Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East): On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Order. Points of order are always taken at the end of statements.

Mr. Faulds: No. This is a new practice.

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat.

Mr. Faulds rose--

Madam Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman will resume his seat.

Mr. Faulds: I have done so, under protest.

Madam Speaker: There would have been greater protest had I used the Standing Order.

Mr. Lang: Sir Richard Scott concludes that, following the ceasefire in 1988, but not before, Government policy

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1143

towards the export of non-lethal military goods changed in a way that he believes should have been drawn to the attention of the House. Both Ministers and officials believed at the time that they were applying policy in a way that remained within the existing guidelines andSir Richard expressly accepts that they were sincere in doing so. However, he does not agree that they were correct in their belief. On that basis, he concludes that a number of Ministers' letters and answers to parliamentary questions were inaccurate because they restated what Ministers understood to be the policy but which Sir Richard believes, in retrospect, had changed.

Discussions about the guidelines took place on several occasions in late 1988 and early 1989 between junior Ministers and officials at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department of Trade and Industry and the Ministry of Defence as the situation developed. Those Ministers reached no settled decision to change policy which they regarded as requiring the approval of senior Ministers or an announcement to the House. As I said,Sir Richard disagrees with them, but accepts that they were sincere in their beliefs.

The crucial issue is whether those junior Ministers intended to mislead this House and the country.Sir Richard gives an unequivocal answer on that. He accepts that the Ministers believed that they were avoiding a formal change to the guidelines and that in holding that belief, they had, to quote his words, "no duplicitous intention". In respect of my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who was at the time one of the junior Ministers concerned, Sir Richard goes on to say:

My right hon. Friend is therefore absolved of the charge that he intended to mislead Members of the House or anyone else.

The House will recall that the Scott inquiry was set up following the collapse of the Matrix Churchill trial in 1992. Sir Richard has scrutinised that prosecution. The inquiry finds no evidence of impropriety in the way in which the Matrix Churchill prosecution was brought. There was no conspiracy and no deliberate withholding of material known to be relevant that might have helped the defence.

It is worth emphasising, too, that the court itself, at the time, expressed no criticism of the way in which the prosecution, with the advice of independent and well-respected counsel, was brought and conducted. But as Sir Richard Scott says, with the benefit of hindsight, this was a trial that ought never to have commenced.I stress, as Sir Richard himself does unequivocally, that this is a judgment with the benefit of hindsight.

While Sir Richard dismisses the serious allegations of personal impropriety that have been made about the conduct of Ministers, there is a continuing line of criticism running through the report of what he describes as the

One of his major recommendations is that there should be a review of the long-standing parliamentary convention whereby questions on certain subjects are not answered,

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1144

or are not fully answered. He recommends that that review should take account of an enhanced need for Ministers to provide full and accurate information to Parliament.

That subject will form an important aspect of parliamentary consideration of the Scott report. This Government have made advances in the openness of government which go beyond the position of any of their predecessors. Nevertheless, it is right that we should debate those issues further in the light of the findings in Sir Richard Scott's report, and the Government are ready to do so.

In the light of that debate, the Government will consider whether any amendments to current practice should be made. It would be unrealistic, however, if I did not say at the outset that there are bound to continue to be areas, particularly in the field of international diplomacy and commercial operations, in which a degree of confidentiality will sometimes be necessary.

Sir Richard Scott's report contains a substantial section of recommendations. The Government have already taken action on a number of the issues on which the inquiry now makes recommendations, for example, on intelligence handling. We are able to accept others straight away, such as those relating to export controls and licensing procedures, on which a consultation paper will be produced as Sir Richard Scott recommends.

Other recommendations, such as those on changes to the law relating to prosecution practices and the approach to public interest immunity, for example, are technically complex and will need careful and detailed consideration. They will receive it. In sum, all Sir Richard Scott's recommendations are under active consideration and a number have already been accepted.

The House will recognise that the Scott inquiry has been long, searching and thorough. It will want to consider the report fully and to discuss the issues raised by it. There are lessons to be learned from the inquiry and Sir Richard Scott has made a number of important recommendations, which the Government will now pursue. The inquiry has identified areas where systems and procedures can be improved and those will be closely and urgently studied.

The overall picture that emerges is that, while mistakes were made, Ministers and officials acted honestly and in good faith. This country went to enormous lengths rigorously to enforce a self-imposed ban on the supply of all lethal and other offensive weapons to either combatant in the Iran-Iraq war and to remain neutral in the conflict. Our policy towards the combatants in that terrible war was sound and principled. It stands very favourable comparison with that of any other nation. It was conducted and sustained throughout with integrity.

Not only did Britain sell no lethal weapons to Iraq, but, as Sir Richard Scott's report makes absolutely clear, nor was there any conspiracy among Ministers to send innocent men to gaol. Those who alleged otherwise should now withdraw unreservedly and apologise to the House and to my right hon. and hon. Friends whom they have defamed.

Mr. Robin Cook (Livingston): The President has just made a statement in which he laid blame on the Opposition, official advisers and the system, but accepted no blame for Ministers. The public outside will not find that a credible or dignified response to such a serious report.

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1145

I have spent the past three hours studying the report.It fully vindicates our two central charges--that Ministers changed the guidelines on defence sales to Saddam Hussein and that they repeatedly refused to admit that, either to Parliament or to the courts.

I did not recognise the report that I read from the statement that the House has just heard. The righthon. Gentleman tells us that the Government accept many of the report's recommendations. Those recommendations arise from Sir Richard's conclusions. If the Government are going to accept his recommendations--[Hon. Members: "Question."] Here is the question: does that mean that the Government will accept the conclusions on which the recommendations were based?

The right hon. Gentleman has just accepted what witness after witness from the Government at the Scott inquiry tried to deny: that the guidelines on defence sales were changed and that the Government failed to inform Parliament of the change. Now that he has accepted that conclusion, will he also accept Sir Richard's conclusion that that failure was, in his words, deliberate and the result of three Ministers agreeing to give that no publicity? [Hon. Members: "Oh."] It is in the report. Will he also accept the conclusion that the reason that they gave it no publicity was that they did not want the public outrage that would greet it?

The President described the statement by the Chief Secretary as inaccurate. Does he accept the conclusion of Sir Richard Scott that the Chief Secretary signed letters to Members of Parliament denying that the guidelines had been changed, which were misleading and that, in the words of Sir Richard Scott,

Does the President accept--he did not mention it in his statement--that Sir Richard's conclusion is that Government statements on defence exports to Iraq, in his words, "consistently failed" to comply with "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" and thereby failed to discharge the principle of ministerial accountability?

The President's statement contained no mention of the super-gun. I presume that he is aware that the longest chapter in the report is on the super-gun. Does he accept the conclusion in that chapter that there is, inSir Richard's words, "clear evidence" that the Government knew about the super-gun a full year before its seizure by Customs and Excise? Does he accept that, in Sir Richard's opinion, Parliament could and should have been told, and that the failure to tell Parliament constituted, in his words,

Does the President accept Sir Richard's conclusion that the intelligence information that the machine tools from Matrix Churchill went into the Iraqi arms programme was, in Sir Richard's words, "so strong" that for Ministers to maintain that they were possibly for civilian use was

Does the President accept the conclusion that public interest immunity certificates, denying the defence in the Matrix Churchill trial an entire class of documents, had never before been used in any criminal trial andSir Richard recommends that they should never be used again? Will the Government at least give an assurance that they will never repeat the practice that led to that prosecution of Matrix Churchill?

15 Feb 1996 : Column 1146

Does the President accept that Sir Richard Scott found "risible" the defence claim by the then Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the righthon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), that the release of the documents would cause "unquantifiable damage" to the public interest? If the right hon. Gentleman does not think that being called risible is a criticism, when will he recognise a criticism?

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the Attorney-General was personally at fault in terms of the failure of the Government's Law Officers to instruct the prosecution to tell the trial judge that the current Deputy Prime Minister signed his certificate with reservations? Will he say whether the Government accept those conclusions--it takes only one word to say it: yes or no? He has had plenty of time to work it out: he has had eight days to study a report that Members of Parliament have had eight minutes to read. His difficulty in answering the question is not that he has not had the time to make up his mind, but that his colleagues could not survive his acceptance of those conclusions.

Are the Government really going to ask us to accept a report that says that the current Chief Secretary signed27 letters to Members of Parliament that were misleading, and which he was in a position to know were misleading, then tell us that he can remain in office as if the report had never been published? Is the President really going to ask the House to accept a report that shows that the Attorney-General wrongly advised Ministers and failed to tell the court that at least one Minister signed under protest, then tell us that the Attorney-General can also stay in office? Is the President really going to ask the House to accept a report which, over five volumes, demonstrates how this Government misjudged Saddam Hussein, misled Members of Parliament and misdirected the prosecution, then tell us that no one in the Government will accept responsibility for getting it wrong?

Will the President, before he passes the buck any further, confirm that yesterday, civil servants named in the report were told that any public comments they made must be cleared with their head of department, must be consistent with Government policy and must not criticise Ministers? How dare Ministers blame civil servants while ordering civil servants not to blame Ministers.

The report goes beyond the career of individual Ministers or the reputation of some officials. It reveals the price that Britain pays for a culture of secrecy in government. The report documents how Ministers changed the guidelines, but were more worried that Members of Parliament and the public might find out than they were about what Saddam Hussein might do with the weapons.

The President now has a second opportunity to rise to the occasion. Will he now tell us which Ministers accept responsibility for what went wrong while they were in office? Will he tell us whether the Government will dismiss those Ministers who, in the opinion ofSir Richard, failed to discharge the obligation of ministerial accountability to the House? Will he take the steps that are now essential if the Government are to be trusted in office? I warn the President that if he fails to answer those questions, the Government will forfeit any right to remain in office.

Next Section

IndexHome Page