HL Deb 14 December 1992 vol 541 cc391-3

3 p.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have apologised to President-elect Clinton for the searches made by the Home Office to try to corroborate allegations made by his political opponents during the American Presidential election that he had applied for British citizenship to avoid the US service draft.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the allegation which is contained in the noble Lord's Question is a gross distortion of the facts. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has told the President-elect of his regret at some of the press reports.

Lord Clinton-Davis

Will the noble Earl indicate why, if no misunderstanding has arisen, the Home Secretary has in fact changed the procedures in relation to matters affecting press inquiries of this kind? If a misunderstanding has arisen, is it not appropriate that that situation should be made very clear not only to the House but to the country?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my right honourable friend has not changed the procedures. He said that the guidance would be looked at before the next occasion. What happened on this occasion was that the press office was telephoned and asked a question. It said that it did not discuss or divulge other people's applications. In order to check the accuracy, it ensured that there was no such application from President-elect Clinton. That was done in order to prevent other stupid stories running. It gave an off-the-record briefing, which was perfectly acceptable and appropriate, to the effect that there was nothing in the story. The Home Office press office was trying to be helpful to the press. It shows how being helpful sometimes does not work.

Lord Gridley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the manner in which the Question has been framed by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, implies that Her Majesty's Government have committed an offence and that that is quite unjustified? Does my noble friend further agree that what we expect to hear during Questions in your Lordships' House are requests for information and not allegations that the Government may have done wrong?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. I believe that the implication contained in the Question is that the Government have done wrong. I can only repeat that they have not done wrong. The press offices of all government departments periodically receive inquiries and they have to reply in the best way that they can. In order to double check—in the same way as noble Lords or Ministers have to be briefed before answering a slightly untoward question —the press office briefs itself about some untoward question which may be put to it. That was the right thing to do. In this case the information was given off the record, which was the correct action.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, are the Government actually telling us that if an organ of the United States Government seeks information about one of their citizens, the only avenue to obtain such information from the British Government is to contact the press office of the relevant government organ? I find that very curious and difficult to believe. Can the Government give some explanation of that apparent implication they are trying to project?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the press offices of all government departments are open for questions from members of the press and there is nothing unusual in that. On this occasion, and for reasons best known to themselves, the press contacted the press office of the Home Office. A correct answer was given: it does not divulge the facts of other people's affairs. After that reply was given a check was made as to who the applicants were at the time of President-elect Clinton's purported application. The information subsequently given out was that there was nothing in the story whatever. That was supposed to be a helpful remark in order to prevent the press from running stupid stories.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree with me that it is in the interests of the whole country that the special relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States should continue to flourish under the new administration? Does he find it a little curious, as I do, that the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, should have sought to hype up a very minor matter which has already been exhaustively dealt with in another place and that this interchange has added absolutely nothing because nothing needed to be added?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I entirely agree with my noble friend. I find the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, quite extraordinary. Apparently, he just reads the newspapers and believes everything said in them. If this exchange has done anything it may have shown your Lordships and the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that there was nothing in this matter at all.

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