Sir George attacks Government on leaked documents
12 Jul 1999

Sir George Young (North–West Hampshire): The House is grateful to the right hon. Member for Ashton–under–Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) and his Committee for the report and for the work that went into it. Its conclusions, which we are invited to approve, are divided into two: those that relate to the hon. Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), and those that relate to the Foreign Secretary and his Department. I do not propose to dwell on the former; the hon. Gentleman has recognised the offence and has apologised. If the House approves the motion, which I support, he will be punished by suspension and the incident will inevitably cast a small shadow over his future career, but the House is, by tradition, forgiving, generous and non-vindictive in such circumstances. I propose to respect that tradition and to say no more about him.

The bulk of the conclusions, however, are not about the hon. Member for Dundee, West; they are about the Government. With respect to the Leader of the House, the Select Committee and the House are entitled to a fuller explanation of what is said about them than the formal moving of a motion.
The second part of the report is symptomatic of how the Government have treated the House of Commons and its institutions. The hon. Member for Dundee, West has at least apologised for what he did to the Select Committee; the Government have not, despite having been asked to do so on several occasionsÄÄand they should. They used information, to which they knew they were not entitled, to denigrate a Select Committee report before it was published. As Andrew Parker wrote in the Financial Times on 24 February,
"Tony Blair, Prime Minister, and Mr. Cook went on the offensive to rubbish the report on the morning of publication, describing its criticisms as disproportionate and unfair".
As my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) pointed out at the time, that was before the report was published.
The Foreign Secretary, when invited to apologise on 24 February, refused to do so; nor has he done so in his correspondence with the Select Committee, published in the report. It is typical of his high-handed approach, as is his refusal to attend this debate. He should have apologised, not least in view of the history of problems between him and the Select Committee, which goes back a year to his refusal to respond to its requests for information, and his assertion that the Select Committee had not unearthed a single piece of information not already highlighted in the Foreign Office's own inquiry. If the Foreign Secretary cannot express regret about how the Committee was treated, the Leader of the House, who has a broader responsibility, which I believe she takes seriously, should do so on the Government's behalf.
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett): Before the right hon. Gentleman gets too carried away, I remind him that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary gave unprecedented access to Foreign Office papers and telegrams, which no Minister in the previous Government ever gave or would have dreamed of giving.
Sir George Young: The Foreign Secretary should apologise to the Select Committee and to the House for how he treated one of its institutions, and I regret that he has not done so.
May I deal briefly with page xv of the report and the role of the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee? He is not criticised in the report and I do not criticise him myself. He was good enough to ring me this morning and to explain the background to the final paragraph on that page, which is an extract from a letter from the Foreign Secretary dated 17 March. It says:
"On the day before publication the Chair of the FAC gave a full briefing to Andy Henderson, the Head of the FCO Parliamentary Relations Department, making clear that the bulk of the Report's criticism would be aimed at senior officials. Mr. Henderson minuted that exchange to officials within the FCO."
The questions that arise from that are: first, whether the briefing did take place and, if so, whether it was done with the knowledge and authority of other members of the Select Committee; and, secondly, whether it is common practice for Chairmen of Select Committees to do that in advance of publication. I also pose the question whether the hon. Member for Dundee, West might have referred to the briefing when he spoke after the Foreign Secretary's statement about the leak on 25 February.
The motion says nothing about paragraph 27, which refers to changes in the ministerial code. The Committee asks the Prime Minister to amend the code, and to notify the Committee and the House. Today's debate would have been the right time and place for the Leader of the House to respond to that recommendation, instead of moving the motion formally and saying nothing. Has the code been modified and, if so, how? What has happened to the recommendation in paragraph 29, where an undertaking was given on what would happen once the Committee had reported? Have those instructions been issued?
Can we now assume that the Foreign Secretary has abandoned the argument that he put in his letter dated 17 March, which was dismissed so conclusively and unanimously by the Committee? I was surprised, as I expect other hon. Members were, to hear the Foreign Secretary assert on the "Today" programme that any Member could sit in on any Select Committee hearing, even when it was deliberating on its report. I trust that we shall hear no more of the spurious defence that the hon. Member for Dundee, West could have gained advance knowledge of the report in that way.
Mrs. Beckett: I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman again, but a moment ago he asked about the ministerial code. As the wording of the motion makes plain, the Government accept the report and have accepted the recommendations about the code, and the Prime Minister will review the code in that light. As the motion says that we accept the report, it did not seem necessary to take the time of the House further to elaborate on that.



Sir George Young: That is not acceptable. The ministerial code is an important document. It has been changed, but we have not been told how or when it was changed. The right hon. Lady should have told the House at the beginning exactly what action the Government were taking in response to the Select Committee's recommendation.
This whole sorry episode is symptomatic of the way in which the Government and some of their supporters treat Parliament. They seek to bypass, marginalise and undermine it. The leaking of a Select Committee report and its use by Ministers is a short circuit of the system, and it renders less effective one of the instruments of the House that holds the Executive to account. Given the Government's majority, it is even more important that the constitutional checks are not overridden.
Today's debate is about one of the most blatant breaches of one of the conventions of the House. There have been other developments, such as the making of announcements outside the House, the dramatic increase in the number of special advisers, and the use of the Government information service for political ends, which was the subject of a recent debate in the House. Those are signs of an arrogant Government who believe that they no longer have to account for themselves in the Chamber. I had hoped that the Government might have learned some lessons from this sorry episode, but their response so far leads me to doubt that.

 
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