HL Deb 24 April 1967 vol 282 cc378-81

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, with permission, I should like to repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Minister of Technology in another place about the independent Inquiry which the Minister of State announced on April 5 would be instituted to examine the circumstances of the Bristol Siddeley case. It is as follows:

"The Committee of Inquiry is being set up jointly by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and myself. Its terms of reference will be:— 'To investigate the circumstances of the pricing of certain contracts for the overhaul of aero-engines in the period 1959 to 1963, leading to repayment in March, 1967, by Bristol Siddeley Engines Limited to the Ministry of Technology; and matters relating thereto; and to report to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Technology as soon as possible. The Committee should feel free to make any recommendations they may consider necessary, in the light of their inquiry, on the need for further investigations into any aspects of Government contractual operations; or to request an extension of their terms of reference for this purpose'. "As in the case of the Lang Inquiry, this will be a committee of three. I am glad to say that Sir Roy Wilson, Q.C., the President of the Industrial Court, has accepted our invitation to act as Chairman. He has wide experience of the conduct of committees of inquiry. Sir Leslie Robinson and Mr. C. J. M. Bennett have agreed to serve as members. Sir Leslie had many years of Government service, and since he retired from the Board of Trade in 1963 he has been in industry. Mr. Bennett is a partner in a well-known firm of chartered accountants and has considerable experience of official inquiries.

"It will be seen that the Committee's terms of reference have been so drafted as to require them, in the first place, to investigate all the circumstances of the case itself; and to leave it open to them, if they see fit, to propose either that they themselves should go on to examine wider aspects of Government contracting or that some other body should be required to do so.

"It is hoped that the Committee will be able to produce a first report by the end of July this year."


My Lords, I must thank the noble Lord for having repeated that Statement. So far as I know, the people who have been chosen to sit on the Tribunal seem to be admirable. May I ask the noble Lord whether the first Report and subsequent Reports will be published? Secondly, although I think this is so, it is not entirely clear from what the noble Lord has said whether it will be possible under the terms of reference for the Committee of Inquiry to investigate what happened between the years 1963 and 1967, when obviously a certain amount was happening. The years 1963 to 1967 are specifically mentioned in the terms of reference, and that is why I ask the question. Lastly, I would ask the noble Lord whether the Committee have powers to call witnesses before them.


My Lords, the Report will be published. With regard to the period over which the Committee will be inquiring, I mentioned that the particular contract related to the period 1959 to 1963. As they have power to consider any matters relating thereto, it will be competent for them to go into anything that happened subsequent to those years. So far as powers are concerned, the Committee are not being appointed under the 1921 Act, but they will be given complete co-operation by the Department concerned. The company concerned have also offered their complete co-operation, and I have no doubt that they will be able to take evidence from whomsoever they choose.


My Lords, I think that, in themselves, the gentlemen selected are three excellent gentlemen. I have no objection to the Committee except as regards one point, and it is this. May I ask the Government whether they do not think it would be better either to add to the number or to substitute for one of the gentlemen chosen a person who has experience in the aeronautical indusstry? So far as I understand it, the experience of these three gentlemen has been in Government, in the law and in chartered accountancy. As this Inquiry is going to affect not only what has happened in the past with regard to the aeronautical industry, but what may happen in the future, would it not be better to have on the Committee someone who is experienced in that field?


Yes, my Lords, I take the point the noble Lord makes. But, of course, we are considering here a field of contract and commercial activity, and not specifically technical matters relating to the aircraft industry. I have no doubt that if the Committee wish to he informed about any particular technical aspect, they will, as I have said, get complete co-operation from the Ministry.


My Lords, is it not a fact that when a Statement was made on the subject previously, the House was informed that it was a very difficult matter because of the technical aspects concerned in the aeronautical industry, in the production of aero engines, and the like? Surely the Government cannot have it both ways. Either it is a technical matter, in which case there should be someone with experience of the industry on the Committee of Inquiry, or this defence should not have been raised previously.


My Lords, I understand what the noble Lord says. But I still feel that the problems into which the Committee will be inquiring are problems which they are perfectly competent to handle; and should they require any technical assessor to assist them, I have no doubt that one can be provided.


My Lords, can the Minister say whether those who appear before the Tribunal, or who are represented at the Committee of Inquiry, may be represented by counsel?


My Lords, it is not my impression that this is the procedure which has been followed in the past.


My Lords, I understood the noble Lord to say that the report will be published. Does that mean that the evidence submitted will be published with the report?


No, my Lords. I doubt whether that will be the case. But I will look into the point that my noble friend has mentioned.

What I had in mind, in relation to what the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, said, was the fact that the committee's report will follow very closely the lines of the Lang Report. When I said that the procedure that he mentioned would not be followed, that is what I had in mind, although, as I implied, there is nothing laid down specifically relating to this. If anyone wishes to be represented by counsel, there is no reason why he should not be so represented.