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Mr. Gray: With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I take this opportunity of thanking hon. Members on both sides of the House for their contributions, to which I have listened with great care. There is one notable exception--the party that prides itself on an interest in local matters, the Liberal Democrats, was not represented at all throughout the debate. None the less, we heard a great deal of wisdom, experience and knowledge from hon Members on both sides of the House. I look forward to taking up in Committee the points that were raised. I am glad of the cross-party support and commend my Bill to the House.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): I have the gravest doubts about a Bill that is peppered with words such as "require", "ban" and "mandatory". I regret that the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) is just such a creature. I belong to a party that opposes bans and requirements and mandatory elements in statutory law--especially with regard to local authorities. My party's belief is that local authorities should be left with the maximum--
Ashdown, Rt Hon Paddy
Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)
Chapman, Sir Sydney
Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)
Thomas, Simon (Ceredigion)
Tellers for the Ayes:
Mr. Robert Syms and
Mr. James Gray.
St Aubyn, Nick
Tellers for the Noes:
Mr. Andrew Dismore and
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas.
It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.
Line 40, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 50, before the word 'European' insert the words 'Environmental Audit Committee or with the'.
Line 52, at the end insert the words:--
'(4A) notwithstanding paragraphs (2) and (4) above, where more than two committees or sub-committees appointed under this order meet concurrently in accordance with paragraph (4)(e) above, the quorum of each such committee or sub-committee shall be two.'-- [Mr. McNulty.]
(1) this House approves the First Report from the Procedure Committee, Session 2000-01 (HC 47); and
(2) the Resolution of 5th June 1996 on the Language of Parliamentary Proceedings be amended accordingly by inserting, after the word 'Wales,', the words 'and at Westminster in respect of Select Committees'.--[Mr. McNulty.]
Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome this opportunity to raise an important matter that has not been discussed since events moved on at an alarming rate in the past couple of weeks. The last time that I was fortunate enough to have a debate on a Friday afternoon was in 1998, when I raised the issue of the Prime Minister's press office. Perhaps that was not an entirely unconnected subject.
One never knows what is round the corner in politics. When I opened a particular box two or three weeks ago, I had no way of knowing that the contents would explode on exposure to air sometime shortly afterwards.
The Prime Minister has set up an inquiry into some of the events that have been reported in the newspapers. I very much welcome that as a good move; he acted with commendable alacrity. There are two questions that follow that decision. First, can we be sure that the inquiry will be genuine and independently run and not an attempted whitewash? Secondly, does it have the right terms of reference?
Sir Anthony Hammond QC, who has been put in charge of the inquiry, has spent 24 years in the Home Office and, therefore, is familiar at least with one side of the story. He was the lawyer who advised Ministers in the previous Conservative Government to sign gagging orders in the arms-to-Iraq scandal, and he was responsible for drawing up public interest immunity certificates that suppressed information on collusion by the Conservative Government in the sale of weapons-making machinery to Baghdad in breach of the United Nations embargo. He was criticised in the 1996 Scott inquiry into the Matrix Churchill affair over arms to Iraq because of the advice that he had given to Ministers and, allegedly, for a failure to advise the then Minister, Kenneth Baker, properly. He was also involved in attempts to silence the MI6 agent, Richard Tomlinson, and, according to reports in the Daily Mail, he was even sent to Switzerland to attempt to close down his website. Given his record, Sir Anthony is not necessarily the person whom freedom of information campaigners would welcome to chair the inquiry.
However, I went to see Sir Anthony earlier this week and he was kind enough to give me a good deal of his time. He gave me his assurance that the inquiry would be independent and that he had not been subject to any pressure from Ministers. Of his own volition, he has also widened the inquiry to cover the third Hinduja brother. Those steps are welcome. The meeting was fruitful, and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating when the inquiry finally reports. My judgment of how genuine the inquiry is will be suspended until the report is published, which is the only sensible course of action.
It is important that Sir Anthony has the opportunity to speak to all the relevant parties who may be able to throw light on the events of the past couple of weeks. Obviously, that will include the Hinduja brothers, who are prevented from leaving India at present. Can the Minister tell the House whether Sir Anthony will communicate with the Hindujas directly, either by visiting India or by another method such as tele-conferencing?
The Prime Minister announced the inquiry's terms of reference commendably early. Since then, however, several events have taken place and revelations have been made in the newspapers. I fear that if the inquiry concentrates simply on the narrow issue of the passport applications, many questions will be left unanswered. It is in the interests not only of the House but of the Government to ensure that the matter can be put to bed when the inquiry reports, and that no questions linger.
It is important that the inquiry establishes times, dates and details of all ministerial contacts with the Hinduja brothers and between Departments in respect of their passport applications. It is important that we know the identity of all Members who made representations on behalf of, or made contact with, any of the parties. The parliamentary answer to the question that I tabled, which brought the matter to light, referred to other Members. We do not yet know who they are, and we should do.
It is important that the inquiry publishes letters, minutes and transcripts of telephone conversations and any other communications on the matter, otherwise questions will persist. It is important also that it explains how the applications for naturalisation were granted so quickly--within five months in one case--when the normal time scale is between 18 months and two years. What factors enabled those applications to be dealt with more quickly? The inquiry should consider the wider context of communications between the Hinduja brothers, members of the Government, Opposition Members and Members of the House more widely, so that we understand exactly what the Hindujas role has been within the political system. That, I fear, will not be reported. However, those questions need to be answered.
The biggest unanswered questions are as follows. First, how much power and influence have the Hinduja brothers been able to exert in our political system? Secondly, are their methods of carving out influence legitimate in our democracy? Their influence appears to be related to money. I cannot believe that the number and range of contacts that the Hindujas have accumulated in recent years could be achieved by any normal resident of this country or even by a Member of Parliament. They appear to have had access to everybody within the two main parties in the House.
Attempts to use money, position and power to enter the political system are not new. At the last general election, for example, Sir James Goldsmith spent millions of pounds in an attempt to force his agenda on the British public. That attempt was clearly rejected in the election. More recently, Stuart Wheeler felt it appropriate to contribute £5 million to the Conservative party. For a betting man, that seems a rather odd decision. If he put that £5 million into his one-armed bandit, he might get a screen full of lemons when he pulled the handle. Be that as it may, that information is in the public domain, as is the information about Sir James Goldsmith, and people are able to judge those actions accordingly. The same is not true of the Hindujas.
We have heard a lot about the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), but much less about the Hindujas. They built up their wealth making deals under the Shah of Iran's regime and entered the billionaires' league with oil deals in the 1980s. Eastern Eye reported in April 1999 that the two London-based brothers were Britain's richest Asians, with a financial worth of around
The Hinduja brothers are also noted for their alleged involvement in the arms scandal currently working its way through the Indian justice system. In March 1986, India bought 400 Howitzer field guns from the Swedish arms manufacturer Bofors, at a cost of £800 million, and it is reported that £30 million was paid in bribes to facilitate the deal. The scandal brought down Rajiv Gandhi. India's Central Bureau of Investigation has been investigating it since 1987 and accuses three of the four brothers of receiving commission from Bofors for helping to secure the deal by bribing--allegedly--senior politicians and civil servants. Estimates of the scale of the bribery vary between £5 million and £9 million.
It is reported that the money was paid into secret Swiss bank accounts owned by the McIntyre Corporation, which was a Hinduja front company based in Panama. Receiving commission for arms deals is illegal in Indian law, and if convicted the Hindujas could face up to seven years in prison. They deny wrongdoing and argue that payments from Bofors, which they admit receiving, do not relate to the arms deal. A summons for the brothers was issued in December, and they appeared in court in January. It has taken more than a decade to get them to court, as the battle to get hold of Swiss bank records has taken so long. At present, they are unable to leave India.
On 22 January 1990, investigators at the Indian Central Bureau of Investigation named Gopichand Hinduja as a suspect in the Bofors investigation. On 21 February, less than a month later, both Srichand and Gopichand applied for British naturalisation. They were both turned down. There is an interesting link, which is suggestive, if no more.
In 1997, the Hinduja brothers expressed an interest in contributing to the dome, which was then in the care of the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine). In the same month, he launched something called the list of Britain's richest Asians at the Cafe Royal in Regent street. On 5 March 1997, Gopichand reapplied for a British passport.
In June 1998, the offer to donate to the dome was repeated by the Hinduja Foundation, and on 2 July 1998 there was a telephone conversation between the right hon. Member for Hartlepool and the junior Home Office Minister, the hon. Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), about Srichand's application. That is the date given by the 10 Downing street website.
On 14 October 1998, the Hindujas formally promised £1 million to sponsor the faith zone, and less than a week later, on 20 October 1998, Srichand made a second application for a British passport. On 29 October 1998, the brothers had a meeting in the House of Lords with Lord Levy about the dome sponsorship. Those dates are not conclusive, but they are at least suggestive.
I don't understand why people are asking only about Mandelson, Vaz and Blair . . . You could name anyone because we have so many contacts."
Given the openness and honesty of Ministers in announcing those links, on which I again commend Ministers, I wonder why the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office, the Prime Minister's office and the Lord Chancellor's Department have refused to announce in response to parliamentary questions whether other Ministers have met with the Hinduja brothers. I urge those Departments to answer questions that have been legitimately asked in Parliament.
It is also true to say that there have been meetings between the Hindujas and the Conservatives. In March 1999, a reception was held for the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) by the Hinduja brothers. He was guest of honour. A week after the event, Conservative officials sent letters to some of those present to offer them meetings with members of the shadow Cabinet in exchange for a £1,000 donation.
We know about Timothy Kirkhope from the newspapers recently. During the election period, he wrote round on Conservative party paper, when he was Minister with responsibility for immigration at the tail end of the Parliament, in connection with the passport application, saying that he was able to move things forward in a helpful way. We know that there was contact with the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Mr. Wardle) in 1994, although he seemed to give the Hinduja brothers pretty short shrift.
When Baroness Thatcher was leader of the Conservative party, the Hindujas paid £25,000 for a bottle of House of Commons whisky autographed by the then Prime Minister during a party fundraising ball. Interestingly, the brothers are teetotal. Baroness Thatcher also attended one of the Diwali parties that the Hindujas threw each year. We know of close links with the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath), who has fully admitted his close links with the Hindujas.
Is it appropriate for anyone to inveigle themselves into the political system just because they have connections and money in such a way as to gain access to the leading figures in both main political parties in this country? I believe that there have also been superficial contacts with my party--before any hon. Member makes that comment. It is not a party point that I am making. It is wrong that people can use power and influence to gain access. It is insidious and invidious, and it needs to be challenged.
We need to review the ministerial code. A number of things have come out in recent weeks that are worrying and unacceptable. For example, the Minister for Europe used Foreign Office premises to deal with an insurance claim by a Soho restaurateur. The story that we are given is that that is in line with the ministerial code. I do not know whether that is true, but if it is, it should not be. It is an abuse of Foreign Office premises for a matter that has nothing to do with foreign policy or the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office should not be used in that way.
I sympathise with the Minister for Europe, who has had tens of journalists chasing him in recent weeks. They have not come up with a killer fact, but they have come up with a picture that is slightly unsavoury. It would be helpful to the Minister and to other Ministers if the code was tightened up, which was after all the recommendation of Lord Neill, who has referred to these matters clearly.
He said the code should be rewritten to include a declaration by the prime minister that he is personally responsible for ministers' conduct.
Lord Neill said the code should set out what punishment would be meted out to transgressors."
I do not want to get the issue out of balance: we are by and large talking about an excess of spin by the Government, not sleaze. However, as any cricketer knows, spinning too much can cause one to be hit for six, which is unfortunate. The events that Sir Anthony is to investigate are not comparable with those that occurred during the years of Tory sleaze--we had the A to Z of sleaze, with Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer and Michael Ashcroft comprising only the As. The current Government have got themselves into a mess as a consequence of carelessness and reacting badly. It is important that the inquiry is a full one, that all information is published and that the questions that have legitimately been asked are answered. If that is done, the Government might yet emerge with some credit.