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British Leyland

Volume 932: debated on Thursday 19 May 1977

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(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Industry if he will make a statement on the approval by the Chairman of the National Enterprise Board of payments by British Leyland to individuals contrary to the stated policy of Her Majesty's Government.

The Government are totally opposed to any form of bribery or corruption. The Government will not tolerate any cover-up of these matters. The House will have seen that the National Enterprise Board has today stated that no such letter as is alleged by the Daily Mail to have been sent by Lord Ryder exists. I myself have not discussed any of the matters alleged in this Press report at any time with Lord Ryder or corresponded with him about them.

I have spoken to Lord Ryder today and asked him to return to London immediately to take charge of the inquiries which the National Enterprise Board and British Leyland are setting in hand. I have asked the NEB to report to me urgently the outcome of these inquiries and I shall then consider what further statement I can make to the House.

Is the Secretary of State asserting that all the allegations published this morning in the Daily Mail are incorrect? Recognising the different practices in different countries and the painful dilemma presented to trading organisations in some countries abroad, is the Secretary of State totally contradicting the allegation, as described in the Daily Mail this morning, that he has approved any such practice by the NEB? Will the Secretary of State answer?

What I said is that the NEB has put out a statement today and has told me that no such letter exists. That is where I want to leave it. I have asked Lord Ryder to come back and take charge of this inquiry and in due course I want to report further to the House.

The right hon. Gentleman has asked about my own personal position and whether I "nodded it through", as it says in the Daily Mail today. The answer is that I have not nodded anything through. I reject and repudiate such practices. I could never in any conceivable circumstances give them my approval or even discuss them or consider them except to repudiate them. I have never discussed them with Lord Ryder or anyone else or corresponded with him or anyone else about them.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that if this letter is proved to be a forgery—and we have no reason to think otherwise—this whole knocking campaign against British Leyland will be seen to be not just a campaign on the part of the Daily Mail but yet another of a whole series of deliberate slanders against the Government and their Ministers?

What I am saying—and what I am going to stand by today, intending to go no further—is that the NEB has put out a statement that no such letter exists. I have asked for inquiries to be made. I have asked Lord Ryder to take charge of them, and in due course I shall come to the House again and report.

Would the Secretary of State not agree that it might be fairer to him, to the NEB and to British Leyland if there were to be a proper judicial court of inquiry into this matter so that people could see the facts for themselves? Should not this be done in a proper open way rather than through an internal departmental inquiry?

What we have to do in the first instance is let the inquiries within British Leyland and the NEB proceed. In due course I shall consider the matter further and report to the House.

While one can understand the Secretary of State endorsing Lord Ryder's decision to return and take responsibility for these matters, as he has to do under the NEB guidelines, can the Secretary of State assure us that Lord Ryder was returning of his own volition and was not instructed to do so by the Secretary of State?

I discussed the matter with Lord Ryder over the telephone a short time before I came into the House. I informed him as a matter of courtesy that, as is natural, a Private Notice Question had been put down. I said that there was a great deal of speculation about the matter and that it would be in his best interests if he were to come back and take charge of the inquiries. It was not a question of asking him to come back. I think he was all set to come back in any case.

Two major statements are to follow as well as the Business Question. There will obviously be a further report to the House on this matter. I therefore propose to call just one more hon. Member from either side.

Despite the obvious unsuitability, if the report is correct, of Lord Ryder continuing as Chairman of the NEB, can the Secretary of State give the House an assurance that this episode will in no way prejudice the Government's consideration of future allocations of public funds for the new Mini?

Without making any comment on the first part of the question, the future funding of the long-term plans of British Leyland does not arise out of this Private Notice Question. I hope to report to the House on the matter in the near future.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is one further example of the various organs of the Press in this country trying to take advantage of all sorts of claims, which are usually proved absolutely untrue, in order to attack public enterprise? Does not my right hon. Friend also agree that this alleged type of practice is very much the type of private enterprise commercial practice? If we are to look into this matter, should we not conduct a full inquiry into the whole practice of the multinationals with regard to this type of thing?

On the first part of my hon. Friend's question, I do not want to go any further than I have gone at present, on the basis that I have asked for inquiries to be made and that in due course I shall want to look at the evidence and report to the House. My hon. Friend asked about international practices. The Government made their views firmly known on 18th May last year in the statement made to the House by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary.