Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this house—
(i) approves the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (HC 607); and
(ii) accordingly suspends Mr. Ernie Ross, Member for Dundee West, from the service of the House for ten sitting days.—[Mrs. Beckett.]
§ Sir George Young (North-West hampshire)
The House is grateful to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and his Committee for the report and for the work that went into it. Its conclusions, which we are invited to approve, are divided into two: those that relate to the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), and those that relate to the Foreign Secretary and his Department. I do not propose to dwell on the former; the hon. Gentleman has recognised the offence and has apologised. If the House approves the motion, which I support, he will be punished by suspension and the incident will inevitably cast a small shadow over his future career, but the House is, by tradition, forgiving, generous and non-vindictive in such circumstances. I propose to respect that tradition and to say no more about him.
The bulk of the conclusions, however, are not about the hon. Member for Dundee, West; they are about the Government. With respect to the Leader of the house, the Select Committee and the Houseare entitled to a fuller explanation of what is said about them than the formal moving of a motion.
The second part of the report is symptomatic of how the Government have treated the House of Commons and its institutions. The hon. Member for Dundee, West has at least apologised for what he did to the Select Committee; the Government have not, despite having been asked to do so on several occasions—and they should. They used information, to which they knew they were not entitled, to denigrate a Select Committee report before it was published. As Andrew Parker wrote in the Financial Times on 24 February,Tony Blair, Prime Minister, and Mr. Cook went on the offensive to rubbish the report on the morning of publication, describing its criticisms as disproportionate and unfair".As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) pointed out at the time, that was before the report was published.
The Foreign Secretary, when invited to apologise on 24 February, refused to do so; nor has he done so in his correspondence with the Select Committee, published in the report. It is typical of his high-handed approach, as is his refusal to attend this debate. He should have apologised, not least in view of the history of problems between him and the Select Committee, which goes back a year to his refusal to respond to its requests for information, and his assertion that the Select Committee had not unearthed a single piece of information not already highlighted in the Foreign Office's own inquiry. If the Foreign Secretary cannot express regret about how the Committee was treated, the Leader of the house, who has a broader responsibility, which I believe she takes seriously, should do so on the Government's behalf.
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)
Before the right hon. Gentleman gets too carried away, I remind him that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave unprecedented access to Foreign Office papers and telegrams, which no Minister in the previous Government ever gave or would have dreamed of giving.
§ Sir George Young
The Foreign Secretary should apologise to the Select Committee and to the Housefor how he treated one of its institutions, and I regret that he has not done so.
May I deal briefly with page xv of the report and the role of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee? he is not criticised in the report and I do not criticise him myself. He was good enough to ring me this morning and to explain the background to the final paragraph on that page, which is an extract from a letter from the Foreign Secretary dated 17 March. It says:On the day before publication the Chair of the FAC gave a full briefing to Andy Henderson, the head of the FCO Parliamentary Relations Department, making clear that the bulk of the Report's criticism would be27/6/2549 aimed at senior officials. Mr. Henderson minuted that exchange to officials within the FCO.The questions that arise from that are: first, whether the briefing did take place and, if so, whether it was done with the knowledge and authority of other members of the Select Committee; and, secondly, whether it is common practice for Chairmen of Select Committees to do that in advance of publication. I also pose the question whether the hon. Member for Dundee, West might have referred to the briefing when he spoke after the Foreign Secretary's statement about the leak on 25 February.
The motion says nothing about paragraph 27, which refers to changes in the ministerial code. The Committee asks the Prime Minister to amend the code, and to notify the Committee and the house. Today's debate would have been the right time and place for the Leader of the Houseto respond to that recommendation, instead of moving the motion formally and saying nothing. Has the code been modified and, if so, how? What has happened to the recommendation in paragraph 29, where an undertaking was given on what would happen once the Committee had reported? have those instructions been issued?
Can we now assume that the Foreign Secretary has abandoned the argument that he put in his letter dated 17 March, which was dismissed so conclusively and unanimously by the Committee? I was surprised, as I expect other hon. Members were, to hear the Foreign Secretary assert on the "Today" programme that any Member could sit in on any Select Committee hearing, even when it was deliberating on its report. I trust that we shall hear no more of the spurious defence that the hon. Member for Dundee, West could have gained advance knowledge of the report in that way.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman again, but a moment ago he asked about the ministerial code. As the wording of the motion makes plain, the Government accept the report and have accepted the recommendations about the code, and the Prime Minister will review the code in that light. As the motion says that we accept the report, it did not seem necessary to take the time of the Housefurther to elaborate on that.
§ Sir George Young
That is not acceptable. The ministerial code is an important document. It has been 28 changed, but we have not been told how or when it was changed. The right hon. Lady should have told the House at the beginning exactly what action the Government were taking in response to the Select Committee's recommendation.
This whole sorry episode is symptomatic of the way in which the Government and some of their supporters treat Parliament. They seek to bypass, marginalise and undermine it. The leaking of a Select Committee report and its use by Ministers is a short circuit of the system, and it renders less effective one of the instruments of the House that holds the Executive to account. Given the Government's majority, it is even more important that the constitutional checks are not overridden.
Today's debate is about one of the most blatant breaches of one of the conventions of the house. There have been other developments, such as the making of announcements outside the house, the dramatic increase in the number of special advisers, and the use of the Government information service for political ends, which was the subject of a recent debate in the house. Those are signs of an arrogant Government who believe that they no longer have to account for themselves in the Chamber. I had hoped that the Government might have learned some lessons from this sorry episode, but their response so far leads me to doubt that.
§ Mr. Robert Sheldon (Ashton-under-Lyne)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is not criticised in the report. He was under the impression that any Member of Parliament could go to a Select Committee, and that used to be the position. I frequently had to consider what would happen if somebody came into the Public Accounts Committee and witnessed a deliberative meeting. I concluded that I would ask that Member of Parliament to leave, and that if the hon. Member did not leave, I would adjourn the meeting, being prepared to meet on a subsequent occasion.
Standing Orders were changed following the realisation that that was the situation. Not all of us know about these changes. It was some time before I realised that the Standing Order had been changed in that way. The Foreign Secretary was not criticised for that: we pointed out that he was under a misapprehension, and we dealt with it accordingly.
The House has heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), who made a clear and unreserved apology. We welcome that, and respect him for it. The eighth report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges follows two special reports from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which reported that my hon. Friend had admitted to sending a draft of our report on Sierra Leone to the Foreign Secretary in January, and to speaking to the Foreign Secretary's political adviser about the Committee's final conclusions. He had then resigned from the Committee, and we welcomed his acceptance of responsibility.
The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the matter was serious, and that such actions were likely to constitute a substantial interference with the Select Committee system. The Select Committee on Liaison, which I chair, took the same view. It subsequently came to light that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West had also sent to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office 29 the final version of the report of the Foreign Affairs Committee on foreign policy and human rights. The Department had also received a draft of the Committee's report on European Union enlargement, although we did not know how it got it.
The Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that the possession by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of early versions of its first three reports of the present Session was likely to constitute substantial interference with the Select Committee system. Again, the Liaison Committee took the same view as the Foreign Affairs Committee, and we set out in our report the circumstances surrounding the leak of the Sierra Leone report. If I may, I shall summarise them for the benefit of the house.
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West, who disagreed with the course of the Committee's inquiry, faxed a draft of the report to the Foreign Secretary's private office some time in the second week of January. At that time, the Committee was still informally considering successive drafts. My hon. Friend also sent a copy to the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), who did not show it to or discuss it with anyone. The draft report was seen by the Foreign Secretary's political adviser and by a number of officials before it was brought to the attention of the Foreign Secretary and the permanent under-secretary on 1 February. Meanwhile, the Foreign Affairs Committee proceeded to finalise the report, and it was published on 9 February.
The hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) raised the question of a possible leak with you, Madam Speaker, after Question Time that afternoon. You advised him to pursue the matter in the Committee, which he did. The Committee wrote to the Foreign Office, asking whether it had received a copy of the report before its publication.
At the beginning of the Committee's next meeting, on 23 February, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West admitted responsibility for the leak. The matter was then referred to the Standards and Privileges Committee. After we had begun our inquiry, we postponed consideration until the end of the Kosovo conflict, given the work load of the Foreign Office at the time. We received written evidence from my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the Clerk of the house, and took oral evidence from certain Foreign Office officials who had seen the report, including the permanent under-secretary of state himself. We gave my hon. Friend the opportunity to appear before the Committee before we finalised our conclusions, but he indicated that he did not wish to do so.
I must emphasise that the Standards and Privileges Committee's conclusions were agreed to unanimously. That has been a characteristic of the Committee, as it was in the case of the more than 600 reports of the Public Accounts Committee, which it was my privilege to chair between 1983 and 1997. There are two main kinds of unanimity: that which results from acceptance of the facts disclosed, and that which relies on fudge to accommodate the various interests involved.
I have been irritated by comments that the Committee was dominated by Labour. In accordance with our rule, its composition reflects the composition of the house, which itself reflects the wishes of the electorate. The 30 Committee certainly does not operate on a party political basis. It contains Labour Members, Conservative Members, a Liberal Democrat and an independent, and all subscribed to the report. There is unanimity on all our reports—including, incidentally, the report on my right hon. Friend the Member for hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson)—and that unanimity is genuine. Moreover, during the Committee's discussions, members sometimes criticise others who belong to the same party. We should nail the claim that the Committee is party political.
The most important aspect of the leak of a draft report to a Minister is the risk that the Department concerned might attempt to influence the considerations of the Committee concerned. That would indeed strike at the heart of the examination of the Executive by a Select Committee: it would constitute a perversion of the system of inquiry. We are satisfied, however, that it did not happen in this instance.
In a letter to us, my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West wrote:it became blindingly obvious to me that my actions in sending a copy of the draft Report to my two colleagues had effectively ruled out any opportunity that I had had of submitting substantial or indeed any amendments to this Report".That is, in fact, what happened.
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
I am aware of the depth in which the right hon. Gentleman looks into matters such as this. The Houseis grateful for the service that he gives the Committee.
The right hon. Gentleman said that the briefing did not affect the Committee, but does not pre-knowledge of a report in a Department allow that Department to issue a presentation to the press and other media? In this instance, did not that presentation constitute a definite rubbishing of the report before it had even been published—or, at least, at the very moment of its publication? That cannot be to the advantage of those who have spent many months reading the report, and seeing what has been said. Is it not a weakness that we must overcome?
§ Mr. Sheldon
It is a weakness that has been around for a very long time. It should be remembered that the contents of final, confidential, revised documents are frequently relayed 48 hours before publication. Those involved have an opportunity to present their case. In any event, the very fact of an investigation alerts people who are being condemned, or traduced, or being dealt with in some other way, and gives them an opportunity to present their case—and they have a pretty good idea of what that case will be. I do not think that this is a particular problem, but as I have said, if it is, it has been a problem for a long time. Anyway, the Foreign Secretary confirmed that no one at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office had any contact with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West between receipt of the draft and completion of the final report.
At this point, perhaps I should remind the House of the position of those who wish to attend a private meeting of a Select Committee. Until a few years ago, it was possible for any hon. Member to attend such a meeting, but Standing Order No. 126 now allows the Committee to prevent such an intrusion. Therefore, a Minister who is also a Member of the House is not now able either to 31 attend or to see the papers of a Select Committee that the Committee does not want him to see. That is the safeguard that we have now, which did not used to be present.
On 1 March, you, Madam Speaker, asked us to consider the general responsibilities of a Member who received a leaked draft report. We concluded:The Committee … entirely shares your view that the fundamental responsibility of a Member who finds himself or herself in this position must be to act in a way which does not impede the committee in the discharge of its responsibilities to the house. In our judgment the Member ought to make no use of leaked committee papers and should return them without delay to the clerk of the committee.We agreed that the Prime Minister should amend the ministerial code, to require Ministers and Parliamentary Private Secretaries to comply with that guidance. I welcome my right hon. Friend's announcement that he will review the wording of the code in the light of the report.
I should like to make it clear that the report makes no personal criticism of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary or the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd). Clearly, it would have been preferable if they had sent the leaked drafts straight back to the Committee, but, at the time, they did not have the benefit of the advice that we have given the House on the subject. The draft report had been in the Foreign Office for several weeks before the Foreign Secretary was even told about it.
The Committee examined the responsibilities of officials who receive leaked Committee papers. The permanent under-secretary of state, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the head of the Department, explained to us that no guidance had been available before we made our ruling—it had been understood that it would have been wrong to make use of the papers, but not that they should be returned. We concluded:The duty of any official who receives leaked committee papers is exactly the same as that of a Member, namely to make no use of them and to return them without delay to the committee clerk".Sir John Kerr told us that the Foreign Office had accepted that the guidance issued to Members should also apply to officials, and that other Departments were following that lead. We welcome that very much.
We note that Sir John had proposed that the guidance would be that officials in receipt of a leaked draft should return it to the Clerk of the Committee via the Minister. The Committee disagrees with that. The Minister has no business to see a leaked document. We concluded that the correct course of action should be for the official to return the documents directly to the Clerk of the Committee and to notify the Minister that he or she has done so.
Our Committee will examine the details of that guidance when it is produced. We share Sir John's hope that implementation of those instructions throughout Whitehall will deter potential leakers. Our position is clear:any unauthorised use of unpublished select committee documents received by a Department will in future be regarded by this Committee as a contempt.I turn to the conduct of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West. It is the Committee's considered opinion that such leaks strike at the heart of the role of Select 32 Committees as independent and efficient scrutineers of the Executive in a number of ways. Those leaks undermine trust within a Committee. A report from an earlier Privileges Committee pointed to thedamage that leaks had created among Members on committees by undermining their mutual trust, one for another.That is the basis of Select Committees. Members meet and it is only when they have trust for each that they are able to come to conclusions based on the facts. Over time, if a Select Committee is working well, that will become the basis of proper scrutiny by that Select Committee.
We went on to point out that Committees' morale could decline if some members showed scant respect for the rules of privilege or for the loyalty of colleagues who do not betray confidential matters. We agreed with our predecessor Committee about the destructive effects of leaks, and concluded that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West,as a member of a select committee charged with scrutinising the actions of a Government Department, disclosed confidential committee papers to a Minister in that Department without the knowledge of the other members of the committee and without the committee's approval. This was a clear breach of faith with the other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee which, as he recognised, made his position untenable. Moreover, it tended to undermine the Committee's authority by calling into question its independence from Government influence.The House should be in no doubt that leaks from Select Committees to the Government are a most serious interference with the Select Committee system. In fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West, he did own up straight away and stood down from the Committee, so that no suspicion fell on any of his colleagues. We arrived at the conclusion that my hon. Friendmust have known at the time that what he did was wrongFor all the reasons that I have outlined, we unanimously agreed that he should apologise to the House by means of a personal statement—which he has done honourably—and that a suspension for 10 sitting days was appropriate.
It is a grave matter for the Committee to recommend that the House should impose a suspension on a colleague, and it is a conclusion that we reached after much deliberation. My hon. Friend has explained that he disclosed the draft report to the Foreign Office because he profoundly disagreed with what his colleagues on the Select Committee were doing, and that he wished to alert Ministers to the fact that their Department would be criticised. There is no excuse for those actions. It is our firm view that what he did fell below the standards that colleagues on the Select Committee—indeed, all hon. Members—have a right to expect.
I ask the House to uphold our conclusions, and to approve the Committee's eighth report.
§ 4.7 pm
§ Mr. Michael howard (Folkestone and hythe)
I do not wish to make any comment on the conduct of the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross). He has accepted the Committee's judgment, and there is little more to be said about that.
My comments will be directed, in the context of the eighth report, to the conduct of the Foreign Secretary, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, of the hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lloyd), 33 and of the Chairman of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs—the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson).
So far as the Foreign Secretary is concerned, the Committee's report is, in fact, quite damning. It deals with him at paragraphs 24 to 27. At paragraph 26, the Committee considered in detail the defence that he advanced for his conduct, and the conduct of those for whom he is accountable, in receiving and retaining draft reports of the Select Committee. The Committee, without qualification, rejected that defence. It seems to me to follow absolutely and inevitably from the Committee's findings that the Foreign Secretary was guilty of contempt of the house.
I have of course listened carefully to what the Standards and Privileges Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), has said, but I find his explanation for the lack of a specific finding in relation to the Foreign Secretary very far from convincing. That explanation may well go to mitigation of the Foreign Secretary's conduct, but the defence that he offered was rejected without qualification. The Foreign Secretary should, therefore, at the very least, apologise to the House for his conduct. His failure to do so and his absence from this debate themselves reinforce and aggravate the contempt that he has shown the house, and illustrate most vividly the contempt that the Government as a whole display for the house.
§ Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)
Is there not a distinction between what the right hon. and learned Gentleman calls "holding the House in contempt" and being in contempt? he has accused the Foreign Secretary of being in contempt. Will he explain why—and under which rule?
§ Mr. Howard
The hon. Gentleman is quite right to suggest that there is a distinction between the two kinds of contempt. However, I believe that the Foreign Secretary is guilty of both kinds. The reason—which the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) has asked me to specify—is simply this: in his evidence to the Standards and Privileges Committee, the Foreign Secretary advanced a defence as to why he should not be accused of having held the House in contempt. That defence was rejected out of hand by the Committee. The logic, therefore, is that the Foreign Secretary was indeed in contempt of this house, and the explanation given by the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, while it may go to mitigation, does not affect that point.
§ Mr. Campbell-Savours
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has great experience, but he completely misunderstands the term "being in contempt". He is simply talking rubbish.
§ Mr. Howard
That is an assertion, rather than an argument. I invite the hon. Gentleman to look at paragraphs 24 to 27 of the report, where he will find ample justification for the points that I am making. Similar criticism applies also to the Minister of State.
§ Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)
The right hon. and learned Gentleman points to paragraphs in the report which refer to the Foreign Secretary. Paragraph 26 states:It is the case that there is no precedent for regarding the disclosure of a draft report to another Member as a contempt.Will he take that on board and stop going down this alley?
§ Mr. Howard
The fact that there was no precedent for regarding particular conduct as a contempt does not begin to mean that the conduct on the occasion in question was not a contempt. That is the point.
§ Mr. Sheldon
I thought that what the Committee said was quite clear—that it was not a contempt, but a misunderstanding. The Foreign Secretary thought that he could go to a Committee, as indeed I thought for some time after the introduction of Standing Order No. 126. Many Members still assume that they can go into a Select Committee. That was the view that we rejected—it had nothing to do with contempt. The Foreign Secretary thought that he had that right, and we said that he did not.
§ Mr. Howard
Even if that rule had not been changed, that would have been a fanciful and far-fetched reason for receiving a leaked report from the Committee and retaining it for a period of time.
§ Mr. Howard
The Foreign Secretary did receive such a leaked report, and he did retain it. He saw the report, and he did not return it. Even if the rule allowing hon. Members to attend Select Committee meetings had not been changed, it would be fanciful to suggest that that would have been an adequate defence. However, the rule had been changed, and the Foreign Secretary was capable of discovering that. He has not come to the Committee or to the House to say, "I am very sorry. I now know that the rules have been changed. Had I known, I would not have retained the report. I therefore apologise for the fact that I behaved in that way, in ignorance of the fact that the rule had been changed." That might have been an acceptable response. However, we have had no response of that kind, no apology and no recognition that what the Foreign Secretary did was wrong.
That is not the only aspect of this affair that merits close scrutiny. The first report from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs referred to parliamentary questions relating to the time at which the Government might have had sight of the Committee's report on Sierra Leone. The report said:Though the answers to these questions are germane to the leak from the Committee, we express no opinion on them since this is a matter which the Committee on Standards and Privileges may wish to consider.The Committee went on to draw particular attention to the Foreign Secretary's answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) on 23 February. To appreciate the full significance of that question, one needs to look at the Minister of State's answer of 16 February, which is reproduced at annexe D to the report. The Minister of State was asked when he first saw the Select Committee report. He said that the report was first drawn to the attention of the Foreign Office when the Clerk collected it from the Select Committee on the morning of publication.
35 On 23 February, the Foreign Secretary for the first time gave a full account, putting up his hands and coming clean about the extent of the leak and his knowledge that the report had been seen by officials and by the Minister of State. The Foreign Secretary has claimed that the answer given on 16 February was "accurate, factual and correct". I do not believe that any objective commentator could possibly support that claim. He implicitly conceded as much in his answer of 23 February.
The question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham was not about leaks or about when the Foreign Secretary received the report. It was about statements made by the Foreign Office to the media. If he regards it as a sufficient discharge of his duty to answer questions accurately, factually and correctly, as he suggests, there was no need for him to disclose information about the leaked report in answer to my hon. Friend's question. He did so only because he knew that the game was up, as on that very day the hon. Member for Dundee, West put up his hands and made his admission. On 16 February, Foreign Office Ministers thought that they could get away with it, so they gave an answer that was completely at variance with the facts as they knew them to be; but on the 23rd, when the game was up, they came clean.
The Government make much of openness. In his introduction to the ministerial code of conduct, the Prime Minister said:In issuing this Code, I should like to reaffirm my strong personal commitment to restoring the bond of trust between the British people and their Government. We are all here to serve and we must all serve honestly and in the interests of those who gave us our positions of trust.I will expect all Ministers to work within the letter and spirit of the Code.We do not need to look far into the body of the code before reaching its guidance on ministerial answers to Parliament. Paragraph 1.iii of chapter 1 says:It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister".Of course, the exercise of that sanction is a matter for the Prime Minister. This episode provides an illuminating illustration of the yawning gulf between his words and his deeds. The Foreign Affairs Committee specifically drew those parliamentary answers to the attention of the Standards and Privileges Committee, and it is a mystery to me why it did not investigate the matter.
My final point relates to the conduct of the hon. Member for Swansea, East. If the report is to believed—or, to be more accurate, if the Foreign Secretary's letter to the Committee, contained in the report, is to be believed—the hon. Member for Swansea, East gave a detailed briefing to the head of the Foreign Office's parliamentary relations department. If that were true, it would constitute a serious breach of trust in relation to the Committee, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree. He told me this morning—and I imagine that he will repeat his account to the House if he catches your eye, Madam Speaker—that the Foreign Secretary's account is untrue.
36 I shall not embarrass the hon. Member for Swansea, East by calling him an old friend of mine, but I have known him for a long time. I would simply say that the account that he gave me this morning is far more likely to be in character for him than the account given in the letter from the Foreign Secretary. Again, I am surprised that the Standards and Privileges Committee did not investigate the matter. Had it done so it might have got to the truth and the hon. Gentleman would have been spared the embarrassment that he has suffered in the past few days.
The Select Committee system is an essential element in parliamentary scrutiny of Government. The events disclosed and considered in the report indicate a systematic attempt by the present Government to suborn that system. It is a story that gives the lie to the protestations of the Government about their conduct.
The Prime Minister has famously said:You know me, I'm a pretty straight kind of guy.Well, the report reveals that he does not run a straight kind of Government. The sooner the country wakes up to that fact, the better.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)
The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and hythe (Mr. Howard) has been extremely fair to me—an unusual case of Llanelli rallying to the defence of Swansea.
The Standards and Privileges Committee has again produced a powerful and thorough report, and its Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), is to be commended on it. So far as it refers to the conduct of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), I can say only that I much regret losing a diligent and valued colleague from the Committee and I regret also the circumstances of his leaving. He has given a full and honourable apology to the House this afternoon.
So far as the second issue is concerned—the appropriate conduct of Ministers and civil servants on receiving reports—it is clearly right that neither Ministers nor civil servants should make use of such reports and that they should return them immediately. I would have thought that that was common courtesy and should not necessarily be enshrined in a code. However, I welcome the fact that the Government have responded immediately and that the ministerial code is now to be revised.
The House will not be surprised if I concentrate on two parts of the eighth report that refer to me, the footnote on page ix and the last paragraph on page xv, which states:On the day before publication the Chair of the FAC gave a full briefing to Andy Henderson, the head of the FCO Parliamentary Relations Department, making clear that the bulk of the Report's criticism would be aimed at senior officials.Let me say from the start that I totally rebut the idea that I fully briefed that official or, indeed, any Minister or adviser, or that I divulged or intended to divulge details of the report.
The allegation of a full briefing is a serious one. It goes to the heart of the integrity of the Committee and to the authority of its Chairman. Over the two years I have been privileged to chair the Foreign Affairs Committee, I have done my utmost to be Parliament's man, independent of Government and seeking to keep the Executive 37 accountable for what they have done and what they have failed to do. The Committee has received many plaudits for that role.
What are the facts? I wear several hats in the house. Mr. Henderson, the head of the parliamentary relations department, had recently taken up his post. He asked my office to arrange an informal meeting to leave his card, as it were, and to seek my advice on how best to relate to the Foreign Affairs Committee. I also chair the house's Commonwealth Parliamentary Association branch and I lead our delegation to the North Atlantic Assembly. I recall, for example, that the CPA figured largely in our conversation, in which I gave Mr. Henderson names of colleagues whom it would be valuable for him to meet.
The Foreign Affairs Committee report had, by that day, already been presented to the house. It was to be published the following day, so no question of privilege arose, and it was raised in our conversation only in passing. I recall saying to Mr. Henderson that I hoped that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would not rush to rubbish the report, and that anyone who had followed our proceedings would certainly know that officials, and not Ministers, were mainly in the frame. As Mr. Henderson was the man whose duty it was to try to improve relations between the Foreign Office and the Foreign Affairs Committee, which had been impaired in the course of our inquiry, I advised him that the Committee would never accept that the Government could prevent it from embarking on an inquiry by setting up an official inquiry, such as the Legg inquiry.
At the end of the meeting, I felt that I had done my best to do a good turn by giving Mr. Henderson the names of key parliamentary colleagues for him to meet. I believe that I actually introduced him to one or two of them.
I saw the eighth report of the Standards and Privileges Committee on 29 June, the day it was published. I was astonished and puzzled by the allegation of "detailed briefing", and immediately telephoned Mr. Henderson. I cannot recall the exact details of our conversation, but I do remember that I felt fully vindicated as a result of what he said to me, which was that I had done nothing improper and had said nothing that was not already effectively in the public domain.
Not only did I not fully brief Mr. Henderson, I had also scrupulously avoided seeing my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, as a matter of principle. However, on the evening before publication, by chance I met my right hon. Friend briefly in the Division Lobby. I urged him not to rubbish our report, as he had criticised the Committee forcefully in December. I went no further: no more, and no less, was said.
§ Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife)
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is giving a most lucid explanation of the report's contents, in so far as they affect him. However, will he say why he apprehended that the Foreign Secretary might rubbish the report of the Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is Chairman?
§ Mr. Anderson
The answer is simple. The right hon. and learned Gentleman would understand my reasons had he read what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the Committee when he appeared before it in December, in the course of our inquiry, or the various comments that my right hon. Friend made—or which were attributed to him—afterwards.
38 The report was thorough and, in my judgment, important. My hope was that it would be treated properly by the Department.
§ Mrs. Beckett
As my hon. Friend will appreciate, my memory of the events is not as clear as his, but am I correct in recalling that, over the weekend preceding the report's publication, there were references in the press—which I am sure did not emanate from my hon. Friend—to the effect that the report would be extremely critical of Ministers? Was it not in that context that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made his remarks?
§ Mr. Anderson
I shall come to the leaks over that weekend in a moment. As I shall explain to the house, I have received a letter of explanation from the official concerned, in which he stated that I had also told him how angry I was that there had been leaks over that weekend.
§ Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling)
The hon. Gentleman has made a very serious statement. He has said that the Foreign Secretary's evidence to the Standards and Privileges Committee was materially incorrect. The Foreign Office minute, passed by Mr. Henderson to the Foreign Office officials concerned, of his discussion with the hon. Gentleman is available. It will clearly demonstrate either that a full briefing was given, as the Foreign Secretary suggested, or, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, that no such briefing was given. In light of that, may I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he request the Foreign Secretary today to place a copy of that minute in the Library of the house?
§ Mr. Anderson
I would not be unhappy with that, but I can probably go virtually as far, since I will shortly quote a letter from the official concerned which covers that same conversation.
After speaking to Mr. Henderson on 29 June on the telephone, I went immediately to the office of the Clerk of the Foreign Affairs Committee, referred to the report of the Standards and Privileges Committee, and told the Clerk that Mr. Henderson had confirmed my recollection. Since I considered that a Committee matter, I asked the Clerk to write formally to his opposite number, Mr. Henderson, on behalf of the Committee, to ask in effect for further and better particulars before placing the correspondence before the Committee.
I received Mr. Henderson's reply this morning. It is dated Friday 9 July. I shall quote it in full to avoid any misunderstanding and any suggestion that I might have quoted it selectively. After the standard first paragraph, thanking the Clerk for his letter, it continues:To answer the points you raised:'Who initiated the meeting on 8 February?'The meeting took place at my initiative. It was an introductory courtesy call on the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee and in my new role as head of Parliamentary Relations Department. The meeting had been arranged well before we knew that the Foreign Affairs Committee report into Sierra Leone would be released the following day;'What were the circumstances in which the meeting took place?' The meeting took place over a cup of coffee in the cafeteria of 1 Parliament Street. It lasted a little less than one hour. We discussed a number of issues relating to the FCO's relationship with the Committee and more widely with Parliament in general;'What did Mr. Anderson say to me about the Report?'39Mr. Anderson told me that the Report would primarily criticise officials rather than Ministers, focusing in particular on a perceived failure to respond to the seriousness of events. He also indicated that the Committee remained concerned about the FCO's reluctance to co-operate with the Committee until the Legg inquiry had completed its work and the decision to deny access to 'C'.He regretted the press leaks of the report the previous weekend. He hoped that the FCO would react constructively to the serious points made in the Report and counselled against an aggressive or angry response.'Whether what he said could be construed as a leak of the Sierra Leone Report?'Mr. Anderson briefed me in general terms but did not go into detail on any of the Report's specific recommendations. It would have been odd if he hadn't mentioned it, given its release the following day.The reply from Mr. Henderson goes a little further than I recall, but all the matters mentioned were fully in the public domain. There was certainly not a full briefing as alleged in appendix 4. There is a clear difference between the FCO letter in that appendix and Mr. Henderson' s letter, which suggests that he had not been consulted by the drafter of the letter before the report was issued. If he had been, I think that he would certainly have wished to revise it.
Yesterday, The Sunday Times reported that there would be a new row today in the House because details of the report were leaked to the FCO by me. The background is that the reporter—a respected reporter—sought to telephone me at 10.55 am on Saturday, rather belatedly. I did not return to my home until Sunday evening, when I collected the message on the answering machine. I therefore had no opportunity to put my side of the case before that damaging article was published in The Sunday Times yesterday. I now hope that The Sunday Times, as a responsible newspaper, will publish the facts next Sunday and, fairly, put the record straight.
§ Mr. David heath (Somerton and Frome)
I have no wish to defend any newspaper, but journalists at The Sunday Times will have read the Foreign Secretary's letter, which is printed in appendix 4 on page xv of the Committee's report, in which he clearly says thatthe Chair of the FAC gave a full briefing to Andy Henderson".That can be construed only as referring to a briefing on this issue, but what the hon. Gentleman has just said flatly contradicts that—so how could the Foreign Secretary have given that evidence to the Committee in that form?
§ Mr. Anderson
I can only surmise that the person who drafted the letter that went before the Standards and Privileges Committee and which appears in appendix 4 had not consulted Mr. Henderson before he did so. Obviously, the Foreign Secretary would have signed that letter in good faith.
In brief, I had given an hour of my time to help an official. During the meeting, the Sierra Leone report arose in passing. All that I said was general and in the public domain, as has been confirmed by the only other person involved—the official who was present. I fully expressed the Committee's known concerns, which could have been clear to anyone who had followed our proceedings.
My role in safeguarding the independence of Parliament against the Executive has been demonstrated clearly in the past two years by my chairing of the Foreign 40 Affairs Committee. I trust that my explanation will confirm that I did nothing improper. I therefore wholly refute the allegations and inferences made in the report.
§ Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton)
The House is grateful to the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) for clarifying the fact that he did not give a briefing to the Foreign Office official the day before the publication of the report. However, his later remarks sowed seeds of doubt about what different officials believed and what information they had to hand. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has given an undertaking that the minute will be made available.
§ Mr. Donald Anderson
I am happy to request that the minute be made available, but I have no powers to force anyone to divulge it.
§ Mr. Davey
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's clarification. I hope that the Leader of the House will give an undertaking to the House that she will ask her colleagues to ensure that the minute is placed in the Library because it will help to answer all the questions that hon. Members have raised today.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I have the utmost sympathy with my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), who has been placed, primarily by The Sunday Times, in a rather difficult position. He has, of course, reacted strongly to any suggestion that he has been wrongly involved in briefing. Coming to these matters with the benefit of a degree of impartiality and having read the references in the report, I did not interpret them in the way that my hon. Friend, let alone The Sunday Times, did, and it did not occur to me that any allegation was being made against my hon. Friend of the kind that he would clearly want to refute.
It seemed to me—as it does now that I have heard his explanation—that there has been a misunderstanding about the use of the word "full". My hon. Friend has made it clear that he gave an incoming official a full briefing about the work of the Select Committee, in which he touched on the matter of Sierra Leone. If the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) reads the Standards and Privileges Committee's report, he will find that it says that no use was made of the additional information. It does not, therefore, seem to me that the information was very germane to the report. I shall, of course, draw the hon. Gentleman's request to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, but whether he will feel that the matter needs to be pursued in that way or to that degree is another matter.
§ Mr. Davey
I do not think that the right hon. Lady's response is adequate. The House needs a promise that the minute will be published. The aim of this debate is to get to the bottom of the issues that the Committee was considering. The right hon. Lady seems to suggest that the newspaper misunderstood the report, but the report is very clear. On page xv, it says:the Chair of the FAC gave a full briefing to Andy henderson, the head of the FCO Parliamentary Relations Department"—
§ Mr. Davey
I shall do so. 41making clear that the bulk of the Report's criticism would be aimed at senior officials. Mr. Henderson minuted that exchange to officials within the FCO.So, people knew what was going on. The right hon. Lady and her friends should take cognisance of that and be more open to the house.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)
If this debate continues for the next 10 or 15 minutes, would there not be time for the Leader of the House to ask the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to allow the House to see the minute that was circulated after the meeting? Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the right hon. Lady might want to describe in her winding-up speech the guidelines for Ministers on commenting on Select Committee reports when they cannot have had time to read them in detail? That seems one important issue. The right hon. Lady no doubt already has a briefing which she will read. How much nicer it would be if she also gave the Foreign Office briefing. The point has been made about the intensity of a noun and the strength of an adjective—"full briefing". That could be explained by the Government's disclosure, under open government rules, of a document that cannot be of any risk to anybody.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I can help the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley). The guidance given to Ministers on how to respond to Select Committee reports is unchanged from that issued in 1990, when the hon. Member for Worthing, West was a member of the Government.
§ Mr. Davey
The guidance may not have been changed, but the House is trying to get to the bottom of a serious matter. The right hon. Lady's Government tell the House time and again that they are in favour of open government. I would have thought that, in that spirit, she would ensure that the information is made available to the house.
The report on Sierra Leone was agreed to by the Committee on 3 February and published on 9 February. This briefing took place during that period. The hon. Gentleman will notice that, although paragraph 8 of the report relates to some of the other leaks, it states:although improper, they do not raise questions of privilege".The question of privilege is raised only at the draft stage—not when a report has been agreed.
§ Mr. Davey
We seem to be getting to a case of angels on a pinhead. The hon. Lady is making a point similar to that made by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) when he gave his interpretation of the report. I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the Committee on a very strong report which does not pull any punches, although I do not necessarily agree with his interpretation of what the report is trying to convey.
§ Mr. Davey
No; I want to make some progress.
42 The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said that he and his Committee were not criticising the Foreign Secretary, but they got dangerously close to doing so. As the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and hythe (Mr. Howard) said, it seems rather odd that a senior Minister receiving a leaked report from a Select Committee should not have instinctively understood that something was wrong, and known that he should not have received it and that he should declare doing so immediately.
Receiving a leak of a Select Committee report is almost tantamount to receiving stolen goods. We should be expecting a very high standard of behaviour among Ministers. We should be assured that their instincts—their understanding of our process and our culture—are such that they abide by the highest of standards in reacting to what was clearly a wrong act by an hon. Member, to which he has admitted. The Foreign Secretary and his colleagues on the Labour Benches are only making the issue worse. My advice is that they should stop digging.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
As someone who has been in this place for 37 years, may I rather cynically say that the hon. Gentleman ought to understand that one of the less attractive features of the House of Commons is that there is one law that applies to Back Benchers and another law that tends to apply to senior Ministers? I find that attitude profoundly distasteful.
§ Mr. Davey
No. I have given way an awful lot, so I intend to continue.
Other serious questions have been raised in the debate. The Select Committee report asks the Prime Minister to amend the ministerial code. When the Leader of the House intervened on the right hon. Member for North-West hampshire (Sir G. Young), she said that the ministerial code was being reviewed, but that does not mean that it will be changed. It does not mean that the Government have accepted the proposal in the Select Committee report. The Leader of the House did not give us a timetable for the review, or any idea of when the House would have its conclusions. I hope that the status of that review will be clarified.
The report raises wider issues about the way that the Government govern and the way that Ministers and the press operation treat Parliament. Through that, it impinges on how the House protects the Select Committee system. It is a key part of our democracy to ensure that that Select Committee system is independent and has full integrity, so that we can hold the Government of the day to account.
Leaks, such as that which happened from the Foreign Affairs Committee, can damage the Committee system. They damage the Committee in the public's eyes, thereby detracting from the report's authority. They can damage the trust between Committee members and the efficiency of a Committee's workings, and thereby damage Parliament's ability to hold the Executive to account.
Therefore, I submit that the Government should be looking at not just these Committee recommendations, but the need to review and strengthen the Select Committee 43 system—and how we might make members of Select Committees more independent of their party. Select Committee members should be responsible to the House irrespective of party labels. Perhaps we should consider developing career paths within the Committees of the house, so that people can see their way to developing their political careers, not just within their party, but within Parliament.
We should consider making positions on Select Committees more prestigious. The prestige of those senior positions should equal that of a junior Minister, so that people who hold them take the independence of the work that they do very seriously indeed.
The report is about upholding the integrity of the Select Committee system. A stiff penalty has been served on the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), and I believe that all hon. Members will accept his full apology. However, to ensure that the integrity of the Committee system is maintained in future, more than the ministerial code needs to be changed. We need a clearer definition of the responsibilities of civil servants to Select Committees.
I do not know whether there is a code governing the relationships between civil servants and Select Committee members, but some of our exchanges today have shown that there is an urgent need for such a code, to ensure that the civil—
§ Mr. Levitt
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way at last. Obviously, we need not bother with the Standards and Privileges Committee in future—it will be enough to have the hon. Gentleman investigating. He seems to have a gut instinct for determining what is right without bothering with the evidence. On this occasion, if he looks at the minutes of evidence, he will see the Civil Service and the Foreign Office responding in exactly the way that he asks. That is one of the benefits of the report—a report which, I believe, does correctly attribute blame. I speak as one who spent many hours serving on that Committee, investigating the matter in great detail.
§ Mr. Davey
The hon. Gentleman's comments are rather rash. I began my speech by paying tribute to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and his colleagues—including the hon. Gentleman—for the quality of the report. However, I must say that, after what we have heard today, obviously that appendix is not exactly complete and we need more information to ensure that the valuable work that the Committee did is fully finished.
There is a need for a new code of behaviour for civil servants and Select Committees. There have been other debates about the duties of civil servants and whether they are confined to the Government of the day or whether they extend to the wider public and Members of this place. As we dig down into the details of this affair, it is clear that we need to be sure that civil servants will work for the House without prejudicing their position in working for Ministers. There needs to be a much clearer definition of those responsibilities.
§ Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)
As the Member who first raised the question of a possible leak of this Foreign Affairs Select Committee document, I am grateful to you, 44 Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the chance to contribute to the debate. When I raised my concerns on a point of order on 9 February, it did not cross my mind that they would expose something so serious. In a way, I am pleased that they have; in a way, I am sorry. I am pleased because my concerns have exposed an abuse of Parliament by a colleague and by the Government. I am pleased also that the House has been enabled to reassert some crucial rights and privileges at a time when they are being undermined day by day by the Government. I am sorry, however, because of the personal difficulties that this matter has caused a colleague, albeit one from a different party. He is a colleague with whom I have enjoyed working and come to respect.
The report from the Standards and Privileges Committee raises two vital matters. These are the conduct expected of us as Members and the conduct expected of Her Majesty's Government. Like others, I want to say little about the first matter, which is the conduct expected of us all. The report makes it crystal clear that what happened was wrong and worthy of punishment. I fail to see how any of us could disagree with that conclusion. However, there is a redeeming feature in this aspect of this sorry affair. The hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) swiftly admitted his actions. He did not hesitate to agree that they were wrong, he promptly offered the Committee a fulsome apology and he immediately resigned. Once the report that we are debating is behind us, I believe that we should draw a line in the sand regarding the hon. Gentleman's conduct.
However, I do not consider that the report closes the issue of the Government's conduct. In my opinion, and as we have heard the argument developed this afternoon, the report requires us to pursue matters more vigorously. The contrast between the response of the hon. Member for Dundee, West and that of the Foreign Secretary could not be more stark. Nowhere do I see any apology from the Foreign Secretary or from his permanent secretary for keeping, circulating and using a leaked document.
Instead of an apology, the Foreign Secretary contents himself with offering us weasel words in an attempt to justify his behaviour. He claims that the lack of clarity in existing rules entitled him to ignore the words "Confidential—For Committee Use Only", which appear in large letters at the top of each page of the leaked document. That is a pathetic attempt to wriggle out of his proper responsibilities.
The right hon. Gentleman suggests also that a Foreign Secretary can sneak into the private meetings of Select Committees and listen to confidential discussions. That is the most stupid defence of wrong-doing that I have ever heard. If there was no sense of wrong-doing in the Foreign Secretary or the Foreign Office, why did officials react with alarm and concern when they saw the leaked document? Why were documents destroyed rather than returned? I mention return because the report says that documents should be returned. As late as lunchtime today, not one page of one copy of the leaked document has ever been returned to the Clerk of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
In his evidence the Foreign Secretary claimed that no use was made of the leaked document. However, I raised my original point of order because someone was patently using information that could have come only from a leak, 45 in an attempt to rubbish our Committee and our conclusions before a single official copy had been handed to anyone.
The evidence given to the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges by the Permanent Secretary is not much better. It amazes me that diplomats who provide what the Permanent Secretary described to the Foreign Affairs Committee as a Rolls-Royce service require a memo to be circulated before they realise that receiving leaked documents, circulating them, using them, keeping them and failing to return them is plain wrong. I cannot comprehend why they need a memo to tell them that.
There is one thing about the evidence from the officials that does not surprise me. It does not surprise me to read in the report that they cannot remember when the leaked document arrived, they do not know how many copies were made, and they are not sure why they took weeks to tell the Foreign Secretary. Such a shambles led to the Sierra Leone report itself. The shambles revealed this afternoon led the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend—if I may call him that—the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), to issue a stout and utterly convincing defence of himself against more shambles from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
§ Mr. David heath
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Before he leaves the subject of the evidence from the permanent secretary, has he read the evidence on page 17 of the report in answer to the questions from the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams)? There the permanent secretary seems to be advancing the proposition that Select Committees should not concern themselves with the way in which a Department has handled affairs of state, only with what it might do in the future. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is an extraordinary position for a permanent secretary to adopt?
§ Mr. Wilshire
It may seem extraordinary to some people, but after my experience of the Sierra Leone inquiry, nothing surprises me about the conduct, attitudes and comments of officials in the FCO. In principle, I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but on the specific point, I am amazed that he is amazed.
The eighth report raises another issue that the House needs to address—the role of the Prime Minister in this shabby episode. When he came to office in 1997, the Prime Minister made much of his changes to the ministerial code. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and hythe (Mr. Howard) made exactly this point. After much trumpeting of moral virtue, what a pity that the Prime Minister overlooked the simple matter of leaked documents when he made his changes. What a pity that he waited for the report before making any further changes. The facts were clear and were admitted in February. It is now July, yet the Prime Minister has done nothing.
On numerous occasions, the Prime Minister promised the nation that he would dismiss erring Ministers. Given the clear evidence in the report of wrong-doing by the Foreign Secretary and by officials, when will the Prime Minister sack the Foreign Secretary?
As the report makes clear, the shortcomings revealed by the episode go right to the top. The House must not allow itself to be stopped in its tracks simply by making 46 the hon. Member for Dundee, West a scapegoat. The House must demand this afternoon an unconditional and immediate apology from the Foreign Secretary, and must insist that the Prime Minister belatedly takes action, and does not merely carry out a review.
The report reminds me of three things. First, among any group of 659 human beings, weakness will always rear its ugly head from time to time. We wish that it would not, but we know that it will. Secondly, individual Members of Parliament can still act honourably, even when their conduct falls below the standard that our constituents are entitled to expect of us. Thirdly, the Government's conduct is all too often disgraceful. The report makes it crystal clear that the behaviour within the Foreign Office was not an abberation; it was entirely within the approach to the government of the country adopted by new Labour.
I believe that the Foreign Secretary should be in the dock this afternoon alongside the hon. Member for Dundee, West. Although the hon. Gentleman had the decency to own up instantly, to apologise and to resign, the fact that the Foreign Secretary has still done none of those tells the nation a great deal about the Government.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I genuinely had not intended to speak this afternoon, but I have been listening intently to the speeches and this is one of those occasions on which speeches are important and possibly make a difference.
Let me say first that I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) behaved in a very dignified way. My heart goes out to him, because, as one or two hon. Members may recollect, 32 years ago I was in a not dissimilar position having fallen foul of the Committee of Privileges in relation to a visit of the Select Committee on Science and Technology to Porton Down. I was hauled to the Bar of the House and the Speaker put on his black cap. Thankfully, that does not happen today, but it is a very unnerving and disagreeable experience to be hauled before the House of Commons in such a way. I can say only that my hon. Friend behaved with dignity and grace, and all credit to him.
I have one point to make. I have listened to the speeches, in particular those of my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and hythe (Mr. Howard). The speech of the former home Secretary was understandably complex and, without reading and re-reading it, one could not sensibly pass any kind of judgment on it, but, whatever one thinks of those speeches, my whole instinct is that this is a matter between Parliament and the Executive. It is of such importance that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary ought to come to the house, tomorrow or the day after, to answer the questions that have been raised.
For the sake of Parliament, this matter cannot be left in limbo. We cannot leave it at that because—however competent my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House may be, and she is indeed competent—no Leader of the House is in a position to answer for the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office in such circumstances.
§ 5.3 pm
§ Mr. David Davis (haltemprice and howden)
I commend the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, on his report. Given the evidence presented to him, it must have been extraordinarily difficult to bring it together, particularly as a unanimous report. I understand the problems of achieving that better than most. It must have been extremely awkward to have reached some of the conclusions in the report, but it was probably the only set of conclusions that the Committee could have reached. That fact alone will have implications for the future, and I shall elaborate on those in a moment.
I wish to focus on three issues: first, the point made by the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne about the importance of breaching Select Committee integrity; secondly, the issue that must have presented the most difficulty for the Committee—the credibility of the evidence presented to it, and the problems that that created; and, thirdly, what should be done about such matters in the future. I am thinking more about the Select Committee system and the privilege system than about the substance of the report.
How damaging has this matter been? Frankly, it has been extraordinarily damaging, simply because the problem that we face—and the problem for the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), who, I agree, has behaved with great dignity—hits at the mechanics of how the Select Committee system works. Select Committees have no absolute power. Most of them cannot dismiss, punish, change policy or allocate money. They can do nothing except expose information to the public gaze, comment on policy and outcomes and, in the final analysis, embarrass the Executive. That is their only weapon, but it would be surprising if the Executive of any political persuasion accepted that embarrassment passively.
That is the leverage, and the breach that we are discussing hits at the fulcrum of that leverage. Once an Executive knows in detail about an upcoming report, it can do any number of things to destroy the report's effectiveness. As the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, my predecessor as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, knows, when a Committee produces 50 reports a year, the outcomes are known to the Government because they were there for the evidence sessions and know what happened. Moreover, there is a timetable for the publication of reports. As a result, the Public Accounts Committee, in extremis, is always susceptible.
I can give three examples that demonstrate what Governments, in general, can do. A year or two ago, the PAC produced a report on social security fraud. Unusually, the Government issued a Green Paper and made a statement to the House the week before in order to take away the report's impact. On another occasion, we issued a report on what was, at that point, the Government's fairly mixed performance on the millennium bug. The day before its publication, a very senior Minister went on television to talk about the good parts of the Government's work on the millennium bug, in an attempt to lessen the report's impact. On another occasion, an embarrassing report was due out on the Sunday and it was leaked on the Saturday.
48 There are dozens of other methods that Executives use. Select Committee Chairmen have to deal with them, and generally they do so without too much difficulty. However, the breach of a Select Committee's integrity by letting the Government know in advance what its report says allows the Executive any number of mechanisms for destroying the one lever that Select Committees have. If we leave such breaches unfettered, they will bankrupt our democracy. At present, Select Committees are the strongest check on the Executive that the House has. Clearly, therefore, this matter is of enormous importance. For that reason alone, I agree with the draconian penalty recommended by the Standards and Privileges Committee. If we do not take draconian action, we shall send out the wrong message.
I wish to turn now to a more detailed point—the credibility of the evidence presented to the Committee. Given the traditional procedures, the Committee had no choice but to come to the conclusion that it did. I do not agree with my hon. Friends who have disputed that. The house, however, has a separate duty to assess the evidence placed before it in the report. We have already heard from the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) about contradictory information from the Foreign Office, so I shall cite some of the evidence provided to illustrate to the House how much credibility we should give to it.
Paragraph 12 on page 6 of the report says:Mr Hood, Mr. Cook's political adviser, explained that he had come across the document by chance".It is interesting that the document should have been come across by chance. Mr. Hood saw it as his duty to pull it out for himself, but,he had not alerted Mr. Cook to it straight away because there had been no opportunity to do so".Mr. Hood is a special adviser—the political adviser to the Foreign Secretary—and the report is about the hottest issue of the day, and in the headlines at every turn. Mr. Hood was unable to find time to raise the matter with the Foreign Secretary for three weeks, although he admits in the evidence that he thought that he ought to have raised it with him at some point. For three weeks he did not find an opportunity to do so. I leave it to the House to judge the credibility of that point.
The report says that Mr. Hoodhad not thought it was wrong to retain the leaked draft but he knew it would have been wrong to have acted on it in any way.He then said that he handed it to Mr. John Williams. Mr. Williams is not a policy wonk or someone who sits in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and deliberates at great length on the policy implications of reports; his job is to handle the media—media manipulation. He was previously the political editor of The Mirror, so surely he would not sit idly by, given such a hot potato to handle. He is, in effect, a political appointee in the news department.
According to the report:Mr. Williams, of the News Department, said that he was unaware that he should not have seen the leaked draft.This man had been the political editor of The Mirror, but he was unaware that there was anything wrong in a Department having a leaked document of a Select Committee. The report says: 49He regretted that he had focused on it too narrowly as a matter of media strategy.
§ Shona McIsaac
To be fair to Mr. Williams, the evidence shows that he stated:I was obviously aware that if I said anything that depended on knowledge of that leak that would be wrong. I did not do so.
§ Mr. Davis
The fact of the matter is that Mr. Hood handed it to Mr. Williams. What did he think Mr. Williams was going to do with it? Think about it for three weeks? That is an untenable line, but I leave it to the House to make its own judgment.
First, a special adviser does not see the political significance of the report. Then, an ex-political editor does not know that it is a problem for a Select Committee report to be leaked to a Department. Then we come to Mr. Grant, Mr. Cook's private secretary. I am an ex-Foreign Office Minister, and hon. Members should understand what a private secretary is, because he is not someone who does the typing. He is a high-flying, highly qualified member of the Foreign Office who will almost certainly end up as an ambassador somewhere or, like Sir John Kerr, will become the permanent secretary of the Department—that is particularly true of the private secretary to the Foreign Secretary.
In the Foreign Office, one of the skills people are required to develop as a diplomat is political acuity and political antennae. According to the report, Mr. Grant said thathe had not appreciated the status of the document".He did not realise that it was important enough to give to the Foreign Secretary, despite the fact that the prospect of it was on the front pages of the newspapers, and it was potentially the most embarrassing matter facing the Foreign Office.
The report goes on to say of Mr. Grant:Likewise, he had not informed the Foreign Secretary about the earlier leak of the draft report on EU enlargement because there was nothing in the substance of the report which the Foreign Secretary needed to know.That undermines his earlier argument. If there was something in the text of the report that the Foreign Secretary needed to know, he would have passed it on. I have heard many comments about how busy the Foreign Secretary was at that time. Foreign Secretaries are always busy. I have served two Foreign Secretaries, and I cannot think of a time when their special adviser, their politically appointed press officer—although we did not have such people—and their principal private secretary were unable to get to see them for three weeks.
My concern is that the Committee had no choice. When faced with evidence that had no obvious flaw in its internal logic, how could the Committee penetrate it? In future, the House should arm the Standards and Privileges Committee with rather heavier weapons.
§ Mrs. Beckett
I have just been trying to refresh my memory in regard to Mr. Hood's evidence to the Select Committee. Notwithstanding the summary given by the right hon. Gentleman on the basis of his experience as a junior Foreign Office Minister, Mr. Hood's evidence makes it clear that, at the time in question, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary was dealing simultaneously with the hostage crisis in Yemen, with arrangements for 50 the Contact Group—he was trying to avert a war in the former Yugoslavia; Kosovo was also a problem—and with a number of other matters.
Mr. Hood said that one reason why he thought that the issue was not important enough to be drawn to the Foreign Secretary's attention immediately was the fact that he was entirely sure that there was nothing that the Foreign Office could or should do with the report. Does that not put Mr. Hood's evidence, and his decision, in a rather different context from that which the right hon. Gentleman has sought to portray?
§ Mr. Davis
On many occasions during the periods of office of the two Foreign Secretaries whom I served, crises arose at the same time. For instance, there have been Cyprus crises, Turkish crises and European Union crises, all at once. The right hon. Lady obviously does not realise that part of the task of a Foreign Secretary is to deal with such matters simultaneously. The Foreign Secretary has a broad reach, and there are plenty of times when he has half a dozen big issues on his plate. What is being proposed is implausible, at least in my judgment.
§ Sir Peter Emery
Is it not even more implausible, given that the Foreign Office is being referred to the Department of Trade and Industry in regard to a possible prosecution for an action that may have been taken by one of its officials? This is not something that happens every day; it is most unusual, and I should have thought that it was immensely important for it to be drawn to the Foreign Secretary's attention.
§ Mr. Davis
My right hon. Friend's point is reinforced by the evidence of Sir John Kerr. He said that he did not understand the significance of the report, in parliamentary terms, because—I paraphrase—he was so shocked by the import for himself of the point raised by my right hon. Friend.
My argument, however, goes deeper than the point that the Leader of the House tried to pick up. How does the Standards and Privileges Committee test evidence such as this? It has no access to the necessary judicial procedures. The evidence should be taken on oath, separately, and probably in closed session, so that people cannot collude. That is what should be done if such a problem arises in the future.
Another problem relates to the powers of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. He or she can investigate infractions of standards in great detail—if any of us are accused of such infractions, he or she can have access to our bank accounts and to a number of other sources of evidence—but I understand that that does not apply to issues of privilege. That gives rise to two points, one of which was raised some months ago by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay).
First, the ministerial code is, in effect, outside the powers of the house. It is adjudicated by the Government—by the Prime Minister, in the final analysis. That is wrong: it puts the Prime Minister in an impossible position. He must deal with political dimensions at the same time as dealing with natural justice dimensions, and he must simultaneously deal with the integrity of the Government. That is an impossible demand within the context of government. The ministerial code should be policed by the house, at least in the first instance.
51 The second point relates to the fact that we have to rely on the Department itself for the evidence. Some months ago, in a debate in the house, the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) mentioned the idea of a parliamentary investigating facility. We should not have to rely on the report of an ex-civil servant, which we are told is impartial; we should be able to rely on a parliamentary officer, who should have absolute access in the same way as the Comptroller and Auditor General. The Committee could then reach a judgment that it could be authoritatively sure was based solely on hard facts, rather than on a defensive line put up by the Government.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)
My right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis) has introduced the question of whether, on privileges issues, there should be an investigating officer for the House, whose report could be made available to the Committee before the Committee comes to its conclusions and puts its own report and recommendations to the House. That is an interesting idea. There may be other occasions when it can be discussed. I am not sure that it is an issue that should be settled in the eighth report of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges.
I thank the Chairman of the Liaison Committee, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), for the way in which he introduced the report; he did so very fairly. He said that there were two forms of unanimity, and the first form rightly applied to the Committee. It is not to make a point about any other Committee, but simply to point out that there was nothing of particular difficulty in reaching conclusions on the matter. The most important conclusion that we reached was in the interim response to the Speaker, which said that Members who had received material that they should not have received should return it straight away. That is clear. It is good English. It is good practice. I hope that it will be followed.
I hope that the next thing that I say will not be seen as a contradiction. The report does not deal with material that is wrongly leaked to the press. One of the first things that happened when I joined the House was that a Committee of the House recommended that either the editor or a journalist from The Economist should be punished, having printed something that they had wrongly received. With rare exceptions, which I cannot contemplate at the moment, I do not believe that the House should be in the business of trying to punish journalists for doing their job, which is to make available to all what is known to a few.
As I understand it, the Foreign Affairs Committee looked seriously at the issue on the basis that it was a leak to a Department whose actions were being considered by the Select Committee. Publication in a newspaper may have come about because of a bad act, but, once something has been published, it is open to all to see at the same time; it is not just for the privileged. It may be designed to undermine the proceedings of a Select Committee, but it has been done differently and more openly. That is not to justify a Member going to the press, but to try to draw a distinction. It is worth spelling out that we are not trying to muzzle the press, even if it obtains material following an action that cannot be justified.
52 That debate needs to take place on another occasion. A fair number of reports from the Standards and Privileges Committee are not usually debated because they do not recommend action by the house, yet some of those reports are as significant as the ones that recommend an action by an hon. Member or the House itself.
On another occasion, it would be useful to go into what I regard as some of the misconceptions in today's article by Peter Riddell in The Times, which seems to bring together a number of issues that should not properly be brought together in that way. However, as my right hon. Friend the Member for haltemprice and howden said, in this case, the commissioner does not come into the eighth report, so I will not waste the house's time by following up some of the different views that Peter Riddell could have mentioned.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and hythe (Mr. Howard), the former home Secretary, has made a strong case. The whole House will be grateful for the way in which right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House have spoken.
Had I worked rather more seriously at university, I should probably have joined the civil service, like my brother, father and grandfather, so I have more of a public than a political service background. We could possibly build too much on those two words "full briefing" in the letter from the Foreign Secretary. It would have been interesting to have heard from the official concerned. It would be interesting to see the report that he circulated in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. If the Leader of the House does not disclose it this afternoon, I am sure that one Committee or another will obtain it. I do not regard it as the sort of paper that the civil service or Ministers can keep secret, and I see no reason why they should.
In one of the parliamentary answers that I was most pleased with when I was a Minister—I cannot say proud—I got two sentences into one line of one column of Hansard:I made a mistake. I apologise."—[Official Report, 2 December 1985; Vol. 88, c. 84.]As a Minister, it is not very difficult to say that, especially if it is true. The Leader of the House says that Ministers in the previous Government did not always abide by conventions or guidance in responding to Select Committee reports—that is the standard response that one expects from the present Government. Ministers keep reminding us that the previous Government were never perfect, but they seldom confess to any mistakes of their own; they seldom come here to say that they are sorry. The right hon. Lady should institute a review, perhaps by an outside person, to see how many times the present Government have managed to get publicity that responds instantly, in an adversarial way, to a Select Committee report on the day it is published, or on the days before.
A bad trend has been set. However, the Government—who, understandably, consider the next day's newspaper headlines to be a very significant part of the parliamentary process—should understand that responding in that manner to Select Committee reports contradicts the parliamentary process. They should read those reports, consider them and allow them to be published so that other people, too, may read them.
On the day on which the Committee's ninth report was published, reports on Teletext stated that "So-and-so was cleared", whereas anyone who had read that report would 53 realise that that statement was not so much relevant as part of a briefing to ensure that the report itself—to which many civil servants had given much time—would be obscured.
If we demand that civil servants should be able to justify every adjective, noun and comma used in every piece of paper that they circulate in their Departments, in briefings to Ministers or for ministerial statements to the house, the civil service machine will only work more slowly and less effectively. When it is discovered that an inaccurate statement has been made, it would be much better for Ministers to state that in a parliamentary answer and to spell out the facts.
Openness is very important for democracy. If there were slightly less pride, arrogance and control, the relationship between Parliament and the Government would work better. It is more becoming for hon. Members, even Labour Members, to say to Ministers, "Try to tell us what you have got wrong as well as what you have got right. Try to give us the information that we should have, so that we are able to judge whether your action is fully or only partly justifiable."
§ Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)
I shall be fairly brief, but, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, there are two matters that I should like to draw to the attention of the house, and one matter that I ask the House to consider.
First, the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross) made an absolutely frank statement to the Select Committee before any Committee member knew anything about what had really happened, and he submitted his resignation to the Chairman immediately before he spoke. He behaved entirely honourably in Committee about the mistake that he had made. That should be to his credit, and that credit should be given not only by Labour Members, but by an Opposition Member. I am very willing so to do.
Secondly, I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) on his speech, in which he outlined a great deal about the Foreign Secretary's position—a matter to which I shall return in a moment.
Page xv, paragraph 2, of the report states:On the day before publication the Chair of the FAC gave a full briefing to Andy henderson, the head of the FCO Parliamentary Relations Department".As a Committee member, I had no knowledge of that fact, which the Chairman had not mentioned. That paragraph in the report was the first instance on which it was drawn to my attention.
Today, we have had a very important statement from the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; it was right that that statement was made. I have no reason to disbelieve any of that statement. The hon. Gentleman has behaved quite honourably in all of his dealings with the Committee. It is therefore imperative that the Foreign Office—which seems to be trying to drag him into the matter by the statement on page xv—should support the hon. Gentleman's statement by making it absolutely clear that no use was made ofeither the draft or the additional information from Mr. Anderson or Mr. Ross"—54 which Andy Henderson himself minuted and said that he circulated in briefing the press. I am sorry, but what the devil were those people up to? What was the publicity department doing? Those people are there to defend the Secretary of State. The idea that any information that they had would not be used for the benefit of the Department is nonsensical. If we believe that, we believe in "Alice in Wonderland".
Rather than retaining any doubt or criticism of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Foreign Office is obliged to make public the minute by Mr. Andy Henderson, so the matter can be cleared up and the Chairman can proceed, knowing that his statement to the House is complete.
We have criticised the Foreign Secretary for not apologising to the house, and we have heard the Leader of the House say that no Foreign Secretary had made more papers available to the Committee ever before. Yes—but, by Jove, they had to be forced out of him. They did not come willingly. They had to be dragged out like bad teeth. One of the witnesses whom we wished to see was refused, and we never saw that witness. The concept that there was great openness from the Foreign Secretary is a slight myth, and the response from members of the Foreign Affairs Committee shows that they are not willing to run against my views.
§ Mr. Wilshire
Given what my right hon. Friend has just said, how does he rate our chances of seeing the minute to which the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) referred?
§ Sir Peter Emery
If I have anything to do with it, it will be a 100 per cent. chance. If the Foreign Office has anything to do with it, it will be a 0 per cent. chance. It will not be done willingly—it will have to be dragged out of the Foreign Office yet again.
I have always wanted to believe that the Foreign Office was one of the leading Departments. I was a Parliamentary Private Secretary there for three years, so perhaps I am slightly influenced. Of course, that was a hell of a long time ago—from 1961 to 1963, before most Members sitting in the Chamber today were in the house. Since then, and under any Government, the Department has had a high reputation, as have its Secretaries of State.
The report has left a nasty taste with members of the Select Committee. Real honour was not one of the thoughts being considered in the way in which the Department dealt with the Committee. Nor did the Foreign Office do anything other than try at every moment to hide anything that it could possibly keep from the Committee's inquiry. There is the unpleasantness.
The Foreign Secretary has not come here to apologise. The strange thing about this House is that if one comes to apologise, the House is forgiving. When one does not and one is wrong, we want to find out why. The Foreign Secretary has not apologised, and he is wrong. It is right that we ensure that we continue with the closest examination of him and the Department while he is still Foreign Secretary.
§ Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), I have been in the House for 35 years, and 55 like so many right hon. and hon. Members here today, I have been a member of the Executive, but have also spent substantial time on the Back Benches. We tend not to be overblown about the importance of our work, which the press often accuse us of, but all too often to overlook it. That has been apparent to some extent today.
It is salutary to think that we are the mother of parliaments, but the average person's sole involvement in the parliamentary process, in 80 years of life, will be to have cast 20 votes. That is democracy, but democracy in the meaningful sense of the accountability of the Executive exists only in Parliament. That is why we are here today protecting the rights of our Committee.
Setting aside the politicking that always goes on in the House—we have been in opposition for long spells and fully understand the frustrations of Opposition Members—the most important thing to emerge from the report is that we have at last found a way of closing the channels. Leaks are only as important as the distance that they can get. If we can stop the movement of documents, we go a long way towards ending the problem of leaks to Ministers, and I think that the report achieves that.
I argued that it was not enough to call only the three officials, and that to call the permanent secretary would send a message throughout Whitehall. It did: within hours, Whitehall was responding. The permanent secretary brought us a message telling us that, even though he had been in the civil service for 33 years, he did not know that it was a breach of parliamentary privilege to handle leaked documents, but that from that day on, it would be treated as a disciplinary matter for any civil servant to handle documents other than to return them to the Committee.
That was important not only in imposing a discipline, but because of the career effect of that discipline. We underlined that by saying that the Committee would treat it as an act of contempt of Parliament for any civil servant to conspire to further the leak of a document. That is a major breakthrough for the legislature, and for that reason, if for no other, the report is extremely important.
§ The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)
I join those who have thanked the Standards and Privileges Committee for its work and for the report. I echo the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who put his finger, in a few measured words, on the nub of what these proceedings should be about. His speech and the equally measured contribution from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) were in line with the measured tone of the report, although one might not have thought so from some of what has been said.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne made it clear that the report did not criticise my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and that before this incident, there was no guidance on what a Minister should do should he or his civil servants receive a leaked Select Committee document, but he also made it clear that to handle such a document would now be regarded as a contempt of the house.
56 It was clear from the debate that many thought the report too measured, including the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and hythe (Mr. Howard). He criticised the Committee, not only implicitly but explicitly, for not having gone further.
In this debate, the Committee's report has been stretched to breaking point, if not beyond. It was the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and hythe who said that the report described a systematic attempt by the Government to suborn the Select Committee system. He said that the Foreign Secretary should be forced to come to the House to answer questions. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) indicated that he had not wholly taken in the detail of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument, but thought that the tone of his contribution was so grave that there was something in that argument. I cannot agree either with the right hon. and learned Gentleman or my hon. Friend, and I take this opportunity to explain that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is in Edinburgh at a most important meeting with the Brazilian Foreign Minister. Relations with Brazil, as all right hon. and hon. Members know, are of considerable importance to this Government and this country, and that is why my right hon. Friend is not able to be present in the Chamber this evening.
§ Mr. Howard
First, is the right hon. Lady suggesting that it is beyond the wit of the business managers to have scheduled this debate for an occasion on which the Foreign Secretary was in London, as he is from time to time? Secondly, what would she have done if she had received a leaked copy of a report from a Select Committee?
§ Mrs. Beckett
This report is not about my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, as the Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee made plain. The timing of the debate was geared to providing, as speedily as we reasonably could, an opportunity to debate the report and the unfortunate issue of my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), who was criticised in the report and whose suspension was proposed by it. That was the main consideration behind the timing of the debate, and properly so.
The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and hythe was strong in his criticisms, but not as strong as the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire), who called on the Prime Minister to sack the Foreign Secretary and was also critical of the Prime Minister himself, as if the affair in some way involved him, which of course it does not. Therefore, it is right to remind the house, if only briefly, that the Government in no way, shape or form were the originator of the leak, as my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West made clear; that the Government made no use whatever of the leak, as has been made crystal clear—indeed, no hon. Member has even tried to allege that; and that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne said in his capacity as Chairman of the Standards and Privileges Committee, the Government made no attempt, once they were in receipt of the leaked document, to use it to influence the work of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
§ Mr. Wilshire
The right hon. Lady is making much play of what the Government did not do, but can she tell 57 the House why the Government have still not returned a single sheet of a single copy of the leaked document to the Clerk of the Committee?
§ Mrs. Beckett
No, I cannot. Indeed, I was not aware of that point, but there may be a simple explanation for it and I am sure that it will be made available to the hon. Gentleman.
§ Shona McIsaac
My right hon. Friend may not have noticed, because it is only a tiny part of the minutes of evidence, but one official is quoted as saying that the documents ended up in the shredder.
§ Mrs. Beckett
That unworthy thought had crossed my mind and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making the matter clear.
In the course of the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) understandably raised the issue of the interpretation that has been put on the briefing meeting he had—perfectly properly—with an incoming senior official in the Foreign Office, and how that has been reported.
In that context, there has also been some reference to my earlier intervention, in which I pointed out that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had made available to the Select Committee information that was unprecedentedly full. Some play was made, by Liberal Democrat Members, by the hon. Member for Spelthorne and by the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery)—whose constituency is one that, since the last round of Boundary Commission changes, I fear that I have increasing difficulty in remembering—about the fact that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary did not rush forward, with a glad and eager heart, to offer access to any and every paper and telegram in the Foreign Office.
I do not consider that surprising in any way, shape or form. Indeed, my right hon. Friend would have been lacking in his duty if he had not thought that he ought to weigh very carefully what was certainly a very major precedent—some would call it a dangerous precedent—in terms of the information that he made available to the Select Committee.
In dialogue with each other, hon. Members then expressed confidence that the minute produced by Mr. Henderson after the briefing from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East would have to be dragged out of the Foreign Office. That was intended to illustrate the lack of openness of the Foreign Secretary.
However, I have to disappoint those hon. Members. While we have been listening with eager attention to their observations, I have received a message from my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, in which he states that he is entirely willing for that document to be released to the house. The document will, indeed, be made available.
§ Sir Peter Emery
I congratulate the Leader of the House on her success in getting documents released. It is much greater than that achieved by the Foreign Affairs Committee.
However, I remind the right hon. Lady of a recommendation made by the Select Committee on Procedure way back in the 1990–91 Session. It was that it was beholden on Departments to make certain that they 58 made available to a Select Committee all documentation relevant to an inquiry being held by that Select Committee. The recommendation was made as a result of a Select Committee inquiry into Concorde, when the fact that not all the necessary documentation was made available to that Committee was referred to the Procedure Committee.
§ Mrs. Beckett
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the investigation into the Concorde affair was held a considerable period of years ago. Nevertheless, although all Governments seek to provide Select Committees with the right information, some documents are held to be of such sensitivity that they should remain confidential within government. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman and other members of the Foreign Affairs Committee have confirmed that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary released unprecedented information.
I shall conclude with one of the earliest points made in this short, but stretching debate. Although no supporting evidence was produced, some Conservative Members stated that the alleged behaviour was typical of the Government's misuse of the house. The shadow Leader of the House prayed in aid of that argument the Government's use of the Government information service, the number of special advisers, and so on.
However, the allegations about the use of the information service have been repeatedly and clearly refuted. As to the special advisers, the Government considered that, as a matter of professionalism, it was right to employ more than were employed by the previous Administration, at least at the end of their term of office. We have also thought it right, again as a matter of professionalism, to treble the money made available to Opposition parties in the house, in order that they may more adequately carry out their duties. I have not noticed any acknowledgement that that rather runs counter to the suggestion that the Government in some way are trying to misuse and abuse Parliament.
My final point is to quote from the conventions for Governments responding to Select Committee reports. Those were drafted as long ago as 1990 and were set out in a letter from the then President of the Council, who I think was the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, to the Chairman of the Liaison Committee. The passage that is particularly germane to this debate is that the documentasserted the right of Ministers to respond publicly to criticisms of the Government as robustly as seemed appropriate; this would include criticisms in the Committee's Report itself, inaccuracy or mis-statement in media reporting, or public criticisms made by individual Committee members".The advice continued:Ministers would feel free to respond immediately to recommendations",where that was thought necessary.
Despite much that has been said in this debate, frankly, the substance of the complaints made by the Opposition are not borne out by the weight of the evidence on which they rest. This is a sufficiently serious and worrying matter in itself.
Like many other members who have spoken in the debate, I recognise the work that my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West has done in the House and on foreign affairs, and I regret the circumstances that led to 59 his suspension from the house, although of course I respect the judgment of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, as do we all.
I fear that in an attempt to exploit a measured and sensible report, which warns us all about the proper respect for the work of Select Committees and clearly warns Government Departments and civil servants about future conduct, an attempt has been made to erect an edifice of criticism of the Government, the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister, which is not borne out. Frankly, the evidence will not bear it.
60 Question put:—
The House proceeded to a Division—
JANE KENNEDY and MR. KEVIN HUGHES were appointed Tellers for the Ayes; but no Member being willing to act as Teller for the Noes, MADAM SPEAKER declared that the Ayes had it.
Resolved,That this House—(i) approves the Eighth Report of the Committee on Standards and Privileges (HC 607); and(ii) accordingly suspends Mr. Ernie Ross, Member for Dundee West, from the service of the House for ten sitting days.