Intergovernmental Contracts (Provision of Information)

Oral Answers to Questions — Communities and Local Government – in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 23rd January 2007.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Health) 3:35 pm, 23rd January 2007

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the provision to Parliament of certain information relating to intergovernmental contracts;
and for connected purposes.

The Bill is designed to deal with an absurdity and a scandal, and its genesis is easy to explain. A short while ago, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I was prompted to ask why the National Audit Office report on the al-Yamamah arms deal had not been published—a simple enough inquiry, not especially original and not without wider interest. The Committee convened in special session to answer the question. It met in camera, and I am not, frankly, allowed to tell the House what was said or who was there, although I will say that some eminent people were there—people who do not usually attend that Committee.

I can also say what the outcome, the conclusion, was: we discovered that no one on the Committee—none of the customarily fierce interrogators on the committee, nor the Chairman, nor a single living Member—has a right to see the document, even though it is about a Government contract, even though we can see every other NAO report ever written and even though it was written by a man who is technically a servant of the House.

The only Member who was ever gifted the privilege of reading was the former Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, Lord Sheldon. Once the reading had been delegated to him, it seemed that no living soul could clap eyes on it again. My Bill seeks to rectify that absurdity. It would not ensure the publication of the NAO report. It would not undo the past. It seeks simply to provide a mechanism whereby Parliament's right at least to scrutinise the doings of Government can be preserved.

The Bill would apply only to commercial contracts in which the Government are involved. There is force in the argument that, if some of those contracts were exposed to prolonged public debate, the kind of economic benefits that they were designed to secure would be defeated, thus putting at risk jobs, embarrassing international partners or jeopardising other national, perhaps security, interests. I accept that those who point that out make a serious moral claim, but I cannot accept that the House must forfeit the right to examine such a claim and establish whether it has substance or is simply a claim made to cover up a less ethical position.

When the Serious Fraud Office inquiry was dropped before Christmas in a cunning Government plan that even Baldrick might have bettered, I suggested in the Chamber to the Solicitor-General that the understandable suspicion provoked, and now snowballing, could be allayed by allowing wider access to the report, perhaps on a confidential basis. He pointed out correctly that that was a matter for the House, but he and I both knew that that meant that it was matter for the business managers—the Whips—who can block indirectly or directly any attempt to change the status quo, and believe you me, they will.

The Bill is an attempt to establish procedure whereby, if sufficient Members make application to the Leader of the House—he is here now—for the scrutiny of documents such as the al-Yamamah report, he must refer those documents to a relevant Committee of the House for scrutiny, perhaps with appropriate caveats. Parliament's right to scrutiny would thus be minimally preserved. I would add that the Committee must refer the issue back to the House if, and only if, apparent evidence of a breach of national or international law was found.

I strongly believe that such a minimal mechanism needs to exist, if only to show that Parliament is not reduced to the supine, ludicrous position where it is not even allowed to read its own papers, simply because the Government, with a host of obviously shoddy arguments, tell us that it can do us no good.

We all know that there are pros and cons. Jobs may be lost if we go one way; international and public respect will definitely be lost if we go another. The battle for orders and influence is on one side, and the battle for commercial ethics is on the other. And we can come down on either side irrespective of whether we are moral pragmatists or moral purists. Whatever side we are on, however, we all have to recognise that the Government's current position is simply unsustainable and, like all unsustainable positions, it will only get worse. Thanks to their cack-handed approach, no one now believes that the serious fraud squad was getting nowhere. Everyone now believes that BAE gave out bribes and the Saudis took them. Accusation and allegation, and naming and shaming fill the pages of The Guardian. The media have, de facto, painted a worse picture than the dear old National Audit Office ever could, or does. Imagination flourishes in the face of the shiftiness that sits on reports, stops investigations and mistakenly tries to rope the intelligence services into the whole charade. The Saudis are not now being criticised; they are being demonised. Our European allies are outraged and the corrupt regimes of the world are smugly vindicated by our apparent and cynical display of grubby realpolitik.

Parliament perhaps ought to try to rescue the Government from themselves. The Government are aiming for closure, but are opening can after can of worms. The clear plea in the recent official Saudi press release to be able to move on and acknowledge some of the changes made in the kingdom goes completely unheard. That press release, which is on the website, says explicitly:

"the government of Saudi Arabia today will not and does not condone fraudulent or corrupt behaviour of any kind and would take firm action against anyone found to be involved in fraudulent activity or found accepting or offering bribes of any kind. This is against the law. This should clarify any misperceptions about the Kingdom. We cannot rewrite the past, but we must look...towards the future."

Without even the most minimal checks and balances on international contracts, the present is clouded by a miasma of suspicion and allegation from which neither BAE, nor Saudi Arabia, nor the Government can get clear. That damages them and wider human and commercial interests. All reputations—including those of Parliament and the Public Accounts Committee—are in the collective mire. To do nothing to avoid further repetition of past mistakes is itself culpable.

I am reminded of the Government's approach to the British citizens wrongly accused of bomb outrages in Saudi Arabia. I was involved, to an extent, in that matter. What did the Government's hesitant and limp-wristed approach on behalf of innocent Britons lead to? It led to two years of appalling publicity for Saudi Arabia, two years of suffering for the innocent and time bought for the al-Qaeda cell that made and planted the bombs. Let us have no lectures about security from the Government. If we wish BAE to have a business reputation as unsurpassed as its technical excellence, if we wish for an equal and understanding friendship with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and its people, and if we wish for protection against the next scandal or allegation that is going to ripen, whether from Tanzania or elsewhere, self-evidently we cannot leave matters to the Government. Parliament must assert its right to scrutiny or abjectly acknowledge its impotence. I beg all Members to support the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Dr. John Pugh, Nick Harvey, Mr. Michael Moore, Susan Kramer, Dr. Vincent Cable, Lynne Featherstone, Norman Lamb, Simon Hughes and Mr. Paul Burstow.