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3.1 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng): The hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Baker) has chosen for today's debate a subject that has been of considerable public interest for the past two weeks. I am grateful for the opportunity to outline the current position from the Government's perspective, set out the action that we have taken and respond, in so far as I am able, to the concerns that he has voiced.

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The specific issue that initially attracted the interest of the hon. Gentleman and others was the applications for naturalisation made by Mr. G P Hinduja and Mr. S P Hinduja and any representations related to those received from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). As the hon. Gentleman is aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on 24 January that he had asked former Treasury Solicitor Sir Anthony Hammond QC to review the full circumstances surrounding approaches made to the Home Office in connection with the possibility of an application for naturalisation by Mr. S P Hinduja in 1998. It is worth reminding the House of the terms of reference of the review as announced by the Prime Minister. They are:

Sir Anthony Hammond began his review on 25 January. After an initial reading of the papers, Sir Anthony has decided that to fulfil the terms of reference of his review of the application for naturalisation of S P Hinduja, it would be appropriate for him to look at the circumstances of the granting of naturalisation in respect of G P Hinduja, because the circumstances of both applications are so closely related. For the same reason, as the hon. Member for Lewes mentioned, Sir Anthony has also decided that it would be appropriate for him to look at the circumstances surrounding the inquiries about naturalisation in respect of Prakesh Hinduja.

Sir Anthony aims to complete his review as quickly as possible, consistent with the need to conduct a thorough investigation, and I understand that, on the information currently available to him, Sir Anthony hopes to complete the review by the end of February. The report will be published and copies will be placed in the Vote Office and the Library.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to pre-empt the outcome of the review through any comments that I make today. He has been good enough to signify his assent to that proposition. I understand that he has written to Sir Anthony--the hon. Gentleman has been good enough to furnish me with a copy of the letter--with a list of specific questions, several of which he has outlined this afternoon, that he would like the inquiry to address. Sir Anthony will, I am sure, respond to those questions in the manner that he deems the most appropriate. I also understand that the hon. Gentleman has already met Sir Anthony to discuss the events and issues surrounding the inquiry.

Despite the limitations on what I am able to say, I shall take the opportunity to set the record straight about one aspect of the inquiry which has been the subject of some public comment. It is the issue of disclosure. There have been calls from some quarters to release specific documents or transcripts relating to the issues being examined by the inquiry. It is important to emphasise that Sir Anthony has access to all relevant papers. The open government code of practice specifically excludes the release of

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I emphasise once again that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has given a clear commitment to publish the report when it is completed. I believe that the arrangements that we have in place will best ensure that the proceedings of the inquiry are not prejudiced or hindered in any way, while providing as much information to Members and the public as is proper in the circumstances.

The hon. Gentleman also raised questions about the Hinduja brothers' support of the millennium dome, and in particular whether the sponsorship of the faith zone by the brothers led in some way to their improper access to Ministers. Negotiations on the sponsorship of the faith zone, as with all other sponsorship of the dome, was the responsibility of the New Millennium Experience Company. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool, as shareholder of the dome and the Minister with responsibility for the project, was, quite appropriately, kept fully up to date with sponsorship issues. He would also, again quite properly, have met sponsors to be kept aware of any concerns that they had. However, the detailed negotiations were carried out between the chief executive of NMEC and would-be sponsors, and not by Ministers.

The hon. Gentleman spoke also about the ministerial code and raised questions about the role of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in enforcing the code, its ability in its current form to hold Ministers properly to account for their actions, and the need as he sees it to review and update its provisions. It is important that we all understand that the ministerial code is the Prime Minister's personal guidance to his Ministers. Although it is not enforceable by Parliament or any external agency, in introducing the code my right hon. Friend has made it

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absolutely clear that he expects Ministers to work within the letter and spirit of the code. However, as paragraph 1 of the code makes clear, it is for individual Ministers to determine their actions and to account for those actions to Parliament.

In formulating the code, my right hon. Friend took account of the Nolan recommendation

A similar recommendation was made by the Neill committee in its report entitled "Reinforcing Standards", which was published in July 2000. However, my right hon. Friend believes, as did his predecessor, that it must be for individual Ministers to ensure always that they act in such a way as to uphold the highest standards and exercise their judgments accordingly. It is always important to ensure that the responsibility of individual Ministers to account for their own actions is not blurred.

While we are discussing the subject, I feel that it is worth pointing out that the Government accepted recommendation 11 of the report, that the code should be amended to clarify the need for individual Ministers to take full responsibility for their decisions, and accepted recommendation 12 that no new office for the investigation of allegations of ministerial misconduct should be established.

I hope that my remarks have been of some help to the hon. Gentleman--he is good enough to signify his assent to that proposition, too--and to the House. I have of necessity been constrained in what I have been able to say by the on-going investigation into matters related to the Hinduja brothers. I end by saying that we look forward to receiving the final report of Sir Anthony Hammond's inquiry, which I hope and expect will illuminate further many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised during the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

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