Previous SectionIndexHome Page


Ms Abbott: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Dr. Godman: My hon. Friend will have to be patient for a moment, because I am in full spate--speaking as a trout fisherman.

We have heard some Holy Willie speeches about the goodness and rightness of some members of the Committee. We also heard a remarkably fine speech--hon. Members will forgive me for focusing on one speech--by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). He warned us about the danger facing Committees--particularly the Foreign Affairs Committee--of falling into disrepute. I am glad that he has regained his place. I listened to him carefully. He is right about sustained leaking--not that that is happening in the Foreign Affairs Committee. The divisions in that Committee could bring it into disrepute. The classic example of that was the Scottish Affairs Committee between 1982 and 1987. Despite the remarkable efforts of Mr. David Lambie, the then Chairman, there were leaks from that Committee all the time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West will remember the Scott Lithgow inquiry, which examined a shipyard in my constituency that faced collapse with the loss of 5,500 jobs. There were 99 Divisions on the Chairman's draft report, which was not very long. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne laughs. I said, "Let's go for the century and get into the Guinness book of parliamentary records." That report, which could have been substantial, was ridiculed when it was published.

As a member of the Committee--not that I was a leaker, you understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker--I moved a motion for a minority report because I was so disgusted by the way in which members of the Government were behaving. I seem to recall that one was the late Nicholas Fairbairn--I should now be murmuring, "De mortuis nil nisi bonum". He and others, including Mr. Forsyth, set out to wreck what could have been a good report.

Ms Abbott: I have listened carefully to my hon. Friend's speech. I think that he may be in danger of giving

7 Jul 1998 : Column 949

the House a mistaken impression. Earlier, he suggested that there was some opposition on the Foreign Affairs Committee to the notion that it should take evidence from the Foreign Secretary after the publication of the Legg report.

I do not think that anyone ever opposed the taking of evidence from the Foreign Secretary after publication of the report; in fact, it goes without saying that the Committee would take evidence on a major report of that kind. The point at issue was whether we should close down the inquiry until Legg had reported--given that, at that point, we did not know whether the inquiry would finish in the summer or the autumn.

Dr. Godman: My hon. Friend clearly was not listening diligently enough. I referred earlier to my questions to Sir John Kerr. I said that the Committee could be trusted with the telegrams. In fact, I was complimented by the Chairman of the Committee on getting to the heart of the matter.

I think that the famous, or infamous, telegrams should be scrutinised by members of the Committee. I disagree with the Chairman, who suggested that two Committee members should go to the Foreign Office so that the accuracy of the summary of the telegrams could be assessed; I believe that three should go there. I suggested that to the Chairman when I sought to amend his memorandum. I think that two Labour members and one Opposition member should go to the Foreign Office to check the accuracy of the summary. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) was not present when I said that.

Let me tell the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that no one has attempted to bully me. Let us get that straight: no one in the House could bully me. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)--an old friend--on the rare occasions when I vote against the Government, I always inform the Chief Whip first. We are two courteous fellows, my hon. Friend and me.

I think that the most important speech was made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. What I want to avoid is the possibility of the Committee's falling into disrepute. I do not want what happened to the Scottish Affairs Committee to happen to us. After the publication of the Scott Lithgow report, that Select Committee took on some of the appurtenances of a Standing Committee: it was Labour versus Conservatives. Occasionally a few Liberals attended, but we know what certain parties--the Scottish National party and others--are like in terms of poor attendance. In any event, the discussion became very adversarial.

The Gartcosh report is another example. Mr. Forsyth--later Sir Michael--said at one meeting at which we were debating a draft report, "I will go for 24 hours on this." Journalists said to us, "This is mad: this is not what a Select Committee should be doing." We should at all costs avoid such a fate.

I must finish my speech before I upset the Front Benchers, but let me say one more thing. I reminded Sir John Kerr and the Foreign Secretary that, as can be seen in subsection (j) of paragraph 28 of the ministerial code,


7 Jul 1998 : Column 950

    I said that I wanted the Legg report to be published long before the recess so that we could have the Foreign Secretary in front of us to be cross-examined on the report's findings. My view is that we should have a statement from the Dispatch Box--presumably on the day the report is published--followed by a meeting of the Select Committee at which the Foreign Secretary is cross-examined, followed by a full day's debate. Members could then have, in preparation for that debate, the Legg report and the Foreign Affairs Committee's special report on the evidence session with the Foreign Secretary. That is the way I should like things to proceed. I suspect that they will not proceed in that way.

I deeply regret the divisions in the Select Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne is right: a majority and a minority report were not worth much. It is much better to aim for unanimity and consensus and I hope that, in future, the Select Committee can aim for unanimity and even a modicum of harmony among its members. That is a long shot at the moment, but this is an important Select Committee. It is no more important than others perhaps, but it is in danger of being ignored by the House and the outside world, and that would be a matter for profound regret.

By all means let us examine the telegrams. I should like to be one of those who go along to the Foreign Office to assess the accuracy of what has been given to all members of the Select Committee. I suspect that other good and honourable members will be chosen, but that offer is there. I voted against that paragraph in the report when it was put forward as an amendment; it became paragraph 6. I will vote against the motion because we have now obtained concessions from the Foreign Secretary.

It might have been better if we had decided as a Select Committee to carry out a thorough investigation of this deeply disquieting affair, but I believe the opportunity is still with us. The Foreign Secretary--I am delighted to see him coming in for my final words--has, I believe, offered to come in front of us; I think that one date is 28 July. I hope that, before that date, Sir Thomas Legg will publish his report so that we can cross-examine the Foreign Secretary on its findings. From there, the Committee--who knows?--might reach a unanimous decision to go ahead with a comprehensive investigation into this affair.

9.22 pm

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire): I think that we all agree with the closing words of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) expressing the hope that the Select Committee will be able to come to some unanimous conclusions, but we must begin by considering why this debate has been held. It has been a very good debate. It has been extremely useful and it has achieved something, but it has been held because of two sentences in two reports by the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.

In their first special report, the Select Committee's members had as their final comment the simple words:


In their second special report, they ended their sixth paragraph with these clear, emphatic words:


    "The views of the House are sought at an early date."

7 Jul 1998 : Column 951

    The Leader of the House well knows that, for some weeks now, we have been requesting a debate, so that the House's views could indeed be ascertained. I regret that she did not feel able to find the time. It was only because she did not feel able to do so that we, for the House as a whole, decided to devote this Opposition day to this subject. Although there are some hon. Members who have regretted that, I do not think that there are many because, coming through all the speeches, although there have been differences of emphasis and degree, have been two strong points. First, there is a desire on both sides of the House to see the Select Committee system work. Secondly, there is a recognition that the debate has achieved something.

We can feel justified in choosing this subject by the exchange of letters we have seen today--I am glad to see the Foreign Secretary on the Front Bench. We are all grateful to the Foreign Secretary for what he said in the letter of 6 July and everyone in the House is grateful to the Chairman of the Select Committee for agreeing that the documents should be made available to every Member of the House.

Since the Foreign Secretary is present, I can tell him that there is one point in the 6 July letter which causes me some concern. The letter states:


I hope that that does not negate the rest of the letter. I take the letter to be a genuine attempt by the Foreign Secretary to move towards the Select Committee. I hope that that is the case and I trust that there will be smoother progress henceforth.

We have heard some remarkable speeches in the debate, but none so remarkable as that made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). It was an absolutely masterly and courageous speech. She spoke without fear or favour and she spoke as a Member of the House of Commons. As I listened to her I could not help but remember some of my experiences some years ago when I found myself frozen out on certain Select Committees. I was not nominated to chair a Committee that I had hoped to chair, and so on. I hope that that fate will not befall her. She is an outstanding parliamentarian and she reminded us that we are all, first and foremost, Members of Parliament.

The trouble today is that so many come here with the ambition to serve in government and they tend to forget that the prime role of Parliament is to hold the Executive to account and to scrutinise, not only their legislation, but their actions. That is the reason behind the creation of the departmental Select Committees. From the start, they have laboured under severe limitations. They have never had the power to ensure that their reports are debated on the Floor of the House. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romsey (Mr. Colvin) reminded us in his excellent speech, the power of the Committee of Selection has occasionally militated against the expressed desire of the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) that Committees should be unanimous. Obviously, it is only by selecting men and women of proven judgment and independence of mind that one can have a Select Committee that will really perform its function.

In spite of all the imperfections, the Select Committee system, as established in 1979, has a remarkable record. However, it cannot work if blocks are placed upon

7 Jul 1998 : Column 952

discussions or investigations by the withholding of material that is vital to a Committee's inquiries. That has come through in every speech that we have heard.

We are not, and have not been, discussing when or even whether or by whom arms were supplied to a small west African country. I do not suppose there is a single hon. Member who does not believe that the collapse of the military regime was, in the words of "1066 and all that", A Good Thing. What is most emphatically a bad thing is the refusal of Ministers to allow Select Committees proper access to information that they need to conduct their investigations and to prepare proper reports for the House. We have to remind ourselves that they are Select Committees of the House and that they are answerable, not to the Executive, but to the House. If I can paraphrase the words of Burke in his famous address to the electors of Bristol, Select Committees owe the House their industry and their judgment. They should never be cowed by any Executive.

The survival of our parliamentary democracy depends on a certain amount of tension. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, was extremely honest about that. Those of us who have served on Select Committees while our parties have been in government know that there is some tension between one's loyalty to the House and the Select Committee and one's natural loyalty to party. That came out particularly well in the speech of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). No one could say that he is anything other than a very notable parliamentarian. He made his support--indeed, his affection--for the Foreign Secretary very plain; he is a great supporter of the Foreign Secretary. Therefore, he had a certain amount of mental turmoil to overcome in voting as he did, and we honour him the more for that.

The other thing about Select Committees is that although they have an underlying tension, they also depend on an underlying trust. Without that, there can be no accepted ground rules and no properly functioning official channels. If the Executive of the day decides to use its majority in a steamroller fashion, it is not just the Opposition who will be crushed, but the whole mechanism by which Parliament functions.

The hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington made that point explicitly when she talked about the vast majority that the Government currently enjoy. I think back to 1983 when the Conservative Government had not quite as large a majority, but nevertheless a large majority. An arrogance crept in--there is no doubt about that--and we made some very real mistakes. I frequently found myself in the opposite Lobby from my party and it was not a pleasant experience. I say to Labour Members--but not those on the Treasury Bench because they have a particular function--that they must hold this Executive to account, just as they sought to hold us to account when we were in government.

It is for all those reasons that we felt it necessary to table the motion. It is why I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will feel able to accept it. The Leader of the House said in her opening speech that she had been minded--I must not distort her words, she said "tempted"--to accept the motion. I would like her, for once, to yield to temptation. She is not a yielding sort--she has great strength of character and she is not easily persuaded to adopt a course different from that upon which she has set herself. However, it would be a

7 Jul 1998 : Column 953

good thing--and the Parliamentary Secretary may be able to enlighten us on this when he replies--if the Government said, "Let us all, in the interests of Parliament as a whole, accept the motion and not divide the House."

There were 17 speeches from the Back Benches. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley) performed a signal service in the way that he conducted himself on the Select Committee. I am glad to see Labour Members nodding in agreement. My right hon. Friend has behaved as a true House of Commons man. He was right to quote "Erskine May" and say that it is a key right of Select Committees to require witnesses to answer questions.

I have already thanked the hon. Member for Swansea, East for making the letters available. Although he made it plain that if there were a vote he would go into the opposite Lobby from us, he also made it plain that he believed that the Foreign Secretary had moved some considerable distance as a result of the report and the calling of this debate. Perhaps the whole sorry business that has brought us here tonight was best summed up in two words used by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who called it an "inglorious episode".

There was a very thoughtful speech, as we have come to expect, from the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. No hon. Member has served Parliament better than he. He has been a distinguished Chairman of the Public Accounts Select Committee. He is now Chairman of the Liaison Committee, and speaks with great wisdom and long experience. I agree with him emphatically that it is most persuasive and always desirable if a Select Committee can speak with a united voice. However, on this occasion, for very honourable reasons, two--in some Divisions, three--Labour Members on the Committee did not feel that they could go along with a certain proposed line and therefore did not.


Next Section

IndexHome Page