that Committees should be unanimous. Obviously, it is only by selecting men and women of proven judgment and independence of mind that one can have a Select Committee that will really perform its function.
In spite of all the imperfections, the Select Committee system, as established in 1979, has a remarkable record. However, it cannot work if blocks are placed upon 952 discussions or investigations by the withholding of material that is vital to a Committee's inquiries. That has come through in every speech that we have heard.
We are not, and have not been, discussing when or even whether or by whom arms were supplied to a small west African country. I do not suppose there is a single hon. Member who does not believe that the collapse of the military regime was, in the words of "1066 and all that", A Good Thing. What is most emphatically a bad thing is the refusal of Ministers to allow Select Committees proper access to information that they need to conduct their investigations and to prepare proper reports for the House. We have to remind ourselves that they are Select Committees of the House and that they are answerable, not to the Executive, but to the House. If I can paraphrase the words of Burke in his famous address to the electors of Bristol, Select Committees owe the House their industry and their judgment. They should never be cowed by any Executive.
The survival of our parliamentary democracy depends on a certain amount of tension. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was extremely honest about that. Those of us who have served on Select Committees while our parties have been in government know that there is some tension between one's loyalty to the House and the Select Committee and one's natural loyalty to party. That came out particularly well in the speech of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). No one could say that he is anything other than a very notable parliamentarian. He made his support—indeed, his affection—for the Foreign Secretary very plain; he is a great supporter of the Foreign Secretary. Therefore, he had a certain amount of mental turmoil to overcome in voting as he did, and we honour him the more for that.
The other thing about Select Committees is that although they have an underlying tension, they also depend on an underlying trust. Without that, there can be no accepted ground rules and no properly functioning official channels. If the Executive of the day decides to use its majority in a steamroller fashion, it is not just the Opposition who will be crushed, but the whole mechanism by which Parliament functions.
The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington made that point explicitly when she talked about the vast majority that the Government currently enjoy. I think back to 1983 when the Conservative Government had not quite as large a majority, but nevertheless a large majority. An arrogance crept in—there is no doubt about that—and we made some very real mistakes. I frequently found myself in the opposite Lobby from my party and it was not a pleasant experience. I say to Labour Members—but not those on the Treasury Bench because they have a particular function—that they must hold this Executive to account, just as they sought to hold us to account when we were in government.
It is for all those reasons that we felt it necessary to table the motion. It is why I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will feel able to accept it. The Leader of the House said in her opening speech that she had been minded—I must not distort her words, she said "tempted"—to accept the motion. I would like her, for once, to yield to temptation. She is not a yielding sort—she has great strength of character and she is not easily persuaded to adopt a course different from that upon which she has set herself. However, it would be a 953 good thing—and the Parliamentary Secretary may be able to enlighten us on this when he replies—if the Government said, "Let us all, in the interests of Parliament as a whole, accept the motion and not divide the House."
There were 17 speeches from the Back Benches. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) performed a signal service in the way that he conducted himself on the Select Committee. I am glad to see Labour Members nodding in agreement. My right hon. Friend has behaved as a true House of Commons man. He was right to quote "Erskine May" and say that it is a key right of Select Committees to require witnesses to answer questions.
I have already thanked the hon. Member for Swansea, East for making the letters available. Although he made it plain that if there were a vote he would go into the opposite Lobby from us, he also made it plain that he believed that the Foreign Secretary had moved some considerable distance as a result of the report and the calling of this debate. Perhaps the whole sorry business that has brought us here tonight was best summed up in two words used by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who called it an "inglorious episode".
There was a very thoughtful speech, as we have come to expect, from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. No hon. Member has served Parliament better than he. He has been a distinguished Chairman of the Public Accounts Select Committee. He is now Chairman of the Liaison Committee, and speaks with great wisdom and long experience. I agree with him emphatically that it is most persuasive and always desirable if a Select Committee can speak with a united voice. However, on this occasion, for very honourable reasons, two—in some Divisions, three—Labour Members on the Committee did not feel that they could go along with a certain proposed line and therefore did not.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Yes; I accept that correction from the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), who made a very entertaining speech, in which he said that he felt that some of his colleagues were trapped in an "obsessional loop". I am not quite sure what that means, although he will undoubtedly be able to explain what he meant by that to his colleagues in the Lobby—if they go into the same one. He also defended himself for using a certain procedural device—which was an entirely legitimate thing to do. However, I thought that it was a rather weak defence to say, "Please, your honour, it wasn't the first time in 60 years that it had been used—it was the second time." That did not seem to be a terribly strong defence.
My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley)—the most elegant of gamekeepers turned poacher—spoke with quiet passion on the importance of Select Committees. I am sure that, in her new role on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, she will prove to be an increasingly valuable member of it.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
I have only a few minutes. I nearly always do give way, but—if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me—I want to give the Minister proper time to reply to the debate.
954 My hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) gave a very balanced assessment of Select Committees. He said that we had probably shot the fox—I think he is right—and we are glad about that. The hon. Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) did not agree with that, and said that we should not have chosen this debate. Yet almost every word he uttered proved that we had been exceptionally wise so to do.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) delivered, as he always does, an inimitably witty speech, full of literary allusions and cricketing analogies that had the House hugely entertained. He, too, is a great House of Commons man.
At the risk of embarrassing the hon. Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood)—he is not in the Chamber at the moment—I should say that the House owes him a great debt for the way in which he has presided over the European Legislation Select Committee, to which he referred.
We heard speeches also from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff)—straight back from the royal show, and now Chairman of the Agriculture Select Committee—and from the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman), who always speaks feelingly on these matters.
As our system of parliamentary democracy has evolved, battles have occasionally been fought with an overmighty Executive. In the 16th and 17th centuries, absolute monarchs came to realise the need of working with and then through the House. In the 18th century, the battle continued. Perhaps the most remarkable episode in that century came about in 1780, when a Colonel Dunning tabled a motion, which was passed, stating that the power of the Crown has increased, is increasing and ought to be diminished—[Interruption.]
The Leader of the House should contain herself and listen. We are debating, not the power of the Crown, but the power of an overmighty Executive. It is all very well for the Government to luxuriate in a majority of 179, but the fact is that an Executive that becomes overweening and overmighty not only sows the seeds of its own destruction but does great damage in the process.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Yes, as we did with the poll tax. The hon. Gentleman knows what I did on the poll tax on every occasion.
Today, we do not have at our command the elegance of the 18th century wits. We no longer cite in evidence Drapier's letters; we are reduced to Mr. Draper's mobile telephone. What we—most of us, I hope—do have in common with our forebears is a passionate desire to preserve this institution. On the future of this institution the freedoms of our country still rest, and there is no more valuable part of Parliament now than our Select Committee system. We damage it at our peril and to the detriment of those who send us here and whom we seek to serve.
The Leader of the House said that she was tempted to accept the motion. We were tempted to say that we would not press it to a vote, but there is still a gap between us. We believe it is important that we should send a warning and that certain hon. Members should be given the opportunity to stand up and be counted in support of 955 the Select Committee system. It is therefore with great reluctance but total determination that we shall go into the Lobbies at the end of this debate and, in so doing, feel that we are not dividing the House, but voting for Parliament.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle)
It is with some pleasure that I ask the House to vote against the Opposition motion and support the amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. We have had a wide-ranging but not especially enlightening debate. However, it has left me in good humour, as the speeches of Conservative Members were so soporific.
I have to make at least some reference to the way in which the debate came about. I have asked myself what was the purpose of this debate. Increasingly, as the long hours have worn on, it struck me that it is something akin to a family squabble. It is as if the members of the Select Committee cannot agree among themselves and have transferred the arguments to the Floor of the House. Indeed, I often felt like an intruder in that family squabble. Hon. Members from all quarters have made the same point.
I must respond immediately to various remarks that have been made. The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) made a number of valuable points, which assisted my understanding of what has being going on in the Select Committee. He said that there wasconfusion between the two compromises".I would argue that the confusion is certainly not with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary or with his Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The confusion has been among the members of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling waxed lyrical about accountability to the House. I cannot think of anyone who has striven more gallantly and valiantly to be accountable, not only to the House as a whole but to the Select Committee, than my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling said that the Foreign Secretary had been perfectly within his rights to take up successive positions, and nothing that I have heard today has persuaded me otherwise. The right hon. Gentleman also said that the Foreign Secretary had gone much further than the Pergau precedent.
The subject matter of the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, seemed rather arcane to many of us. Nevertheless, it seems that the most appropriate place to deal with the differences of opinion that obtained in the Select Committee ought surely to be the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons. It could resolve the correct way forward, not just for the Foreign Affairs Committee but for other Select Committees. He also raised the issue of accountability and said that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had gone much further than the Select Committee in effecting a compromise. I have to agree with him and repeat the message that the disagreement is among hon. Members. We shall deal later with the analogy used by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster 956 (Mr. Brooke) when we talk about the game that is being played. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) made a similar point.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) described Sir Thomas Legg rather disparagingly, if I may say so, as a mandarin, as if that in itself were a pejorative term. Sir Thomas Legg is an outstanding public servant, and any imputation against either his impartiality or his ability to deal with a complex situation is to be deplored. He is attended by another equally eminent and impartial figure in Sir Robin Ibbs. The hon. Gentleman's entire speech was ruined by what I considered to be an attack on civil servants, whom he strangely accused of being guilty only of following the instructions of Ministers. Civil servants do follow the instructions of Ministers and they have their own code of conduct. Anyone who has experience of working with civil servants will know that their sense of probity and the way in which they conduct themselves and their careers are mainly beyond reproach, although there may be exceptions.
I agree with my right hon. and hon. Friends who said that, for us at least, the high point of today's debate was the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who is well regarded as an expert on Select Committees. As he said, he has been a member of Select Committees ever since they were set up and he was certainly an eminent Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. He said that it was a shame—and he used that word—to see a Select Committee divided. He effectively made the point that this was not the place for such divisions to be resolved.
The right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) is not in his place. I wish he were, because some people say that he is a little arrogant, but I disagree. I find him very arrogant. His comments about the arrogance of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary are absolute nonsense. The right hon. Gentleman and many other Opposition Members need to divest themselves of the notion that they have some kind of political droit du seigneur in respect of who Select Committees can and cannot summon. They have not yet been able to demonstrate that Select Committees have that right. They do not. As has been said, it may be desirable. Indeed, it may be a future development, but to express the opinion that because my right hon. Friend acted in a responsible manner, he was somehow being arrogant beggars belief.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West gave an honest and in my view impartial account of the problems experienced in the Select Committee when he referred to the games that some people were playing.
I am afraid that I cannot take seriously some of the comments by the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley), who sanctimoniously sang the praises of the rights of Select Committees. If memory serves me correctly—and I stand to be corrected—when the right hon. Lady was Secretary of State for Health, a member of the then Select Committee, Mr. Jerry Hayes, the former Member for Harlow, leaked a report to the right hon. Lady and had to resign from the Select Committee as a result—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. The right hon. Lady cannot remain standing—the Minister is obviously not giving way. The right hon. Lady must sit down.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The right hon. Lady must sit down. I am ordering her to be seated, please.
§ Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not an invariable convention in the House that when one hon. Member not only names another, but positively launches an attack on her, he always gives way?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. That is not a matter for the Chair. What is a matter for the Chair is that when I give an order for an hon. Member to be seated, that hon. Member must be seated.
§ Mr. Kilfoyle
I had not even finished what I was saying, but it seems academic now.
The hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) commented, on a point of order, that the Select Committee on European Legislation had been refused the opportunity to refer certain matters to a Standing Committee. I rebut that. It was the Select Committee that changed its mind about referring matters to the Standing Committee. It is important that that should go on the record.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) is a singular individual. I am sorry that I was unable to persuade him on another occasion to vote in a certain way. I am sure that tonight he will see the sense of the Government's amendment to the Opposition motion, and I know that he will support us.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) made the point, which seems to have escaped the notice of several hon. Members, that there is at times a problem of secrecy with Select Committees. Some right hon. and hon. Members acknowledge that, but others act as if Ministers did not sometimes have to face the problem of how to deal with Select Committees. That must be recognised by all concerned.
The hon. Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) made a constructive contribution on the possible development of the role of Select Committees. He asked how advice to Ministers should be construed. I would construe it with great circumspection.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) rightly pointed out the importance of the debate, but I should tell her to beware of Tories bearing gifts of support. It is a poisoned chalice, 958 make no mistake about it. She referred to the Foreign Secretary being forced to change his mind about his response to the Select Committee. I can only say to my hon. Friend that if a Secretary of State does not wish to give information, that information will not be forthcoming.
If my hon. Friend needs confirmation of that, I refer her to the Trade and Industry Committee's third report of Session 1995–96, paragraph 168, which refers to the former President of the Board of Trade. The Committee remarked:We regret that the Government was not willing to allow the Committee, or even a single member of the Committee—a Privy Councillor and former Foreign Office Minister—to inspect the original intelligence reports.That is obduracy from a Secretary of State.
§ Mr. Kilfoyle
It certainly does not make it right, as my hon. Friend says from a sedentary position. That is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has offered time and again to compromise with the Select Committee.
I agree with the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster made a witty contribution based on an analogy with the game of cricket. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Clydesdale (Mr. Hood) pointed out that the Opposition had scored an own goal in the debate. What came to mind was the own goal scored by Colombia in 1994, and we know what happened to the player who put that own goal into his net. I hope that the same does not happen to any Opposition Member.
The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) made a general contribution on the role of Select Committees and raised again the Tory myth about resources for the Select Committees. There may indeed be a huge problem of resources, but it is not a problem for the Government. That is a matter for the House. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not blame this Government for the situation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) presented a reasoned, sensible approach to a mutually acceptable resolution of the difficulties faced by the Foreign Affairs Committee.
The hon. Member for South Staffordshire told us lots and lots about what we are not discussing. I am always amazed by his comments. Hon. Members are depicted as good Members of the House as long as they agree with the Conservative Opposition. He said that we should begin by asking why the debate had been held. I prefer the views of those of my hon. Friends who have said that some people are playing a game. The Tories are not interested in the way in which Select Committees are constituted, or in the powers of the Secretary of State or Ministers vis-à-vis particular Select Committees, but in scoring cheap political points.
For example, the hon. Gentleman referred to the alleged inability of the Leader of the House to find time for today's debate. We have had today's debate now, and I did not see many Opposition Members enjoying any stage of it. The Opposition could have chosen a half-day debate, but instead they chose a full day's debate on something that has turned out to be a damp squib.
959 The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) started off with a whimper and ended up with a sigh—at least, there was certainly a sigh of relief on Government Benches. The right hon. Gentleman made no impact and added nothing to our understanding of the issues before us.
What we are saying to the Foreign Affairs Committee is simple; it is "Not yet," rather than "No." There is nothing unusual about a Select Committee awaiting the outcome of a specific formal inquiry. There is nothing unusual about the Government deferring answers until such an inquiry has reported. The previous Government declined to answer parliamentary questions about arms to Iraq while the Scott inquiry was being held.
The present Government are committed to being open with Parliament. We are not trying to frustrate the Foreign Affairs Committee's inquiry in any way. The Committee could look at the relevant telegrams in private now, and Ministers will answer outstanding questions when Legg has reported. The only issue is whether there should be public disclosure, before Legg reports, of part of the evidence that Legg is considering.
The Legg report will be published. We want that inquiry to do a proper job and to report soon, and it cannot do so if those involved also have to answer questions in a parallel inquiry by the Select Committee. We fully respect Select Committees' right to ask for information. That is at the very heart of the way in which Parliament works, with individual Members, Select Committees and the House collectively seeking information.
Select Committees have the powers that the House gives them. They cannot be more powerful than the House itself. The House debated Sierra Leone on 18 May and agreed a resolution that included approval of the Government's commitment to an urgent outside investigation and publication of a full report. The Chairman of the Select Committee said thatit would be unwise to attempt to duplicate or parallel the inquiry".Those are his words, not mine. He also said that if the Legg inquiry were conducted in public,such an inquiry would take a long time".—[Official Report, 18 May 1998; Vol. 312, c. 621.]Those, too, are his words, not mine.
I hope that the Committee will now accept the opportunity, generously offered, to see the summary of the telegrams for which it has asked, on a well-precedented, confidential basis—named, ironically enough, the Pergau process, after an inquiry during the previous Administration that many in the House will remember well.
The Foreign Secretary has offered to appear before the Select Committee, and that may prove a way for the Committee to find its own way out of its difficulties—difficulties, I have to say, that the Committee itself has created.
§ Question put, That the original words stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 173, Noes 339.963
|Division No. 329]||[9.57 pm|
|Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)||Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)|
|Amess, David||Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)|
|Ancram, Rt Hon Michael||Ballard, Jackie|
|Arbuthnot, James||Beggs, Roy|
|Beith, Rt Hon A J||Jackson, Robert (Wantage)|
|Beresford, Sir Paul||Jenkin, Bernard|
|Blunt, Crispin||Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn)|
|Body, Sir Richard||Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)|
|Boswell, Tim||Keetch, Paul|
|Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)||Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)|
|Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia||Key, Robert|
|Brady, Graham||King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)|
|Brand, Dr Peter||Kirkbride, Miss Julie|
|Brazier, Julian||Kirkwood, Archy|
|Browning, Mrs Angela||Laing, Mrs Eleanor|
|Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)||Lait, Mrs Jacqui|
|Burnett, John||Lansley, Andrew|
|Burns, Simon||Leigh, Edward|
|Burstow, Paul||Letwin, Oliver|
|Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)||Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)|
|Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)||Lidington, David|
|Chidgey, David||Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)|
|Chope, Christopher||Llwyd, Elfyn|
|Clappison, James||Loughton, Tim|
|Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)||McIntosh, Miss Anne|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||MacKay, Andrew|
|Maclean, Rt Hon David|
|Clifton-Brown, Geoffrey||McLoughlin, Patrick|
|Collins, Tim||Madel, Sir David|
|Colvin, Michael||Malins, Humfrey|
|Cormack, Sir Patrick||Maples, John|
|Cotter, Brian||Mates, Michael|
|Cran, James||Maude, Rt Hon Francis|
|Cunningham, Ms Roseanna (Perth)||Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian|
|May, Mrs Theresa|
|Dafis, Cynog||Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)|
|Davies, Quentin (Grantham)||Moss, Malcolm|
|Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)||Nicholls, Patrick|
|Day, Stephen||Norman, Archie|
|Duncan, Alan||Oaten, Mark|
|Duncan Smith, Iain||Ottaway, Richard|
|Evans, Nigel||Page, Richard|
|Ewing, Mrs Margaret||Paice, James|
|Faber, David||Pickles, Eric|
|Fabricant, Michael||Prior, David|
|Fallon, Michael||Randall, John|
|Fearn, Ronnie||Redwood, Rt Hon John|
|Flight, Howard||Rendel, David|
|Forth, Rt Hon Eric||Robathan, Andrew|
|Foster, Don (Bath)||Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)|
|Fowler, Rt Hon Sir Norman||Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)|
|Fox, Dr Liam||Ross, William (E Lond'y)|
|Fraser, Christopher||Rowe, Andrew (Faversham)|
|Gale, Roger||Ruffley, David|
|Garnier, Edward||Russell, Bob (Colchester)|
|George, Andrew (St Ives)||St Aubyn, Nick|
|Gibb, Nick||Sanders, Adrian|
|Gill, Christopher||Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)|
|Gillan, Mrs Cheryl||Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)|
|Gorman, Mrs Teresa||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|Gorrie, Donald||Soames, Nicholas|
|Gray, James||Spelman, Mrs Caroline|
|Green, Damian||Spicer, Sir Michael|
|Greenway, John||Spring, Richard|
|Grieve, Dominic||Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Gummer, Rt Hon John||Steen, Anthony|
|Hamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie||Streeter, Gary|
|Hammond, Philip||Stunell, Andrew|
|Hancock, Mike||Swinney, John|
|Harris, Dr Evan||Syms, Robert|
|Hawkins, Nick||Tapsell, Sir Peter|
|Heald, Oliver||Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)|
|Heath, David (Somerton & Frome)||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Heathcoat-Amory, Rt Hon David||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas||Taylor, Sir Teddy|
|Howard, Rt Hon Michael||Townend, John|
|Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)||Tredinnick, David|
|Hunter, Andrew||Trend, Michael|
|Jack, Rt Hon Michael||Tyler, Paul|
|Tyrie, Andrew||Willetts, David|
|Viggers, Peter||Willis, Phil|
|Walter, Robert||Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)|
|Wardle, Charles||Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)|
|Waterson, Nigel||Woodward, Shaun|
|Webb, Steve||Young, Rt Hon Sir George|
|Whittingdale, John||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann||Mr. Peter Brooke and|
|Wilkinson, John||Mr. Peter Luff.|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Corbyn, Jeremy|
|Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)||Corston, Ms Jean|
|Anger, Nick||Cousins, Jim|
|Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)||Cranston, Ross|
|Alexander, Douglas||Crausby, David|
|Allen, Graham||Cryer, John (Hornchurch)|
|Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)||Cummings, John|
|Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)||Cunliffe, Lawrence|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John (Copeland)|
|Atherton, Ms Candy||Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)|
|Austin, John||Dalyell, Tam|
|Banks, Tony||Darvill, Keith|
|Bayley, Hugh||Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)|
|Beard, Nigel||Davidson, Ian|
|Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)|
|Begg, Miss Anne||Davies, Geraint (Croydon C)|
|Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough)||Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Dawson, Hilton|
|Bennett, Andrew F||Dean, Mrs Janet|
|Benton, Joe||Denham, John|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Dewar, Rt Hon Donald|
|Best, Harold||Dismore, Andrew|
|Betts, Clive||Dobson, Rt Hon Frank|
|Blackman, Liz||Donohoe, Brian H|
|Blizzard, Bob||Doran, Frank|
|Blunkett, Rt Hon David||Dowd, Jim|
|Boateng, Paul||Drew, David|
|Borrow, David||Dunwoody, Mrs Gwyneth|
|Bradley, Keith (Withington)||Eagle, Angela (Wallasey)|
|Brinton, Mrs Helen||Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)|
|Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)||Edwards, Huw|
|Brown, Russell (Dumfries)||Efford, Clive|
|Browne, Desmond||Ellman, Mrs Louise|
|Buck, Ms Karen||Ennis, Jeff|
|Burden, Richard||Etherington, Bill|
|Burgon, Colin||Fatchett, Derek|
|Butler, Mrs Christine||Field, Rt Hon Frank|
|Byers, Stephen||Fisher, Mark|
|Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)||Fitzpatrick, Jim|
|Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)||Fitzsimons, Lorna|
|Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)||Flint, Caroline|
|Campbell-Savours, Dale||Flynn, Paul|
|Canavan, Dennis||Follett, Barbara|
|Caplin, Ivor||Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)|
|Casale, Roger||Foster, Michael J (Worcester)|
|Caton, Martin||Fyfe, Maria|
|Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)||Galbraith, Sam|
|Chaytor, David||Gapes, Mike|
|Chisholm, Malcolm||Gardiner, Barry|
|Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)||Gerrard, Neil|
|Clark, Paul (Gillingham)||Gibson, Dr Ian|
|Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)||Gilroy, Mrs Linda|
|Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)||Godman, Dr Norman A|
|Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)||Goggins, Paul|
|Clelland, David||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Clwyd, Ann||Gordon, Mrs Eileen|
|Coaker, Vernon||Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)|
|Cohen, Harry||Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)|
|Coleman, Iain||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Colman, Tony||Grogan, John|
|Cook, Rt Hon Robin (Livingston)||Gunnell, John|
|Cooper, Yvette||Hain, Peter|
|Corbett, Robin||Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)|
|Hall, Patrick (Bedford)||McNamara, Kevin|
|Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)||McNulty, Tony|
|Hanson, David||MacShane, Denis|
|Harman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet||Mactaggart, Fiona|
|Heal, Mrs Sylvia||McWalter, Tony|
|Healey, John||McWilliam, John|
|Henderson, Ivan (Harwich)||Mahon, Mrs Alice|
|Hepburn, Stephen||Mallaber, Judy|
|Heppell, John||Mandelson, Peter|
|Hesford, Stephen||Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)|
|Hewitt, Ms Patricia||Marsden, Paul (Shrewsbury)|
|Hill, Keith||Marshall, David (Shettleston)|
|Hinchliffe, David||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Hodge, Ms Margaret||Marshall-Andrews, Robert|
|Hoey, Kate||Meacher, Rt Hon Michael|
|Home Robertson, John||Meale, Alan|
|Hood, Jimmy||Merron, Gillian|
|Hoon, Geoffrey||Michael, Alun|
|Hopkins, Kelvin||Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)|
|Howarth, Alan (Newport E)||Milburn, Alan|
|Howarth, George (Knowsley N)||Mitchell, Austin|
|Howells, Dr Kim||Moffatt, Laura|
|Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)||Moran, Ms Margaret|
|Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)||Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)|
|Humble, Mrs Joan||Morley, Elliot|
|Hurst, Alan||Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)|
|Hutton, John||Morris, Rt Hon John (Aberavon)|
|Iddon, Dr Brian||Mudie, George|
|Illsley, Eric||Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)|
|Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)||Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)|
|Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)||Norris, Dan|
|Jenkins, Brian||O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)|
|Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)||O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)|
|Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)||O'Hara, Eddie|
|Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside)||Organ, Mrs Diana|
|Jones, Mrs Fiona (Newark)||Osborne, Ms Sandra|
|Jones, Helen (Warrington N)||Palmer, Dr Nick|
|Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)||Pearson, Ian|
|Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)||Pendry, Tom|
|Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)||Perham, Ms Linda|
|Jowell, Ms Tessa||Pickthall, Colin|
|Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald||Pike, Peter L|
|Keeble, Ms Sally||Plaskitt, James|
|Kemp, Fraser||Pollard, Kerry|
|Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)||Pond, Chris|
|Kidney, David||Pope, Greg|
|Kilfoyle, Peter||Pound, Stephen|
|King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)||Powell, Sir Raymond|
|King, Ms Oona (Bethnal Green)||Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)|
|Kumar, Dr Ashok||Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)|
|Ladyman, Dr Stephen||Primarolo, Dawn|
|Lepper, David||Prosser, Gwyn|
|Leslie, Christopher||Purchase, Ken|
|Levitt, Tom||Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)||Quinn, Lawrie|
|Lewis, Terry (Worsley)||Radice, Giles|
|Liddell, Mrs Helen||Rammell, Bill|
|Linton, Martin||Rapson, Syd|
|Livingstone, Ken||Raynsford, Nick|
|Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)||Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)|
|Lock, David||Reid, Dr John (Hamilton N)|
|Love, Andrew||Robertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)|
|McAvoy, Thomas||Roche, Mrs Barbara|
|McCabe, Steve||Rogers, Allan|
|McCafferty, Ms Chris||Rooker, Jeff|
|McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)||Rooney, Terry|
|McDonagh, Siobhain||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Macdonald, Calum||Rowlands, Ted|
|McDonnell, John||Roy, Frank|
|McGuire, Mrs Anne||Ruane, Chris|
|McIsaac, Shona||Ruddock, Ms Joan|
|McKenna, Mrs Rosemary||Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)|
|Mackinlay, Andrew||Ryan, Ms Joan|
|McLeish, Henry||Salter, Martin|
|Savidge, Malcolm||Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)|
|Sedgemore, Brian||Timms, Stephen|
|Shaw, Jonathan||Tipping, Paddy|
|Sheerman, Barry||Todd, Mark|
|Short, Rt Hon Clare||Touhig, Don|
|Skinner, Dennis||Trickett, Jon|
|Smith, Rt Hon Andrew (Oxford E)||Truswell, Paul|
|Smith, Angela (Basildon)||Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)|
|Smith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)||Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)|
|Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)||Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)|
|Twigg, Derek (Halton)|
|Smith, John (Glamorgan)||Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)|
|Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)||Vaz, Keith|
|Snape, Peter||Vis, Dr Rudi|
|Soley, Clive||Ward, Ms Claire|
|Southworth, Ms Helen||Watts, David|
|Spellar, John||White, Brian|
|Squire, Ms Rachel||Whitehead, Dr Alan|
|Starkey, Dr Phyllis||Wicks, Malcolm|
|Stevenson, George||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Stewart, David (Inverness E)|
|Stewart, Ian (Eccles)||Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)|
|Stoate, Dr Howard||Winnick, David|
|Stott, Roger||Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)|
|Strang, Rt Hon Dr Gavin||Wise, Audrey|
|Straw, Rt Hon Jack||Wood, Mike|
|Stringer, Graham||Woolas, Phil|
|Stuart, Ms Gisela||Worthington, Tony|
|Sutcliffe, Gerry||Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)|
|Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)||Wright, Dr Tony (Cannock)|
|Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)|
|Taylor, David (NW Leics)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Temple-Morris, Peter||Mr. John McFall and|
|Mr. David Jamieson.|
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Question, That the proposed words be there added, put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 31 (Questions on amendments), and agreed to.
§ MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER forthwith declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to.
That this House reaffirms that, in accordance with the House's Resolution of 19th March 1997 and the Code of Practice on Access to Government Information (Second Edition, January 1997), Ministers should be as open as possible with Parliament; recalls that the House approved on 18th May 1998 the Government's commitment to an urgent outside investigation and publication of a full report of the Sierra Leone arms investigation; believes that
nothing should be done to prejudice the conduct of that inquiry by premature public disclosure of parts of the evidence; and notes that the Foreign Secretary remains ready to make available to the Foreign Affairs Committee, on a confidential basis, the telegrams it has requested.
§ Mrs. Virginia Bottomley
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. When a Minister makes an allegation about a fellow Member, particularly when it is entirely without substance, is it not a convention to allow the Member concerned to have some redress or to make some comment, especially if the Minister is responsible for open government?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I can inform the right hon. Lady that regardless of whether there is an allegation, if an hon. Member is mentioned by any hon. Member, whether it be a Minister or a Back Bencher, it is the convention that the hon. Member who made the allegation gives way. However, it is not an enforceable convention. The Chair cannot enforce it. I know that the incident to which the right hon. Lady is referring happened shortly before the vote. Perhaps it would have been helpful, when I suggested that the right hon. Lady be seated while I was standing, if she had resumed her place. We might then have been able to sort out the matter.
§ Mr. Kilfoyle
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. If the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) looks at the record tomorrow, she will see that when she was having an altercation with the Chair, I had not finished the point that I was trying to make. It became academic once she had left the Chamber.
§ Sir Patrick Cormack
Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it not be in conformity with the courtesies that most of us like to expect if the Minister gave an apology?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
That is not a point of order and it is not a matter for me. [Interruption.] Order. The House must settle down. We have further Opposition business.