§ 3.32 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council (Viscount Whitelaw)
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on the outcome of the inquiry into the disclosure of part of a letter from the Solicitor-General.
336 "With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a Statement on the outcome of the inquiry into the disclosure of certain information in my honourable and learned friend the Solicitor-General's letter of 6th Janaury.
"As the House knows, the Chairman of Westland plc, Sir John Cuckney, wrote to me on 30th December 1985 asking whether Westland would no longer be considered a European company by the Government if a minority shareholding in the company were held by a major international group from a NATO country outside Europe.
"This question was of fundamental importance to the company in making its decision as to what course it was best to follow in the interests of the company and its employees. It was therefore essential to be sure that my reply should be in no way misleading to anyone who might rely upon it in making commercial judgments and decisions.
"The reply was accordingly considered among the departments concerned, and the text of my letter of 1st January 1986 was agreed in detail by my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right honourable friends the then Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief Secretary, Treasury, and finally by my honourable and learned friend the Solicitor-General.
"My letter was made public.
"Two days later, on 3rd January, my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Defence replied to a letter of the same date from Mr. Horne of Lloyds Merchant Bank asking him a number of questions, covering some of the same ground as my own reply to Sir John Cuckney. The texts of the letters became public that same day.
"My right honourable friend's reply was not cleared or even discussed with the relevant Cabinet colleagues. Moreover, although the reply was also material to the commercial judgments and decisions that would have to be made, my honourable and learned friend the Solicitor-General was not invited to scrutinise the letter before it was issued.
"On the morning of 6th January my honourable and learned friend the Solicitor-General wrote to my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Defence. He said—and I quote:
'It is foreseeable that your letter will be relied upon by the Westland Board and its shareholders.
'Consistently with the advice I gave to the Prime Minister on 31st December, the Government in such circumstances is under a duty not to give information which is incomplete or inaccurate in any material particular.
'On the basis of the information contained in the documents to which I have referred, which I emphasise are all that I have seen, the sentence in your letter to Mr. Horne does in my opinion contain material inaccuracies in the respects I have mentioned, and I therefore must advise that you should write again to Mr. Horne correcting the inaccuracies.'
"I have quoted extensively from the letter which was published a week ago. As I have already indicated, it was especially important in this 337 situation for statements made on behalf of the Government, on which commercial judgments might be based, to be accurate and in no way misleading.
"That being so, it was a matter of duty that it should be made known publicly that there were thought to be material inaccuracies which needed to be corrected in my right honourable friend the Member for Henley's letter of 3rd January, which as the House will recall had already been made public.
"Moreover, it was urgent that it should become public knowledge before 4.00 p.m. that afternoon, 6th January, when Sir John Cuckney was due to hold a press conference to announce the Westland board's recommendation to shareholders of a revised proposal from the United Technologies Corporation/Fiat consortium.
"These considerations were very much in the mind of my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when the copy of the Solicitor-General's letter was brought to his attention at about 1.30 p.m. that afternoon of 6th January.
"He took the view that the opinion expressed by the Solicitor-General in his letter of 6th January to the then Secretary of State for Defence should be brought into the public domain as soon as possible.
"He asked his officials to discuss with my office whether the disclosure should be made, and if so whether it should be made from 10 Downing Street as he said he would prefer.
"He made it clear that, subject to the agreement of my office, he was giving authority for the disclosure to be made from the Department of Trade and Industry, if it was not made from 10 Downing Street.
"He expressed no view as to the form in which the disclosure should be made, though it was clear to all concerned that in the circumstances it was not possible to proceed by way of an agreed statement. My office were accordingly approached.
"They did not seek my agreement: they considered—and they were right—that I should agree with my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that the fact that the then Defence Secretary's letter of 3rd January was thought by the Solicitor-General to contain material inaccuracies which needed to be corrected should be made public knowledge as soon as possible, and before Sir John Cuckney's press conference. It was accepted that the Department of Trade and Industry should disclose that fact; and that in view of the urgency of the matter the disclosure should be made by means of a telephone communication to the Press Association.
"Had I been consulted I should have said that a different way must be found of making the relevant facts known.
"The report finds in the light of the evidence that the Department of Trade and Industry acted in good faith in the knowledge that they had the authority of their Secretary of State and cover from my office for proceeding.
338 "An official of the department accordingly told a representative of the Press Association of my honourable and learned friend the Solicitor-General's letter and material elements of what it said. The company was also informed. The information was on the Press Association tapes at 3.30 p.m.
"Mr. Speaker, my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was in my judgment right in thinking that it was important that the possible existence of material inaccuracies in the then Secretary of State for Defence's letter of 3rd January should become a matter of public knowledge, if possible before Sir John Cuckney's press conference at 4.00 p.m. that day.
"In so far as what my office said to the Department of Trade and Industry was based on the belief that I should have taken that view, had I been consulted, they were right.
"My right honourable and learned friend the Attorney-General has authorised me to inform the House that, having considered the report by the head of the Civil Service, and on the material before him, he has decided after consultation with, and with the full agreement of, the Director of Public Prosecutions and senior Treasury counsel, that there is no justification for the institution of proceedings under the Official Secrets Act in respect of any of the persons concerned in this matter. In order that there should be no impediment to co-operation in the inquiry, my right honourable and learned friend had authorised the head of the Civil Service to tell one of the officials concerned, whose testimony would be vital to the inquiry, that he had my right honourable and learned friend's authority to say that, provided that he received full co-operation in his inquiry, the official concerned would not be prosecuted in respect of anything said during the course of the inquiry. The head of the Civil Service did indeed receive full co-operation not only from that official but from all concerned. My right honourable and learned friend tells me that he is satisfied that that in no way interfered with the course of justice: on the facts as disclosed in the inquiry there would have been no question of proceeding against the official concerned".
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Viscount for repeating that long and serious Statement. It is in fact very serious, for it affects the way in which Ministers and senior civil servants deal with the nation's affairs. I am bound to say that the critical points are clothed in a good deal of verbiage. A number of important questions arise from the Statement.
In view of the deteriorating relations between the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, which involved the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry as well—differences which all of us know became apparent over a fairly long period and came to a head on 6th January with the Solicitor-General's letter of that date—why did the Prime Minister not discuss the matter at that time with the Secretary of 339 State for Defence instead of discussing it with other Ministers behind the back of the Secretary of State for Defence?
The charges against the Secretary of State for Defence in the letter by the Solicitor-General were extremely serious. In those circumstances, why was there no proper discussion while he remained a senior Minister and member of the Cabinet—one of the most important members of the Government? The Prime Minister now says that the matter should be made public. Was there any meeting to decide how the matter should be handled and how it should be made public? The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, according to the Statement, also said that the matter should be brought (I quote him) "into the public domain".
Why was this not done in a more open fashion? Why did the Prime Minister not ask the Secretary of State for Defence for his resignation at this point, if she thought the matter was as serious as it is clear from the Statement she did? The Prime Minister kept the right honourable gentleman, the Secretary of State for Defence in office during the whole of this period. She allowed him to attend the Cabinet where both she and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had agreed that there should be a leak of the letter: a letter which was damaging to her colleague who sat with her in the Cabinet that Thursday morning when he walked out.
Is the noble Viscount aware that from the wording of this Statement it appears that there was a deliberate conspiracy within the Government to destroy Mr. Heseltine?
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, the Prime Minister says, according to the Statement, that she would have found a different way. She had ample opportunity to consider the way she was dealing with it. She is the Prime Minister of this country. She has ample advice at her disposal. Why did she allow this squalid development to take place without adequate concern for her colleague in the Cabinet?
At this time it is not the Westlands argument that is at issue; it is the way the Prime Minister has handled the matter that is at issue. It is a sad and deplorable story. I am bound to say on my first reading of the Statement, which I saw only a few minutes ago, that in all the circumstances and against this background I am glad that no proceedings are to be taken against any civil servant, because it is not the civil servants who are to blame in this matter. I should think at this stage that the Ministers involved must consider their position very seriously.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I, too, on behalf of my colleagues in the Alliance, should like first to thank the noble Viscount the Leader of the House for repeating this Statement. I am sure that I shall have everyone's sympathy in endeavouring to be as constructive and responsible as I can on a matter of this importance, which is on the basis of a Statement which, inevitably—I blame no-one for it—was in my hands for only ten minutes before the noble Viscount rose to deliver it.
340 This is a disreputable and damaging series of events. It is damaging to the chances of good government on three major counts: it is damaging to the fully accepted practice of joint Cabinet responsibility; it is damaging to the fully accepted practice of confidentiality in Government matters; and it is damaging to the standing of the Law Officers, on whom every Government and Opposition equally depend. It is damaging to joint Cabinet responsibility and therefore to the possibility of good government by the present Government in the future because we have seen disclosed a squalid row between two individuals. It is not (I repeat, not) a circumstance normal to every one of your Lordships who has attended Cabinet meetings. It is not the proper airing by heads of departments of their respective views and of the interests of their departments on difficult matters brought before Cabinet. That is what Cabinet is there for. It is the disclosure on personal grounds, on a tit-for-tat basis, by senior heads of the most important departments in our country, one against the other, so that each should achieve his own method and purpose by less than honourable means.
It is damaging to confidentiality because here we have matters not published, but leaked. We all understand the difference. Leaked; and a disclosure made under pressure. Look at the number of days that this matter has been going on: and it is only today that we get a full statement of what has been happening. Under pressure, we find that these matters have been leaked.
Of course I am right in saying, "leaked" and not "published". We were told by the Press Association's recipient of the news that under no circumstances would he disclose who had given him the information. Why not? If it comes on behalf of the head of one of the most important and senior departments of the country, what is wrong in saying, "I am so-and-so, and I am speaking on behalf of the Secretary of State for so-and-so"? That is the normal way of making public something that ought to be made public. Here was a disgraceful way, damaging to that sense of confidentiality without which no good Government can arrive at the best possible conclusions in the interests of the country.
It is wholly damaging to the Law Officers because they have been brought into party issues and personal squabbles. May I ask the noble Viscount: on whose initiative did the Law Officer concerned, that honourable and learned Member—I think it was the Solicitor-General and not the Attorney-General, but it matters not—write to one of his colleagues? Was it his own initiative? Was it his sense of outrage at the way in which the law of the country was not being observed? Or was it a suggestion made to him by some colleague that it would be convenient if he would give his mind to this matter?
That is the first question; and, with respect, I should be very grateful if the noble Viscount would give a clear answer. On whose initiative did the Solicitor-General write that letter? The second question is this. When he wrote that letter, was it within his knowledge that that letter was about to be leaked? Did he write it with a view to it being published to the world at large, or was it a letter written to a colleague in confidence? That is question number two.
341 I share the view that has been put forward by the Leader of the official Opposition on other aspects of the damage of this case. I apologise if I am somewhat heated about it. One ought not to be so; it is a very, very serious matter indeed. I am sure that noble Lords from all sides of the House will accept that, with the greatest possible sincerity, as one who spent a number of years assisting and taking part in government and who tries, as every noble Lord in this place and every honourable Member in the other place equally tries, to achieve the best form of government in the interests of this nation, I feel that lasting damage has been done.
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn and Lord Diamond, for their very important comments on what I accept is a very important Statement. I will do my very best to answer a great many of the questions, all the questions that I can—and there have been, quite properly, a very large number of them. First of all, I will seek to answer the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. He suggested that the Statement is surrounded by a good deal of verbiage. I must say to your Lordships that since I learned of this matter I have had one overriding consideration in my mind. Perhaps it is reasonable for me to say it because I have actually been a Cabinet Minister of this country for 11 out of the last 16 years, so I have some experience of Cabinet Government. I think that I am entitled to say that to your Lordships' House.
I felt it was essential that the clearest possible Statement should be made of all the facts surrounding this matter, and I am bound to say that I believe the Statement that has been made today has been exactly that. It has sought to bring everything clearly before another place, this House and, indeed, the public. I do not accept the charge of verbiage.
I then turn to some of the points made about the relations between my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the then Secretary of State for Defence. I think your Lordships will know that I am not in the business, and never have been in the business, of seeking deliberately to run down my colleagues or, indeed, to be unpleasant about other people in any parties at all. But I think I am bound to say that, having observed what went on at close quarters, I have never in my time in Cabinet seen more extraordinary behaviour, to his Prime Minister and, indeed, to all his colleagues, than was exhibited during this period of time by my right honourable friend the Member for Henley. If one looks at many of the things that have happened, that, I must say to your Lordships, is one of the areas why it was so difficult to carry on Cabinet Government in this period.
I should like to refer, in answer to another of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, to the position of the Cabinet. On 19th December the Cabinet met and agreed, as was announced by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister that same afternoon in another place, that the Cabinet would be impartial between the two bids; that neither side would campaign. It was recognised that there were strong feelings; and the Secretary of State for Defence never made any secret of the fact that he had decided that he wanted a European option. But it was agreed, 342 and the then Secretary of State for Defence was party to that decision.
I have to say that those who examined what went on between that date and, indeed, the 9th January, when the then Secretary of State left the Cabinet, can have had no doubt in their minds that such an agreement of not pressing for one side had not been kept. On the 9th January the then Secretary of State for Defence was, I think, prepared at that stage, before the meeting of the company, to follow the policy; but when it came to suggesting that everyone should reasonably check their statements with the Cabinet Office, he refused to do this and said that this was unreasonable.
There have been complaints this afternoon about a lack of the proper joint Cabinet responsibility. I do not see in what the then Secretary of State for Defence did anything which made joint Cabinet responsibility at all possible. I think it is only fair to say that, because it happens that I feel deeply and bitterly at the way that I, personally, as a Cabinet Minister, was treated over that period of time; and so, indeed, do all my colleagues. We are entitled to feel it; and if I feel it, I shall certainly say it. I am sorry. I bear my right honourable friend the Member for Henley no personal ill-will, but I cannot pretend that I feel that I was well treated as a colleague in the Cabinet. I cannot feel that.
I turn to some of the other questions which were asked by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn. Was there a meeting to discuss how the letter should be handled? No, there was no such meeting. Was there any proper discussion about how it should be handled between Ministers? No, there was not. I think it is fair to say that it was during a Parliamentary Recess. I do not give that as a particular excuse, but a great many Ministers were not in London at the time and there was no such ministerial discussion. There was, however, great urgency that the facts, the material facts set out in the Solicitor-General's letter, should get into the public domain before that meeting of the shareholders because there were material inaccuracies in what the then Secretary of State for Defence had set out in his letter.
§ 4 p.m.
§ My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Diamond, first raised the question of joint Cabinet responsibility. I have dealt very clearly with that. I think also I have dealt very plainly with the question of confidentiality. I accept entirely the importance of the position of the Law Officers: indeed, that is very important. The noble Lord, Lord Diamond, asked: Why was a full Statement only made today? For the very best of all possible reasons: the report of the inquiry conducted by the Secretary of the Cabinet was received by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister only yesterday. I repeat, the report was only received yesterday. The noble Lord seems to be surprised, but I have to tell him that that is a fact, and I can tell him that I did not see the report myself. The report was in the hands of my right honourable friend yesterday, and for a Statement to be made as quickly as this is very proper and very right.
§ I then turn to the question whose initiative it was that encouraged the Solicitor-General to write the letter that was pubished on Monday, 6th January. 343 The initiative came from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry because he believed—and in my opinion rightly believed—that there were material inaccuracies in a letter which the then Secretary of State for Defence had written, and that these would adversely affect the company if they were not corrected. I must make it clear once again that the then Secretary of State for Defence was party to the letter which the Prime Minister wrote to Sir John Cuckney earlier that week and agreed with it; and then subsequently put out his own letter without any consultation at all. It was that letter which was felt to include material inaccuracies. I have done my very best to set out what I accept to be—
§ Lord Diamond
My Lords, I do apologise for intervening and I am most grateful to the noble Viscount who, as usual, is being most honest and fair with the House. However, I did ask a second question to which we attach importance. When the Solicitor-General wrote that letter—and we now know on whose initiative it was done—was he aware that the letter was going to be published or, as subsequently happened, leaked?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I understand that he was not so aware. I apologise to the noble Lord for not having answered that question previously. However, I have done my best to answer many questions about what I accept to be an unhappy story. I have given my personal version, which I think your Lordships would expect, of some of the events from my personal experience, which as a member of that particular Cabinet I think it is only fair to do. I still believe that if one member of a Cabinet decides to conduct a campaign such as the then Secretary of State for Defence decided to conduct against the policy of the rest of the Cabinet, it is extremely difficult for good Cabinet government, for confidentiality and for joint Cabinet responsibility to be preserved.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for the way he has answered the questions, but he has not dealt with a major point which I raised in relation to the hole-and-corner way in which this matter was dealt with. It was made clear by Mr. Chris Moncrieff on behalf of the Press Association that the information was passed to him confidentially. Why was it done in that way? Why was it leaked at all? Why was it not put forward in an open public fashion? That is the question people are asking.
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I think, without excusing the fact, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister herself also said, the answer, first of all, is that those concerned believed it was very urgent indeed in the interests of the company that if there were material inaccuracies in that letter it should reach the company in time for the meeting at 4 p.m. They believed that was very urgent indeed. Secondly, I think it is fair to point out that here lies the problem of the way the whole campaign was being conducted by the then Secretary of State for Defence and the whole difficulty for Cabinet government: that is, if a statement had been made it would have to have been a statement by one department flatly contradicting a 344 statement put out by another Secretary of State. I think that is one of the problems which undoubtedly and inevitably arise.
§ Lord Marsh
My Lords, would not the noble Viscount agree that leaks and squabbles between ambitious Ministers are commonplace and that the only thing, if we use the term somewhat loosely, which distinguishes this particular episode is the maverick behaviour of some of the participants, which cannot be defended by anyone? But would not the noble Viscount also agree that there is now a danger that this whole episode is becoming totally out of proportion, to the level of near-farce? Will he not confirm that many people—and one hopes that the Government would agree—believe that there are other things to which the Government should be directing their energies at the present time?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, because I am going to start my answer to him by making a statement which could not be contradicted, if I may say so, by the members of any party who have ever been in Government, even those who may have been a very long time away from government. Of course, he is right when he says there have been leaks and squabbles in all governments. There is no one in this House who could pretend otherwise at all in any way. There always have been, and I suppose frequently there will continue to be, these sorts of troubles. I personally hate them and think they are a great pity, but I can understand how some of them arise. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Marsh, is right when he says that this issue is occupying far too much time.
Yes, it may be amusing for some noble Lords, but one of the reasons why I was so keen to see this Statement set out in full today was to try to get the whole matter properly out in the open so that it would come perfectly plain and clear; then that would be the moment to leave this issue and all that has gone with it and get on with some very important problems which face our country at the present time.
§ Lord Hatch of Lusby
My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount two simple questions? Following the Statement, he has made it clear to the House that there has been no mystery whatever about how this letter was leaked. Why, then, was it necessary to have an inquiry at all, and particularly an inquiry which has pin-pointed a civil servant and given the civil servant's career, to say the least, no advancement? Is it fair to pillory a civil servant in this way, when all the facts were apparently known and no inquiry was necessary? Secondly, can the noble Viscount tell the House whether, when the letter was leaked, the Solicitor-General was asked or informed about it before that leak was made and the letter was published?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, first of all, it comes very surprisingly from the mouth of the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, that there should not be an inquiry. No one has spent more of his time during waking hours considering inquiries of one sort or another, over a long period of time, than the noble Lord. I should have thought that had there not been an inquiry the noble Lord would have been to his feet, determined not to 345 lose the opportunity to pursue a great deal more quarry in various parts of inquiries. The answer as to why there was an inquiry was that it was very important to receive the full facts and to make sure that they were in the open.
As to the question of civil servants, it is certainly not the responsibility of the Government that one civil servant was named in another place. I must make it very clear that I deeply regret that that should have happened, but that was not the responsibility of the Government, and it was not the reason for having an inquiry. So far as the Solicitor-General's letter is concerned, I understand that he was not informed.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount when the Solicitor-General was informed that this letter had been leaked from the office of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry? Secondly, is he aware that many of us remain puzzled as to why there was a leak inquiry at all? Given the fact that, on the basis of the Statement we have heard from the noble Viscount this afternoon, this leak took place as a result of approval given by the Prime Minister's own office, why did the Prime Minister then order an inquiry at all?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, the noble Lord's first question was: when was the Solicitor-General told that his letter had been leaked? I imagine, though I cannot give the exact time, that clearly he knew it when he saw it on the tape at about 3.30 that afternoon. But I do not imagine that he can have known it much before that, since his letter was only written and received in the Government departments at 1.30. It must have been sometime in that period. In answer to the question as to why an inquiry, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister believed that as much as possible of the facts of what had gone on should come out into the open. As she made very clear herself, she did not know what had been done at that time. Therefore, she believed it was right to have a leak inquiry and that is why she had it. I believe that there would have been enormous criticism if there had not been the inquiry, and there would have been many calls for one.
§ Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon
My Lords, to revert for a moment to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, is it not a fact that the only person who has been remotely responsible for pillorying an individual civil servant is a Back-Bench Member of the Labour Party in another place?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, in answer to my noble friend Lord Maude, I have no doubt it is, as one might say in this field, in the public knowledge that the name of the civil servant was given in another place by a Member who certainly—it is also in the public knowledge—is a member of the Labour Party.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Viscount, but on the last point that he made in answer to my second question may I ask him whether his case is that the Prime Minister was not told by members of the office that they had given authority to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to leak this letter? Is that correct or is it not?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, certainly she was not told that, because it was not true. They did not give authority. They had no power to give such authority. The Statement made perfectly clear that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry gave the authority to his own civil servants. He it was who gave the authority to his own civil servants.
§ Lord Tordoff
My Lords, are we therefore to suppose that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry did not tell the Prime Minister that he had given that authority?
§ Lord Silkin
My Lords, in view of what the noble Viscount said a moment ago, why, when this matter first became public and questions were asked about it, did not the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry disclose, "There is no leak. I gave authority for the disclosure"?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that must be a matter for my right honourable friend to answer himself. I could not answer.
§ Viscount Montgomery of Alamein
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that one of the few people to emerge with dignity out of this whole affair is Sir John Cuckney, the chairman of Westland, and that the company would probably recover much more quickly if it was less beleaguered by politicians and press than has been the case heretofore?
§ Viscount Whitelaw
My Lords, in answer to my noble friend Lord Montgomery, in the very difficult situation in which he has been placed there must be throughout the country a considerable amount of admiration for the way that Sir John Cuckney has conducted the whole of the affairs. As to the last point that my noble friend made, I should have thought that probably no one would feel that more keenly than Sir John Cuckney himself.