HL Deb 30 January 1992 vol 534 cc1418-20

3.20 p.m.

Lord Hollick

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they had received information about the Iraqi supergun project prior to the delivery to Iraq, notwithstanding the arms embargo, of parts for the supergun.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, these matters are being examined by a Select Committee in another place and I shall confine myself to the basic facts.

The Government first became aware of the existence of an Iraqi long range gun project in the autumn of 1989. A clear connection between this project and the Iraqi contracts with British companies for the supply of tubes did not become apparent until the latter part of March 1990. As the noble Lord will recall, Customs and Excise took swift action to detain a number of steel tubes at Teesport on 10th April 1990 and Customs action after 10th April led to materials being stopped in Turkey and places across Europe. I understand that various parts for the supergun are now known to have left the United Kingdom destined for Iraq between early 1989 and 5th April 1990.

The swift action by the British authorities both to detain the tubes at Teesport and to work with other governments to prevent material from reaching Iraq from other countries played an important part in halting the development of what could have been a weapon of considerable destructive power.

Lord Hollick

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. However, I fear that I must press him further on this murky matter. Will he confirm that in 1988 Sir Hal Miller, Conservative MP for Bromsgrove, Mr. Rex Bayliss, the managing director of Walter Somers, the company manufacturing the supergun, and the Belgian Government all informed the British Government of plans to build the supergun and export it to Iraq? Will he explain why the British Government took no notice of this information and turned a blind eye to the export?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, all these matters have been widely ventilated. Sir Hal Miller made contact with the Government in 1988 about an order for steel tubes from Walter Somers. This led the Government to consider whether a licence was required for their export. The conclusion was reached—wrongly, as it turned out—that no export licence was required. I remind the House that a full Statement was made by Mr. Tim Sainsbury in the other place on 3rd December 1990.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, in view of what my noble friend said and the fact that a number of government departments are involved—I assume that that is the reason the noble Lord the Leader of the House is answering the Question—is there not the strongest case now for a full government inquiry into the matter? Will the noble Lord urge that upon his right honourable friend the Prime Minister?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, some facts are absolutely clear. The Government did not know of the supergun project at all until autumn 1989. They did not know of the involvement of British companies until shortly before the action of Customs on 10th April 1990. Before March 1990, it was thought that the pipes, described as being for petrochemical purposes, had no military purpose. On that basis, the Department of Trade and Industry had told the companies concerned that they would not require export licences. Once a connection between the United Kingdom companies and the project was drawn, action was swiftly taken. As I said, this matter is being inquired into by a Select Committee in another place. I see no need for any separate inquiry.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, since the matter is under consideration by a Select Committee in the other place, would it not be a great mistake to have a parallel inquiry which would undoubtedly cause a difficulty with the House of Commons?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, as I said and as I can tell my noble and learned friend, there is no conceivable need for such an inquiry because of the facts I have related to the House and the inquiry being held in another place.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, can the noble Lord tell the House whether there was any communication between the United Kingdom and the United States governments over the issue?

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I do not have the faintest idea. If I did, I certainly would not this afternoon go into details. I have already told your Lordships that all these matters are being examined by a Select Committee in another place. I could not touch on any matters which might be thought to concern the security service. All kinds of allegations have been bandied about, many wild in the extreme. We ought to keep our heads in the matter and noble Lords should listen to what I have said. The facts which I have related to the House are now well known.

Lord Alport

My Lords, is it not a great achievement that Her Majesty's Customs and Excise —a government organisation which often receives a good deal of criticism—took the first action to stop this? Its vigilance should be commended by the House and the country.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. There is no doubt that the action taken by HM Customs prevented the development of this gun which could have been a weapon of great destructive power. It is surprising that people have been so free with their criticisms instead of being free with congratulations to HM Customs and Excise for the work they did.