HL Deb 13 February 1996 vol 569 cc503-11

3.13 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I beg to move the first Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper. This is an unusual Motion but it is designed to deal with an unusual, not to say unprecedented, case. I have taken the opportunity of looking at the relevant page of the Companion, which, for your Lordships' benefit, is page 43. That makes it clear that a Motion to suspend standing orders is customarily in the name of the Leader of the House—customarily, my Lords, not exclusively.

The House will, however, wish to know the background to the appearance of these two Motions in my name on the Order Paper. Perhaps I may say right at the outset that this is not the time to go into the merits or demerits of the Scott Report itself. Indeed, one could hardly do that without first seeing it, despite the extraordinary amount of leakage and comment that seems to have taken place.

The Scott Report is, I understand, some 1,800 pages long and of considerable complexity; 278 witnesses gave written evidence and 81 were heard orally. I gather that the 1,800 pages do not include the evidence. The inquiry has now been sitting for some three years and its report, as we know, is to be made public on Thursday.

Understandably, therefore, Opposition spokesmen took the perhaps somewhat naive view that in order to deal with it properly we needed to have reasonable facilities and time to read it. Ministers will have had it for eight days and I have little doubt that the noble and leaned Lord who will be making the Statement in this House on Thursday will have had ample opportunity to brief himself.

Requests were therefore made to the Government for access to the report. When they were made, the President of the Board of Trade, Mr. Lang, wrote a letter to my honourable friend Mr. Robin Cook which included the following paragraphs: As you will be aware, the Prime Minister said yesterday that Opposition spokesmen would have the opportunity to have access to the report several hours before its publication. The Government will allow access to the report from 12.00, thus giving Opposition spokesmen some 3½ hours' advance access in advance of my statement. This is comparable to or longer than what has been the practice in previous cases (including the recent reports of Lord Nolan, Sir John Learmont, Lord Justice Bingham and the Barings Inquiry). The Government has of course already announced that it is prepared to set aside time for a full debate on 26 February, thus giving the Opposition ample prior opportunity to consider the report". The letter continued: The Inquiry has agreed with the Government exceptional advance access arrangements designed to safeguard the security of the report prior to its publication. I expect they will wish similar undertakings to be given in relation to access by Opposition spokesmen, although Sir Richard Scott has agreed in principle that I should give you access. The Government will therefore be making arrangements for access to the report in a controlled environment. I shall write shortly with details of the location and the practicalities. Can I invite you to nominate a Lords' spokesman to whom similar arrangements might apply?". That was the substance of the letter and that remains the position. Indeed, the Prime Minister confirmed it by letter to my right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition about an hour ago.

Let me deal with some of the points made in that letter. First, the Scott Report is not comparable to any other that I have been able to trace. Lord Nolan's was 109 pages long, Sir John Learmont's was 182 and the Barings Inquiry 337. But each of those dealt with a fairly narrow point. There is, as far as my researches go, no precedent for a report of this gravity and complexity being handled in this way.

Secondly, the proposal that access to the report should only be in a controlled environment apparently means that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and I, both of whom are Privy Counsellors, should arrive at the gates of the Department of Trade and Industry at noon, be admitted and be permitted to look at the report, there, in an environment which is apparently to he controlled—whatever that means.

Is there to be a guard present in the room? Are we to be locked in? Are we to be permitted to take notes on the report? Are we to be allowed out before three o'clock with the notes that we have taken? Do we have to surrender the copy we have been working on if we do? It is more like visiting day at Strangeways than a serious attempt to give us proper access to the report.

Moreover, on a more serious matter, I find this proposal gratuitously and deliberately offensive. Both the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, and I are Privy Counsellors. His lineage as such is considerably more ancient than mine. But is it seriously suggested that in circumstances in which there is a need for confidentiality prior to publication, Privy Counsellors who appreciate that need are going to rush out and leak the contents of the report to the press? And if it is said that Mr. Cook and Mr. Campbell are not Privy Counsellors and that we must all be treated in the same way, I can only say that that is then highly offensive to them. I have to say to the Government that I racked my brains to try to discover any conceivable reason why they are behaving in this way. That is the only one I can come up with.

Can government properly function if there is a presumption that the Opposition are not to be trusted in this way? I think not. It is a bad precedent and, if I may say this to the House, it is a precedent which will be remembered. There has to be some basic trust and understanding between the parties; otherwise the system breaks down.

How on earth are we supposed to be able to comprehend, let alone fully digest, 1,800 pages in some two-and-a-half to three hours? At the Bar one had some experience of reading briefs at the last moment. But this is ridiculous.

Finally, there is the "fairness" argument. It is quite simply unfair that Ministers should have a full opportunity for picking over the minutiae of the report, having their civil servants analyse and dissect it in search of some dicta that might justify their positions, whereas the Opposition are being offered not even sufficient time to turn the pages over. In our view the facilities and time being offered are thoroughly unreasonable and even perverse. Ideally, I would like 24 hours in advance on Privy Council terms; but, even if access is to be limited to the day in question, there are no reasonable grounds for insisting on these absurd and offensive restrictions.

If the Government insist on these terms they will have to do so by imposition and without the agreement or acquiescence of the Opposition. That is why I commend to the House the first Motion standing in my name.

Moved, That Standing Order 38 (Arrangement of the Order Paper) be dispensed with to enable the Motion standing in the name of the Lord Richard to be taken before the Broadcasting Bill this day.—(Lord Richard.)

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, I am in broad agreement with the noble Lord, Lord Richard. The Government seem perversely determined to make everything concerned with the long-delayed publication of the Scott Report as awkward as possible. As the noble Lord indicated, it is in many ways a report without precedent. The length of the inquiry and the number and eminence of the witnesses are matched, so we are informed, only by the length of the report—1,800 words.

Noble Lords


Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, 1,800 pages! The noble Lord gave one or two comparable examples. The only equally eagerly awaited report I can recall was that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, in 1963. That was 128 pages, barely one-fifteenth of the length of the Scott Report. What is also without precedent is the barrage of semi-official denigration to which the learned judge, who undertook this heavy task at the request of the Government and was specially chosen by them, has been subjected. All this, together with the other signs of an attempt at a massive news management campaign, point to extreme nervousness on the part of the Government.

In the circumstances I would have thought that the Government might have been wise not to provoke the Opposition parties. But nervousness often does not produce wisdom. It seems to me that the Government have done the reverse. Whereas the Ministers concerned have been given eight days to study the report at their leisure and in their libraries—they have libraries—Opposition spokesmen are offered three hours—600 pages an hour—to which the noble Lord, Lord Richard, has rightly drawn considerable attention, and in what the President of the Board of Trade was pleased to describe as "a controlled environment". I take it that it is the President of the Board of Trade and not the present Home Secretary who is in charge of these arrangements.

I acquit the noble Viscount the Lord Privy Seal of any personal discourtesy. I gather that he has not seen the report himself. He is one of the lucky ones. He is not involved and therefore not informed. I believe that he has been eager to ensure that Opposition spokesman in your Lordships' House are not treated worse than Opposition spokesmen in the Commons, but that is an equality of suspicion and contempt.

What is this "controlled environment" of the Department of Trade and Industry in which we are to be incarcerated for three hours? Is it a padded cell or a sealed capsule? It is an intolerable offer. To be honest, it would have been better to have done nothing. The only tolerable, courteous and civilised procedure, in my view, would have been to let Opposition spokesmen have the report on Privy Counsellor terms and not in a padded cell from the previous afternoon or early evening. Instead the Government have chosen to produce the maximum irritation.

There is a crowning irony. The Scott Report is unprecedented in yet another way. It is the most leaked report in history, often from official sources. It is from the security of a sieve that they are producing all this trouble.

The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne)

My Lords, if both noble Lords will forgive me, I believe that perhaps the muddle in which noble Lords may be finding themselves over which Motion we are at present debating may all too easily reflect the muddle in both noble Lords' minds over the substance of what they have said.

It is only fair to point out for the elucidation of your Lordships' House that we are considering the Business of the House Motion. If carried, that Motion will enable us to consider the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Richard, which moves to resolve, That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to allow reasonable time and facilities to Opposition spokesmen prior to the statement in Parliament on the Scott Report". I am always edified and delighted by the opportunity to listen to both noble Lords, a privilege accorded to your Lordships, I am glad to say, very frequently. I hope that we may at least agree that both noble Lords have spoken to the second Motion on the Order Paper. Although I would be only too delighted to hear a re-run of both speeches, it may be for the benefit of the expedition of business if we confine ourselves to the Business of the House Motion but, with your Lordships' permission, allow our remarks to cover both Motions before us. Therefore, if your Lordships will allow me, I shall follow the example of both noble Lords.

As regards the Business of the House Motion, which I believe was not addressed by either the noble Lord, Lord Richard, or the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, I should perhaps draw to your Lordships' attention how very unusual it is for such a Motion to be tabled in a name other than that of the Leader of your Lordships' House. I should perhaps also point out that although both noble Lords, with their usual courtesy, advised me yesterday that it was perfectly possible that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, would put down a Business of the House Motion today, neither he nor the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, suggested that I might like to do it according to the custom of your Lordships' House. Because of that I was unable to do what I would always try to do, that is, follow the convention of your Lordships' House and accede to the request of the Leader of the Opposition that I should do so.

The Business of the House Motion is the means by which the House determines the way in which its proceedings should be ordered. As I said, such a Motion is customarily moved by the Leader of the House. Therefore, I merely note the events of the past 24 hours. While I would not seek to oppose the Motion on the Order Paper today, in the interests of the expeditious and effective dispatch of business in your Lordships' House—if it is the wish of your Lordships that that Motion shall be agreed to—I suggest to your Lordships with the greatest respect that, given the events of the past five to 10 minutes, it would be unwise not to try to dispatch this particular piece of business as efficiently and effectively as possible. Nevertheless, I trust that that will not be regarded as a desirable precedent.

If your Lordships will allow me, I shall now proceed, perhaps in anticipation of the second Motion which my noble and learned friend will no doubt put before us shortly. I hope that I need not detain the House long on this matter. But in all fairness I think there are a number of points which I should draw to the attention of your Lordships. First, the status of the report. The report has been made by Sir Richard Scott to my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade. It is for my right honourable friend to decide on the arrangements for publication and advance access. I should also point out that those arrangements have been the subject of detailed correspondence with Sir Richard Scott.

Perhaps I should also say in view of the—dare I say it?—somewhat tendentious remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, that I too would greatly deplore any attempt by my colleagues in the Government or indeed myself to denigrate the efforts of Sir Richard Scott. The judge was asked by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister to conduct the inquiry. As the noble Lord pointed out, the inquiry has been the subject of considerable interest, but it has also taken up some three years of the time of Sir Richard and his team. It would be extremely perverse of the Government to suggest that they did not take either Sir Richard or his efforts seriously or, indeed, in anticipation of an official reaction from the Government to the report to try "to rubbish"—I think that I quote accurately the words used by the noble Lord—what Sir Richard said. I should like to take this opportunity to say—

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

To rubbish? Which noble Lord said that?

Viscount Cranborne

I give way to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, this is not tremendously important, but I thought the noble Viscount was referring to me and suggesting that I used the phrase "to rubbish". I used no such phrase. I hope that he will be more accurate.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, forgive me. I am well aware that I am more capable of vulgarity of language than the noble Lord. Let it be enough for me to say that my colleagues and I will treat whatever Sir Richard Scott says with due seriousness. Indeed, I have no doubt at all that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister feels strongly that the report should be treated seriously and that my right honourable friend is under no misapprehension, since he asked Sir Richard Scott to chair the inquiry and to make the report, that he should not take it seriously and will in no way try to anticipate his official reaction or that of my right honourable friend the President of the Board of Trade.

Perhaps I may add a couple of other points. The Statement which will be made on Thursday will simply give the Government's initial reaction on the publication of what is, as I understand it and as I think both noble Lords made clear, a very lengthy and complex report. Noble Lords opposite are clearly already aware that on Monday 26th February there will be an opportunity for a full debate of Sir Richard Scott's findings on a Motion to be moved by my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie. There will therefore be a full 10 days, including two weekends, which I know are sacred to many Members of your Lordships' House and which will therefore provide an opportunity for ratiocination of an appropriate kind, when your Lordships will he able to peruse the report thoroughly and prepare comments.

Many of your Lordships may feel, as I do, that it is only reasonable to expect that another place will always take a lead in resolving matters to do with the release and handling of a report of this kind. Therefore, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Richard, will forgive me when I say that it might perhaps be regarded as opportunistic of the noble Lord to seek to pursue this matter here when it has been the subject of discussion between the Government and Opposition in another place, as he himself acknowledged.

As Leader of your Lordships' House—the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, freely acknowledged that and I am grateful to him—I have tried to ensure that Opposition spokesmen in this House are accorded exactly equivalent treatment to those in another place. I hope that your Lordships will feel that in doing so I have done everything which your Lordships would expect of me on the matter. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, for his acknowledgement of that, which was made with his usual grace and courtesy.

Perhaps I may also point out that, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, acknowledged, in having the opportunity to read the report in advance on Thursday the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Jenkins, will have the advantage of me. Since I am not one of those Ministers, and I quote, necessarily concerned in the preparation of the Government's response to the report", I shall have no advance access to it and at 3.30 p.m. on Thursday, like the rest of your Lordships, I shall have to obtain my copy from the Printed Paper Office, which, I advise the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, will not enable me to have the time to take it to my library in order to study it with all the grace which he and his great subject, Mr. Gladstone, would have wanted.

Lord Shepherd

My Lords, perhaps I may say to the Leader of the House that I agree entirely that my noble friend has taken an unusual step. Perhaps I may also agree with the noble Viscount that in practice it is undesirable. On the other hand, there are times and circumstances in which unusual and perhaps undesirable steps have to be taken. This is a matter for this House because a Statement will be repeated here. It is not for us to say what should be done or what should be agreed in another place. The noble Viscount has a duty to the House. As I have said on a number of occasions, so, too, the Leader of the Opposition has a duty and an obligation to the House as a whole, but the Leader of the Opposition has no more rights than any of us sitting in the Chamber this afternoon. However, our parliamentary assembly has a formalised procedure whereby, when the Government, through their Minister, make a Statement, it is expected in every quarter of this House that the Leader of the Opposition and the Leader of the Liberal Party will be in a position to give a measured and considered response.

My argument is not about time; although it is an extraordinarily short period in which to consider a paper which, like the noble Viscount, I have not read other than through leaks in the press. It is clearly a report of very considerable significance—perhaps not in terms of the past, but in view of its recommendations about what should be done in the future.

My anxiety is about what is called the "controlled environment". I never thought that I would hear those words used of the British Parliament and I hope that this House will take the view, perhaps this afternoon, that we are not part of the controlled environment. Parliament should be the complete opposite of that. As I understand my noble friend, what is being said is that he and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins—I forget those who are down in another place because they are not material to us—will go into a controlled environment, such as the Cabinet Office, the Department of Trade and Industry, the Home Office or wherever, and will sit there under surveillance to read what could well be a report of infinite significance with the object of coming to this House to give a considered view.

Having been a Leader of this House, I have to say to the noble Viscount that I cannot imagine—I am putting this point directly to noble Lords opposite—what would have happened if I had gone to the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, then the Leader of the Opposition, and said, "I can't trust you. You cannot be trusted to have these papers in your room in the House of Lords". I have been here so many years that I can even remember the great Leader of the Opposition, Lord Salisbury. If I had gone, from my side of the Chamber to Lord Salisbury and said, "I cannot trust you to read this report in your room in the House of Lords", we would have been murdered, and quite rightly so.

If we have reached a point when we say that the noble Lord the Leader of Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition and member of the Privy Council, and the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, former Chancellor of the Exchequer and member of the Privy Council, cannot be trusted to guard a paper in their own offices, then we are in a parlous situation. A price will be paid—a price which I do not believe the noble Viscount would wish to recognise let alone to pay.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, from these Back Benches, I understand fully the reservations about the controlled environment. I cannot help but feel that that phrase was not just unfortunate, but may well have been misunderstood.

A noble Lord


Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, if noble Lords will bear with me, I cannot conceive that it can have meant anything that has been attributed to it today in your Lordships' House. At least I have lived some of my life in what was a controlled environment. This is a Business of the House Motion. This is a wholly unprecedented occasion. Is this the occasion to depart from precedent? It is said that it is because of the second Motion. On that Motion, surely Her Majesty's Government ought to be in a position to confirm, as they always have done. Who is to advise them whether they are to make a Statement and when they are to make a Statement? Whether it be the Opposition or the Conservative Government, the Government is Her Majesty's Government. Who is to advise them? Who is to challenge them in this way?

If they give their initial reaction to the report, it would surely he—this a matter of fact—to affirm that that application was a serious deception which inevitably warranted the institution of proceedings, because that machine tool was computer programmed for the manufacture of shell cases. It would be confirmed that there had been no relaxation of those guidelines.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey


Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the noble Lord says, "Order". There is another Motion on the Order Paper to which noble Lords opposite have spoken, to which my noble friend the Leader of the House has spoken, and to which, with the leave of the House—to which I always defer—I intend to speak. I have one more thing to say.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, if the noble Lord will allow me, he is speaking to neither Motion. He is speaking to a debate which will take place on 26th February.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, I am not. Perhaps my noble friend will allow me—we are not friends in a political sense, but we are friends in another sense—to say that I am not. He misunderstands me. What I am saying is that any government have the right to make a Statement if they wish, and to make a Statement when they choose. That is the constitutional position.

I have given two examples in relation to the next Motion to which noble Lords opposite have spoken—the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, has spoken—and to which surely I am entitled to speak. That is all I am seeking to do. I have just one more thing to say. These PII certificates, as will be explained, were issued in total conformity with the decisions of the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey


Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the decision was that there was no irregularity. The Government are entitled to say that in their initial reaction to the report. I thank noble Lords for their patience.

On Question, Motion agreed to.