HL Deb 22 July 1994 vol 557 cc478-80

11.32 a.m.

Lord Clinton-Davis asked Her Majesty's Government:

Under what statutory authority and for what reason a particular individual was named in a statement issued by the Department of Trade and Industry on 8th July 1994 concerning the results of a preliminary inquiry into alleged insider dealing in the shares of Anglia TV; and whether there have been any precedents for such disclosures.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, the information was given in accordance with stated policy and within the terms of Part VIII of the Financial Services Act. The last occasion such an announcement was made was in 1988.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, may I first welcome the noble Earl to the Dispatch Box in his new guise? We promise to give him a hard time—he would expect no less.

Why did officials at the DTI allege on the afternoon of 8th July that Anglia Television had named the noble Lord, Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare, and by the evening conceded that Anglia Television had not named him? Why did the Secretary of State or his officials not say to the media that to divulge the name of any individual based on a preliminary inquiry report alone was a criminal offence under the Financial Services Act and the companies legislation, and if the media purported to do that the Government would take the strongest action to prosecute? The Government have emerged from this matter with a great deal of discredit.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Lord for his welcoming remarks—so far as they went. He promised me a hard time, and I can assure him that that is nothing unusual.

The simple facts of this case—and all these matters are deeply unpleasant—is that representatives of the newspaper telephoned the press office and said, "This is the information we have received. Can you confirm that it is correct?" If we confirm it, it becomes unpleasant; if we equivocate, it is the equivalent of a cover-up, with all the row that ensues thereafter. That is the reason it was considered appropriate in the public interest to confirm the fact.

Lord Alexander of Weedon

My Lords, without going into the circumstances of why my noble friend Lord Archer of Weston-Super-Mare was named, will my noble friend the Minister agree that, if the outcome of the inquiry is that there is no hint of impropriety on the part of my noble friend Lord Archer, natural justice will require that that conclusion should be stated as early as possible?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I take the point made by my noble friend. I am certain that the first thing we must do is to consider the inquiry and its report. I am sure that if the facts are as my noble friend says, the opportunity will be made available for that to be known.

Lord Clinton-Davis

My Lords, who made the decision to inform the press and to make the press statement? Does not the noble Earl realise that his explanation will not suffice? It is not a question of defending any specific individual; it is a rank injustice that in a preliminary inquiry anybody should be named, because at that stage they have not had the chance to put their case. Why was the press not told that it would be a criminal offence to divulge the information contrary to Section 179(6) of the Financial Services Act?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it is not the responsibility of the Department of Trade and its press department to inform people whether or not they are committing a criminal offence. That is for those involved to consider. In this case representatives of the newspaper rang up and said, "We have this information. This is what we intend to publish. Is it or is it not true?" If the department had said that it was untrue, it would have been accused of a cover-up; if it had said that it was true and it was in the public interest that people should know the facts, it would be blamed for that. It was a difficult decision to take.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, whether or not it is a criminal offence, surely it is unfortunate that at an early stage of an inquiry of this sort an individual should be named and subjected to a great deal of what may well turn out to be wholly unfair publicity. Is not the lesson to be learnt from this that discretion at an early stage is in accordance with justice?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, there is a great deal in what my noble friend says. The whole matter has been most unfortunate. I understand the concern that my noble friend expresses about the situation and for his noble friend. In these cases when public personalities axe involved difficult decisions must be taken. If we take no decision we are accused of covering up; if we make clear that the facts to be published are correct, we are also blamed for that. It is an uncomfortable position for everyone.