With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the outcome of the inquiry into the disclosure of certain information in my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General's letter of 6 January.
As the House knows, the chairman of Westland plc, Sir John Cuckney, wrote to me on 30 December 1985 asking whether Westland would no longer be considered a European company by the Government if a minority shareholding in the company were held by a major international group from a NATO country outside Europe.
This question was of fundamental importance to the company in making its decision as to what course it was best to follow in the interests of the company and its employees. It was therefore essential to be sure that my reply should be in no way misleading to anyone who might rely upon it in making commercial judgments and decisions.
The reply was accordingly considered among the Departments concerned, and the text of my letter of 1 January 1986 was agreed in detail by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my right hon. Friends the then Secretary of State for Defence and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and finally by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General. My letter was made public.
Two days later, on 3 January, my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence replied to a letter of the same date from Mr. Horne of Lloyds Merchant Bank asking him a number of questions, covering some of the same ground as my own reply to Sir John Cuckney. The texts of the letters became public that same day.
My right hon. Friend's reply was not cleared or even discussed with the relevant Cabinet colleagues. Moreover, although the reply was also material to the commercial judgments and decisions that would have to be made, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General was not invited to scrutinise the letter before it was issued.
On the morning of 6 January, my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General wrote to my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence. He said—and I quote:
It is foreseeable that your letter will be relied upon by the Westland Board and its shareholders.
Consistently with the advice I gave to the Prime Minister on 31 December, the Government in such circumstances is under a duty not to give information which is incomplete or inaccurate in any material particular.
The letter continued:
On the basis of the information contained in the documents to which I have referred, which I emphasise are all that I have seen, the sentence in your letter to Mr. Home does in my opinion contain material inaccuracies in the respects I have mentioned, and I therefore must advise that you should write again to Mr. Horne correcting the inaccuracies.
That is the end of the quotation.
I have quoted extensively from the letter which, as hon. Members will know, was published a week ago. As I have already indicated, it was especially important in this situation for statements made on behalf of the Government, on which commercial judgments might be based, to be accurate and in no way misleading.
That being so, it was a matter of duty that it should be made known publicly that there were thought to be material inaccuracies which needed to be corrected in the letter of my right hon. Friend. the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) of 3 January, which, as the House will recall, had already been made public. Moreover, it was urgent that it should become public knowledge before 4 pm that afternoon, 6 January, when Sir John Cuckney was due to hold a press conference to announce the Westland board's recommendation to shareholders of a revised proposal from the United Technologies Corporation-Fiat consortium.
These considerations were very much in the mind of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry when the copy of the Solicitor-General's letter was brought to his attention at about 1.30 pm that afternoon of 6 January. He took the view that the fact that the Solicitor-General had written to the then Secretary of State for Defence, and the opinion he had expressed, should be brought into the public domain as soon as possible. He asked his officials to discuss with my office whether the disclosure should be made, and, if so, whether it should be made from 10 Downing street, as he said he would prefer.
My right hon. and learned Friend made it clear that, subject to the agreement of my office, he was giving authority for the disclosure to be made from the Department of Trade and Industry, if it was not made from 10 Downing street. He expressed no view as to the form in which the disclosure should be made, though it was clear to all concerned that in the circumstances it was not possible to proceed by way of an agreed statement.
My office were accordingly approached. They did not seek my agreement: they considered—and they were right — that I should agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry that the fact that the then Defence Secretary's letter of 3 January was thought by the Solicitor-General to contain material inaccuracies which needed to be corrected should become public knowledge as soon as possible, and before Sir John Cuckney's press conference. It was accepted that the Department of Trade and Industry should disclose that fact and that, in view of the urgency of the matter, the disclosure should be made by means of a telephone communication to the Press Association. [Interruption.] Had I been consulted, I should have said that a different way must be found of making the relevant facts known.
The report finds, in the light of the evidence, that the Department of Trade and Industry acted in good faith in the knowledge that it had the authority of its Secretary of State and cover from my office for proceeding. An official of the Department accordingly told a representative of the Press Association of the letter by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General and material elements of what it said. The company was also informed. The information was on the Press Association tapes at 3.30 pm.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was, in my judgment, right in thinking that it was important that the possible existence of material inaccuracies in the letter of 3 January by the then Secretary of State for Defence should become a matter of public knowledge, if possible before Sir John Cuckney's press conference at 4 pm that day. In so far as what my office said to the Department of Trade and Industry was based on the belief that I should have taken that view, had I been consulted, it was right. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General has authorised me to inform the House that, having considered the report by the head of the Civil Service, and on the material before him, he has decided after consultation with, and with the full agreement of, the Director of Public Prosecutions and senior Treasury counsel, that there is no justification for the institution of proceedings under the Official Secrets Act 1911 in respect of any of the persons concerned in this matter.
In order that there should be no impediment to cooperation in the inquiry, my right hon. and learned Friend had authorised the head of the Civil Service to tell one of the officials concerned, whose testimony would be vital to the inquiry, that he had my right hon. and learned Friend's authority to say that, provided that he received full co-operation in his inquiry, the official concerned would not be prosecuted in respect of anything said during the course of the inquiry.
The head of the Civil Service did, indeed, receive full co-operation not only from that official but from all concerned. My right hon. and learned Friend tells me that he is satisfied that that in no way interfered with the course of justice: on the facts as disclosed in the inquiry there would have been no question of proceeding against the official concerned.
After persistent efforts, we have managed to pull a statement from the right hon. Lady. It had a detail produced not by frankness but by guilt—unerasable guilt. That stain will stay with the right hon. Lady for as long as she endures in politics. Her excuses are completely implausible. She cannot justify or excuse the conduct of her Government in any one respect.
In this squalid story, we have been told that the leaking of the Solicitor-General's letter was authorised —authorised by the right hon. Lady's office and connived in by her office, all, says the Prime Minister, with her subsequent endorsement. We must ask the Prime Minister, especially given her personalised and centralised style of government, where she was on 6 January so that she could not be contacted on a matter as basic and essential as this. She has a duty to tell the House what she was doing when her office, as she says, was getting on with the business by itself.
We have been told that the matter was authorised. What was actually authorised was a conspiracy by people in the Department of Trade and Industry and people from the right hon. Lady's office to disclose certain parts of a letter written by a Law Officer to another member of the Cabinet about a matter of important public business. That was their way, we are told, of putting it into the public domain. That was the route chosen — not by open means, but by subtefuge and dishonest means.
We have been told that there was an inquiry. Indeed, there have been answers in the House from Ministers, including the Prime Minister, saying that an earnest inquiry was being undertaken in the normal fashion. We have to ask: why was there an inquiry when everybody knew what had happened? Why was there an inquiry when everybody knew that there would be no prosecution because the dispensation had been given? The only precedent comparable with this act of contrived insincerity is the way in which Macbeth so fiercely looked around for Duncan's murderers.
We hear from the Prime Minister that an immunity was offered. Why was that the case when it was plain that there was to be no prosecution?
We have heard a shabby story—an effort to defraud the public. The fact is that the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and everyone else involved would have got away with it were it not for the fact that in this democracy ultimately the Prime Minister had to make a statement. They would have dealt with the former Member of the Cabinet, the Secretary of State for Defence, not by the means available to the Prime Minister, if she believed that he was acting contrary to the national interest—not by sacking him—but by trying dishonestly and covertly to subvert him. That is a profound dishonesty. For the Government to leak in order to inform and influence public opinion is normal. For a Government to leak in order to discredit anyone is shameful. For a Government to leak in order to subvert a member of that Government is the action of a Government who are rotten not just to the core but from the core, and they should go.
I totally reject much of what the right hon. Gentleman said. As he has seen from the Solicitor-General's letter, the Government had a duty to give accurate information, and not to give any misleading information, because that information could be used to make commercial judgments. Because there was a possible inaccuracy, it was important to get accurate information into the public domain in time for the meeting at 4 o'clock. I agree, as I have said, that it should have been done by a more correct method. The fact is that I was not consulted, as I indicated in the statement. Yes, I did institute an inquiry and the right hon. Gentleman would have been the first to castigate me if I did not.[Interruption.]
I instituted an inquiry. It started on 14 January. I instituted that inquiry to find the full facts because they were not known. The inquiry reported on 22 January and I have made a full statement today, 23 January.
Does my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister agree that if, as appears to be the case, my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had been aware, or been made aware, of what he believed to have been the misleading information which could have seriously damaged the future of Westland, there would have been an overriding and imperative duty to correct that misleading information to protect Westland from further damage and that if he had not fulfilled that duty he would have been failing in his duty as Secretary of State?
I believe that my hon. and learned Friend's analysis is the correct one. The Government had a duty to see that no misleading statements were made. Therefore, possible inaccuracies had to come into the public domain at the relevent time because commercial judgments were about to be taken.
Is the Prime Minister aware that her statement reveals yet another chapter of shabby and astonishing behaviour in the higher reaches of her Government? Does she recognise that she owes the House and the Civil Service an apology? She allowed nine days of a charade of an inquiry when she could have cleared up the matter in 10 minutes by calling in her colleague, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and her own press officer.
Why was the Solicitor-General not told that his letter was to be used in this way? Why was the right hon. Lady's colleague, the then Secretary of State for Defence, not told that the letter was to be made public? If it was so important to make the matter public, why was there not a clear Government statement of policy rather than the hole-in-the-corner method used? Is the right hon. Lady aware that, if she were living in the real world outside and this inquiry had been conducted, she would now be on a charge of wasting police time?
If I had refused demands for an inquiry, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) would have criticised me. The inquiry established many facts which were not known to me. The right hon. Gentleman said that I could have cleared up the matter without an inquiry. That is not what he would have said had I failed to follow that course.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that there are Conservative Members whose first consideration in this matter is the integrity of Government? Is she satisfied that the statement that she has made this afternoon has enhanced the integrity of her Government?
I have tried, having set up an inquiry and received the full report yesterday, to give as full an account as I possibly can, because the House deserves to have it.
Does the right hon. Lady recall that a week ago, when I asked her about it, she said that the inquiry was going ahead but it was not the custom in any sense to make a report to the House, and she was not going to do so? When she gave that answer to the House and drew a veil over the proceedings, saying that the inquiry was going to proceed, she must have known all the facts. So she was concealing the truth from the House and the country. When will she apologise for that?
No, the right hon. Gentleman is not correct. I did not know all the facts, and that is why an inquiry was set up. It is not the usual tradition or custom to give the outcome of such inquiries. There have been rare exceptions when that has been the case. One such exception was on 1 July 1976, when the results of an inquiry were published and a statement made about the disclosure of information regarding child benefit. When I got the result and the report of the inquiry, I knew full well that it would have to be one of the exceptions, when a full statement would have to be made. I have made such a full statement because that was what the House wanted and required.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we need lessons in leaking, we have only to read the Crossman and Castle diaries, from which we would learn that previous Labour Governments leaked like sieves?
I think that there would have been a different way had there been more time. Hon. Members should remember that there was a time constraint. It was urgent because of that meeting at 4 o'clock that afternoon.
Is the Prime Minister aware that, as I listen to and watch this tawdry saga rattle on, I no longer care about the relationships between Trade and Industry Ministers and industrialists? I no longer care whether the machinery of Government is being run properly. All that I know is that if as Home Secretary, I had set up an inquiry, and people came back and said, "But, sir, you authorised it", I should have resigned.
No. I have, in fact, in a long statement, given the facts, I hope, showing that I was not consulted. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will have the decency to accept that statement.
If what I said in the letter, which was apparently so difficult, caused such concern, as it was in the hands of No. 10 and the Department of Trade and Industry on the Friday afternoon, and there was no protest from colleagues about its contents, and as the first that I heard of concern was late on the Saturday night, when the Solicitor-General told me that he would be writing on the Monday, would it not have been possible for colleagues to have considered, discussed and perhaps even agreed any withdrawal of anything in my letter that was misleading? As I did respond to the Solicitor-General, and as the text of his letter has been published, would it not be now right for the text of my reply to be published as well? Does the Prime Minister accept that every word of the letter that I sent to the European consortium stands uncorrected by any statement by this Government?
The problem would never have arisen had my right hon. Friend cleared his letter with the Solicitor-General because it was upon the basis of that letter that commercial judgments would have been made. My right hon. Friend did not do that. He knew full well that I had cleared every word of my letter because it was thought that it might be included in or material to the prospectus. Had my right hon. Friend cleared his letter, this problem would never have arisen.
Will the Prime Minister now tell the House when her office told her that it had given cover to the Secretary of State's office to reveal the letter? Did that happen on 6 or 7 January? When did that happen, and why did she not tell the House as soon as she knew that her office had been involved in the leak? How can the Prime Minister continue to hold the high office that she does when she constituted a leak inquiry in the full knowledge that her office, and by implication she herself, was fully involved in this whole sordid affair?
I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has fully taken into account every single thing in my statement. The inquiry was set up to establish the facts. An enormous number of the facts were not known to me until yesterday—22 January—when I received the results of the inquiry.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that many right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, like the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), are not really interested in listening to the facts of the full account given by my right hon. Friend. What view does my right hon. Friend think that the House might have taken of any Minister in any Government placed in such an invidious situation by the action of a colleague who had failed in his duty to ensure that correct information was made public as soon as possible?
Yes, Mr. Speaker, it would have been much easier, as the facts were commercially sensitive, if the relevant letters had been cleared as mine was with the Solicitor-General. It was vital to have accurate information in the public domain because we knew that judgments might be founded upon that and that the Government could be liable if wrong judgments were made as a result of misleading information. It was to get that accurate information to the public domain that I gave my consent.
The Prime Minister said that it was an open decision taken by No. 10 to release the letter to the Press Association. Did the Prime Minister see Mr. Chris Moncrieff on the "9 o'clock news" on television last night? Mr. Moncrieff said that there was no way in which he would reveal any details about that letter, about who or where it came from. Is not the right hon. Lady aware that there is no more honourable a member of the Press Gallery than Mr. Moncrieff? Why should Mr. Moncrieff say those words in contradiction to what the Prime Minister has told the House this afternoon?
I do not believe that there is a contradiction. I have set out the full facts as a result of the inquiry and I have set them out extremely carefully and accurately. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider them with the same care that I have given to expressing them.
Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that this is probably the House of Commons at its worst when political parties which hope to obtain power and destroy the prosperity that the Government have created wish to make bogus points pretending that they are matters of principle? Should not those parties consult their consciences?
I repeat that the report of the inquiry was submitted to me on 22 January. On the basis of the report of that inquiry, most of the facts in which were new to me, I have faithfully reported to the House.
Is the right hon. Lady aware that as she and her Government sink deeper into the bog of deceit and chicanery, almost her only remaining memorable words will be that there were commercial decisions involved, and that Governments before hers have been activated by considerations higher than that?
I note what the right hon. Gentleman says, but when commercial decisions and different reconstructions are made on the basis of a prospectus, legal obligations follow and information should not be misleading. I should have hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would accept that.
I have given as full an account —[Interruption.]—of the inquiry that I established to establish the facts. I have said that I was not consulted at the time.
Will my right hon. Friend take it from me, as one who worked as a political correspondent in this building for 13 years, that the events which took place in the Department of Trade and Industry, which she has outlined, differ not one jot from the regular practice of Labour Members when they were in government? Will she take it from me that, if there is anger and criticism on the Conservative Benches, much of it relates to the way in which a comparatively straightforward issue is being blown up into so grotesque a debate?
Because of the duty to see that accurate information on a commercially sensitive matter was in the public domain, the decision was taken. I have said that I was not consulted at the time. I set up an inquiry to establish the facts. It has established them.
I wonder whether I may make a comment as a Back Bencher who has never understood the workings of the official or unofficial channels or the difference between an official statement or a statement attributed to a spokesman. The information that was released was of such importance that it should have been released at that time by whatever means.
A vast number of the facts in that report were not given to me until yesterday. I am not going to tease out what was and what was not. A number of the facts which came in that report were not known to me until yesterday.
While there may be some hon. Members on both sides of the House who think that in this fast-moving situation a public statement would have been preferable to an unofficial leak, is it not wrong to allow disagreements on this matter to distract us from the fact that thousands of jobs could have been put at risk if the Government had allowed the board to take a decision on the basis of conflicting advice from different Departments? Now that this matter has been disposed of, should we not let Westland get on with the job?
I agree with the points in my hon. Friend's question about the public statements and allowing Westland now to get on with the job.
Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has forgotten that my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) took his own decision.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that I was in my constituency on Friday and Saturday and that a large number of —[Interruption]—did not mention Westland to me? Is she further aware that in my postbag I did not receive one letter on the subject? Has not the matter been blown up by the press and seized on by the Opposition who are short of ammunition to use against the Government?
Is the Prime Minister aware that, instead of the robust, fighting statement from her that we were promised by the press, we have had a shoddy, pathetic statement which will not convince most people but which is a perfect illustration of the deceitful way that the Government go about their business? Is she further aware that, while we are, of course, all pleased that no civil servant will be used as a scapegoat, it is plain that if the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had the least idea of what honour meant, he would have resigned by now?
The hon. Gentleman has omitted to mention the fact that I deliberately set up an inquiry to establish the facts. It has established the facts. I have reported to the House upon them within a day of receiving the report.
As it was the Government's clear, collective decision before Christmas that Westland's future should rest with the decision of the shareholders and the company, how did my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence come to write that extraordinary letter to the chairman of a merchant bank which was acting on behalf of one of the parties involved with the potential rescue? In those circumstances, was it not right for the Law Officer and my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to take extraordinary measures to give the true and accurate facts?
It was a unique situation. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had a duty to see that the facts were available at the relevant meeting. It would have been better if we had all followed the same procedure during that difficult and sensitive period and cleared our letters with other Departments and with the Solicitor-General.
On this issue and many others, have not the Government become one where the merest assertion of Prime Ministerial power and patronage is deemed sufficient to sweep aside principles and honour?
No, Mr. Speaker. There are some who would allege that Prime Ministerial power was not sufficiently in evidence during part of the incident.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that all hon. Members would prefer accurate information to be placed in the public domain? The information had to be accurate for the shareholders of Westland. Would it not have been better if, instead of leaking a small part of the Solicitor-General's letter to do the most damage to a colleague, there had been a delay so that the reply of my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), which was accepted by the Solicitor-General, and the evidence for which the Solicitor-General had asked, could also be released so that the shareholders could make a proper judgment?
I think that it is essential to get into the public domain the fact that there were possible inaccuracies which were relevant to that situation. I accept at once that it would have been better if a statement had been made or if the information had been released in a different way.
The Prime Minister has given us certain detailed information as to the factual accuracy of what happened. Can the Prime Minister help me as I am a layman and not a lawyer and, as I understand it, the Solicitor-General's expertise is in legal matters? What vital legal consideration was at stake on this issue? Did the Solicitor-General know that his letter would be leaked?
In the letter which I quoted, and which the hon. Gentleman knows has been released fully into the public domain, the Solicitor-General said, in respect of what my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State for Defence had written:
It is foreseeable that your letter will be relied upon by the Westland Board and its shareholders.
Consistently with the advice I gave to the Prime Minister on 31 December, the Government in such circumstanes is under a duty not to give information which is incomplete or inaccurate in any material particular.
That is because of the prospectus point.
Is the Prime Minister aware that when in future the people of Britain examine these days, they will say that the Prime Minister did not tell the truth? Is the Prime Minister aware that in 1963 Mr. Profumo, in admitting to the House that he had deliberately misled it, was found to be in contempt, and that he admitted his contempt? Does the Prime Minister not accept that this matter would be best dealt with by the Committee of Privileges, which is in a position to find out the nature of the contempt that has taken place?
Is the Prime Minister aware that, whatever the faults of the Government in handling this situation—and there have been grave faults — nothing justifies the farrago, the hypocrisy, the humbug and the cant that we have had to endure from right hon. and hon. Labour Members?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. Throughout, I thought it absolutely vital that, as Westland had the choice, it should be able to make that choice on the basis of accurate, and not misleading, information. That will continue to be our policy.
Had I attempted not to have an inquiry and said, "I will do it internally," right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite would have been the first to criticise.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the general judgment will be that we have had a candid speech? It was clearly in the national interest, and in the interest of the company, that the information should have been discussed. All we are talking about is the manner of the disclosure, and that is an essentially trivial and minor matter. Does my right hon. Friend also accept that the electorate will not easily forget those who perpetuate this matter out of narrow, personal and political interest?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I only add one thing—I wish that the manner of the disclosure had been different and more orthodox.
The Prime Minister has told the House that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry authorised what she called "material elements" in the Solicitor-General's letter, and not the whole letter. The Prime Minister said that this was covered by Downing street. Can the right hon. Lady tell the House to whom Mr. Ingham is accountable and who decides his standing orders?
I have looked carefully at the statement, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to look carefully at the statement to see what was agreed and what was accepted. It was drafted absolutely in accordance with the report that I received. I should like to say that Mr. Ingham has served successive Governments with devotion and dedication, and I have great confidence in him.
It is now a hypothetical question. The alternative way would have been to make a straight statement. As the hon. Gentleman knows, things were not easy at that time. The people concerned—I say again that I was not consulted—were up against a severe time constraint, as I said in the statement.
Does my right hon. Friend find it remarkable that the Opposition's indignation on the question of leaks is selective? Why, for instance, do we not hear about the leak of Sir Raymond Lygo's letter to my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine)? All this hot air amounts to the fact that if a leak will damage the Government the Opposition will highlight it, and if it does not damage the Government they will ignore it completely.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I repeat again that I believe it was right not to have potentially misleading information at a time when important commercial decisions were about to be taken which involved the future of a particular company.
Will the Prime Minister give the House an assurance now that when she has "teased out" the details, as she describes them, she will tell the House exactly when she was told of her officers' involvement in the disclosure?
It has been known for many years that the people who stand in the greatest danger in this place are Lobby journalists. They risk being run over and tripped up by Cabinet Ministers and others trying to tell them secrets. Of course it would have been better to make an open statement at the time, but we are making too much fuss about a tiny company—one about the size of a moderate hotel in north London. It is time that we got on with some proper business.
As I understood it, we had a clear duty to see that accurate and not misleading information was put into the public domain at the time. My right hon. and learned Friend carried out that duty, and I agree that his judgment of getting it into the public domain was right. but I did not like the way in which it was done.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Because of the wholly unsatisfactory and unconvincing nature of the Prime Minister's statement and replies this afternoon, I wish to give you formal notice that I shall, at the appropriate time this afternoon, seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House under Standing Order No. 10.