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Rhodesia (Oil Sanctionsinquiry)

Volume 960: debated on Friday 15 December 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about Rhodesian oil sanctions, in the light of the debate on the Bingham report on 7th and 8th November.

The Government have concluded that the exceptional nature of the events covered by the Bingham report and the importance of the questions raised by hon. Members call for a further inquiry. Such an inquiry will largely be a matter of political judgment, and the Government have taken into account that its form should be fair to those concerned and should not damage the processes of government or the United Kingdom's interests abroad.

We shall be recommending to both Houses of Parliament, after the recess, the setting up, by joint resolution of both Houses of Parliament, of a Special Commission of Inquiry. It would comprise eight members drawn from both Houses sitting under the chairmanship of a Lord of Appeal. It would have the following terms of reference:
" To consider, following the Report of the Bingham Inquiry, the part played by those concerned in the development and application of the policy of oil sanctions against Rhodesia with a view to determining whether Parliament or Ministers were misled, intentionally or otherwise, and to report."
The resolution that we shall put before the House will provide that this Special Commission will have powers to send for persons, papers and records ; it will also have power, if it judges it necessary, to hear counsel and to call upon the assistance of the Attorney-General ; and it will sit in private. It will publish its finding but not its evidence.

It would be unprecedented to make Cabinet papers available in this way.

Nevertheless, given the special circumstances, the Government are prepared to make Cabinet papers available, subject to certain conditions. Provided I have the agreement of the former Prime Ministers concerned, I shall be ready to recommend to the Queen that Cabinet papers, as well as other Government papers, should be made available through the Chairman of the Special Commission. He, if necessary in consultation with the other members of the Commission, and with the assistance of the Treasury Solicitor, will judge which of the great volume of papers relating to Rhodesia should be seen by the members of the Commission or by witnesses appearing before them, and these papers will be made available. He will similarly be free to decide whether it is essential to publish or refer to any of these papers in the report of the inquiry.

Thus the test of relevance of a Cabinet paper to the Commission's inquiry will be applied not by the Government themselves but by the Chairman of the Commission, who, as I have said, would be a Lord of Appeal.

The Government will table the resolutions immediately after the recess and will arrange for an early debate.

The Prime Minister has made a very serious statement, upon which we shall reserve our judgment. We shall consider it in detail before reaching a conclusion on the proposal which I understand the right hon. Gentleman will put on the Order Paper.

In the meantime, there are just two points that I should like to put to the Prime Minister. We very much agree that any further inquiry should not, in his own words, damage either the United Kingdom's interests abroad or the processes of government.

May I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman, first, whether he is satisfied that the form of inquiry that he is proposing is capable of reaching effective and speedy conclusions? Many of us feel very strongly that any further inquiry should not drift on halfway through another Parliament. If were to do so, that would damage the interests of this country. We feel that conclusions should be reached speedily, and we would hope that anything that the House agreed would be capable of reaching such a conclusion, so that we can have done with this matter.

Secondly, we note what the Prime Minister said about Cabinet papers, but is he aware that many of us are deeply and gravely concerned at any breach of the 30-year rule with regard to these papers? We feel that it may set a precedent and that it could affect both the proceedings and the way in which the minutes are recorded in the future. So we shall need, likewise, to reserve our judgment upon that for further consideration.

I am obliged to the right hon. Lady. As she recognises, this is a very difficult question. It is essential in the Government's view that those who are so ready to allege that there are attempts to cover up matters which are regarded as disreputable should be shown either to be right or should be disproved totally. This is the purpose of such a Commission. It has its implications not only domestically in this country but also abroad, especially in the continent of Africa. I agree absolutely with the right hon. Lady that there should be no damage, but we want the inquiry to reach an effective and speedy conclusion. If the House agrees to the Special Commission being set up, I hop: that it will take note of what the right hon. Lady has said, which I think will receive general support.

There is a further factor here. Some of those concerned, especially my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), have been, in my view, attacked rather spitefully. My right hon. Friend has been attacked for his conduct in this matter. In fairness to him, I believe that the matter should be disposed of speedily. He is the one against whom the principal allegations have been made. So I agree entirely with the right hon. Lady about that.

As regards the production of Cabinet papers, here again I am in agreement with the right hon. Lady. We considered this matter very long and very seriously. I should not be prepared to advise Her Majesty to make me free to disclose Cabinet papers, except under the very rigid conditions which will be laid down in the resolution which will be placed before the House in due course.

One of the reasons why we have come down in favour of this Special Commission, as opposed to a Select Committee of inquiry of both Houses, is that it is virtually unprecedented. The last occasion on which there was such a Special Commission was on the conduct of the Government in the Dardanelles campaign over 60 years ago. If we use this procedure, and with the very careful safeguard that I have announced today—that a Lord of Appeal should see these papers—I think that that will be adequate to make sure that we do not breach the rule to which the right hon. Lady and I attach equal importance.

Like my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I believe that this is a very complex matter, and I am grateful to the Prime Minister for saying that we shall have a full debate on it when the House returns in the new year. As the Prime Minister is aware, I have already made known in the House my view that Bingham was a very thorough inquiry and that, following it, there should be a political decision on what that inquiry reported. The Prime Minister now says, as regards this one, that such an inquiry will be largely a matter of political judgment, and in my view it is a matter now for the House of Lords and the House of Commons to make their political judgment on the Bingham report.

May I put to the Prime Minister one question about the proposals which he has made? Is not what he is putting forward the equivalent of an inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, with a judge in the chair, with other members who will be chosen only from the House of Lords and the House of Commons, with the right of counsel to appear on behalf of people who are appearing before it, with people who can be called upon from any of the companies involved, from the Civil Service, from either House of Parliament and from former Departments, and with the right also to ask other people to make inquiries for it? The only difference is that it is to be held without the public being present. It will then report without publishing the evidence on which it reaches its conclusions.

I suggest to the Prime Minister that this is the worst of all possible worlds. Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Salmon report exposed the weaknesses of the 1921 tribunal, but at least it was held in public and people could judge for themselves on the results and on the evidence whether its conclusions were justified? In this case, they will not be able to do that.

Is not it the case that, although it is to be held in private, there will be nothing binding those who appear, whether they be counsel, witnesses or those involved, to secrecy once they leave the inquiry? Therefore, we shall have bits passed out of this Commission, at any time during the day after it has been sitting, informing the press what the people appearing before it believe went on. I ask the Prime Minister to consider whether in deciding to have an inquiry, which, in my view, is not necessary, he has not reached the worst of all possible forms of inquiry for dealing with this matter.

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's view, which he has expressed before, that it is not necessary to have an inquiry. I think that that is a matter to be debated when the resolution appears on the Order Paper. I can only say that, in my view, if we do not have an inquiry, those who wish to believe the worst of us will go on alleging that there is some kind of Watergate here that has to be covered up and that we and Parliament are attempting to protect all those with whom we work, and the rest of it. All the smears would do greater damage to democracy, because they will linger on in the minds of those who do not care much for this place or its reputation, and we shall never be able to dispose of them.

The right hon. Member has correctly exposed a number of weaknesses in the procedure. That is one reason why we have taken so long. We consulted many people before reaching a conclusion. I do not pretend that any solution is free from difficulty. However, I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's view that this is the worst of all possible inquiries. For one thing, the fact that it is not to be held in public gives protection, against the alternative of a 1921 tribunal where people's reputations can be ruined by allegations made in public which can be corrected only after a very long interval, whereas I hope this will be a private inquiry held by people of considerable integrity where people's reputations will not be improperly traduced, as I think is the tendency. That is one reason why, although it has difficulties, this is as good a form of inquiry as we can have.

However, there is an overriding reason, apart from that, and that is the production of Cabinet papers. I should not wish to be accused of hiding Cabinet papers or Cabinet decisions under any Administration of which I was a part from a reputable Lord of Appeal who, in consultation with the Commission, should decide what papers he wished to see. But I should not be willing to recommend to the Queen that we should produce such Cabinet papers to a tribunal of inquiry held in public. There must be a basis of trust here. If the House wishes to go ahead with this inquiry, it must say that it is ready to trust those selected to conduct it in this manner. We are responding to a view which was widely expressed on both sides of the House, and we have tried to find our way through a very difficult position. I know that the right hon. Gentleman did not hold this view, but many others did, and they expressed it on both sides of the House.

Thirdly, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not hold the view—which he expressed—that if people are not bound to secrecy because they are not Privy Councillors or whatever, bits will be passed to the press. I hope that our colleagues who serve on such a Commission—those who are chosen and agree to do so—will use the discretion—l

It is not the whole point, with respect, because witnesses will be present only for the matters in which they are concerned. These are difficulties, and the House will have to make up its mind when it sees the resolution whether it believes that the difficulties are so great that they override the need for a further inquiry. Government supporters will have a free vote on this matter, and hon. Members must then decide what they think is the best way to proceed.

Does the Prime Minister appreciate that we on the Liberal Bench accept that the Government have responded to the views of the House in the debate that we had and that it is not because he has found a respectable Liberal precedent for this that, in the Christmas spirit, I welcome the form of inquiry on which he has settled? Will he confirm that, as against a tribunal of inquiry, it has the two superior qualities of speed and access to these papers, which only a private inquiry could have, and that it is considerably more powerful than a normal Select Committee would be? Therefore, this rather unusual procedure is probably about right, at any rate in our judgment.

May I ask the Prime Minister two questions? Since the evidence itself is not to be published—there was a reference in his statement to the publication of bits of the evidence in the course of the Commission reporting its conclusions —will he accept from me that we consider that the choice of those matters to be published should be for the Commission as a whole and not just the judgment of the Chairman, although, of course, a Commission of this kind would be guided considerably by the Chairman?

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman say what staff or other expertise will be made available? As I said in the earlier debate, it is important that, unlike a Select Committee, this Commission should have sufficient staff to enable it to do an important job in a fairly speedy manner.

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. I think that the inquiry will have the advantage of speed and, of course, of access. That, I believe, makes it the best kind of inquiry, even with all the disadvantages which attach to it. As to the choice of what should be published, I think we must rely to a large extent on what the Lord of Appeal decides is relevant. A lot of material is only marginally relevant to the inquiry. Some of it is still currently sensitive in our relations with other countries, especially in Africa. Therefore, I should hope that the House would not press too far and would be ready to rely upon the discretion of the Chairman.

Can my right hon. Friend say precisely when the resolution will be taken, because time is of the essence in this matter? Will the House be given adequate time to debate and amend the proposals? Will it be able to amend the composition as between Privy Councillors and Back Benchers? The general view in the debate was that there should be a predominance of non-Privy Council Back Benchers of this House.

Further, does my right hon. Friend find it acceptable that the findings of the Commission but not the evidence will be published? Would it not be better to leave it to the discretion of the Chairman and the Commission to decide what evidence should be published and what should not? Does he accept the view that a great number of Back Bench Members feel that this matter—not to rescind or completely ignore the 30-year rule—is sufficiently important that the Commission, if it wished to have documents which might infringe that rule, should have the discretion to say that it should have access to them and not be overruled by the Government? I hope that my right hon. Friend realises the importance of that in Africa, apart from the reactions in this country.

The Leader of the House is of the opinion that we would hope to put down the resolution as soon as we come back. Indeed, it can appear on the first Order Paper which is printed and perhaps be debated the week after we come back. So it could be as early as could be expected. Of course, it will be in a form that can be amended, particularly as regards composition, although I would not propose to insert the names in such a resolution at that stage. The question of names would have to come a little later because there is the matter of procedure as between another place and this House. Secondly, we would wish to know whether the Opposition would want to nominate and what they might want to do. I think it would be preferable to leave that until after the main resolution had been passed.

On the question of amendment, however, I want to say this—and I hope that my hon. Friend will understand the basis on which I say it. We have very carefully considered the circumstances in which I am ready to recommend to Her Majesty that Cabinet papers should be released. If there were any amendment to that procedure, as distinct from composition or something of that sort, I would not be ready to go ahead with the inquiry in the sense of being willing to release Cabinet papers, because this is the only safeguard. I put that to my hon. Friend and hope that he will understand the basis on which I am putting it.

The question of publishing the findings but not the evidence, is, I think, a matter for debate. I would not want to express a final view except to say that we believe that our proposal is the better one.

As regards the production of Cabinet papers, on the basis of the resolution that we are drawing up, it would not be the Government who would overrule their production. The Chairman of the Special Commission, the Lord of Appeal, in conjunction with the Treasury Solicitor, will sift this huge volume of papers and decide, together with the Treasury solicitor, what should be produced. So there is no question of the Government overruling the production of any papers. That is why we must be careful, and why I insist on what the circumstances will be in which we would release such papers.

Order. I will call those hon. Members who have been standing up to be called. There will be a further debate after the recess. Adjournment debates are due for the rest of the morning.

Will not the verdict of history be that the British Government are fiddling with Bingham while Rhodesia burns? Is not the Government's preoccupation with sanctions becoming almost masochistic on several fronts? Will the Prime Minister confirm that, taking into account all the expenditure involved, including Government Departments and witnesses, an inquiry of this kind will probably cost not much less than £1 million? Does he believe that the taxpayers of this country wish to spend £1 million in clearing whoever might be responsible, on either side of the House or anywhere else, of a range of actions which are bound to follow from impossible and impractical policies? Should we not be applying all our energies, in Government Departments and elsewhere, to considering what might be done to salvage the situation in Southern Africa instead of merely trying to salvage reputations? Ought we not to be considering the realities of the gravity of this situation and, however much it might be—

Order. We are not discussing the broad question of Southern Africa. We are discussing the inquiry about oil sanctions. The hon. Gentleman should confine his question to that.

I shall certainly confine my question to the inquiry, but I want to ask the Prime Minister whether he thinks that such an inquiry can do any good to anyone at this stage. How much more will it disclose than any sensible or intelligent person can already conclude from Bingham?

That is a view which the hon. Gentleman will no doubt be putting in the debate—indeed, he seems to have made his speech already. We were pressed heavily by the House—though not by the hon. Gentleman, who is only one Member of the House—to come forward with proposals. When we bring them forward, we are told that we are fiddling with Bingham when we should be doing something else. It hardly seems to me to be a censure on the Government. It may be a censure on those who pressed us in the House.

The House itself will decide this matter. If £1 million is to be spent, the House will decide that and not the Government. The Government have put forward their proposals and have attempted to respond to the House. It is now for the House to take a decision when the matter is debated.

Will the Government need to await the outcome of this inquiry before it takes further steps to take effective control of BP? Are the Government aware that the Bingham report showed quite clearly that BP treated its major shareholder in a way that no ordinary company would ever have done'' It was gross contempt, and therefore it is vitally necessary that, at the end of this inquiry or before, the Government should take complete control of their relationship with that company.

With respect, that question is separate from the matter that I am discussing this morning though there is another view of the matter than that which my hon. Friend has expressed. Whether the Bradbury letter should be amended in the changed circumstances of BP is a separate question which involves not only our relations with that company but our international relations, including BP's holdings overseas and in the United States. It is not something that I can deal with this morning in a supplementary answer.

While welcoming on behalf of my colleagues in the SNP the announcement of the inquiry and the general form of it, may I make a plea to the Prime Minister on the lines already made that the evidence should be given in public? Presumably, since the Chairman is to be a distinguished judge, there will be protection against any irrelevant slander of innocent people, and the Cabinet documents could be discussed by the court in camera. Does the Prime Minister accept that a number of us in the House regard it as just as important to salvage reputations, if that is the way it turns out, as it is to name the guilty.

I dare say that naming the guilty is important, but on the whole we believe in this country that it is equally important, if not more important, to protect the innocent. There could be a disposition to hound the guilty without caring over-much about what happens to the innocent. There is, I believe, a decline in society when that happens. Whether the evidence should be given in public, with the Special Commission sitting in private when necessary, is a matter for debate. We believe that it would be better for the Special Commission to sit in private, but no doubt this matter can be raised. I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his general response.

Can the Prime Minister confirm that this will be the first time that Cabinet papers have been made available and that the Dardanelles inquiry did not have such papers? Does he accept that, if Cabinet papers are to be made available, all the members of the Commission ought to be Privy Councillors and bound by the Privy Councillors' oath?

What will be the balance of the Commission? Will it be half Commons and half Lords, and how does the Prime Minister envisage that the selection will take place? An important point to bear in mind is that, when we had the debate on Members' interests, certain accusations were made which the hon. Members concerned had no opportunity to answer. If accusations are made against hon. Members or others in this case, will they have the opportunity to be told in advance and to answer to the Commission before the evidence is produced here?

I do not this morning have the answers to all the hon. Gentleman's questions. I hope that he will be good enough to await the motion and the debate when the Attorney-General and the Leader of the House will be happy to answer some of his questions. I understand that this will be the first time that Cabinet papers have been produced, and there is a stringent basis on which I am prepared to advise Her Majesty. I must also have the permission of former Prime Ministers, at least by convention, before I make such a submission. I would not do so unless I had their agreement. That would be exceeding the bounds of propriety. The balance of the Commission must be a matter for further discussion between us before we reach a final conclusion.

Is the Prime Minister aware that the circle of interest in this matter is very small and that the public is completely indifferent to it? Will he also bear in mind that the progress of the inquiry and the report will probably do more harm to the reputation of public life in Britain than would be the case if we did not have an inquiry? Equally, if the Commons or the Lords rejected the motion on a free vote, it would be detrimental to the reputation of our public life.

Will the Prime Minister therefore feel himself not committed by his statement but open to reconsideration during the recess in the light of representations that he might receive from hon. Members that he should not proceed with his proposal when the House returns?

That would be treating, the House with contempt. We were asked strongly to put proposals before the House, which must now accept its own responsibilities. We are bringing forward the proposal which we think best, and the hon. and learned Gentleman should not try to dodge his responsibility in the matter by saying that it would be improper for the House to set up an inquiry or that it would lead to misrepresentation if the House rejected our motion on a free vote or on any other basis. He has a responsibility and must cast his vote accordingly.

Whatever public opinion in this country may be, I can promise the hon. and learned Gentleman that public opinion in Africa is not indifferent on this matter. The hon. and learned Gentleman may shrug that aside, but our relations with Africa are important to us and we should not neglect them, though I do not say that that should be the only consideration.

I do not accept that not coming forward with the motion would help our reputation or that it will harm our reputation if we have an inquiry. That is a very elitist view. I promise the hon. and learned Gentleman that, if things have been wrong and people have misconducted themselves, democracy will he stronger if that is exposed than if there is a belief that Parliament is trying to cover up matters. I say to the hon. and learned Gentleman very strongly that Parliament would be wrong to turn down our proposal at this stage. We should have an unnecessary smear upon ourselves which would do democracy no good. Despite what the hon. and learned Gentleman has said, I shall recommend to the House that we go ahead with the inquiry.

Is the Prime Minister aware that not the least objection to the form of inquiry that he is proposing is that it would be giving to two individuals —a Law Lord and a civil servant—power and a position unprecedented in our law, constitution and history? We have never before conferred any such power on anyone, however worthy, and it is not even being conferred, apparently, on Privy Councillors. Should not the Government reconsider the significance and constitutional implications of what the Prime Minister is doing?

The power is inherent in the Lord of Appeal, and it will be for the House of Commons to decide whether that power should be exercised. The fact that it is unprecedented does not make it intolerable. If the House does not wish to proceed in this way, it will not do so. I see no reason, when all the considerations are balanced, for us not to proceed in the manner that I have suggested. I believe that it will be in the best interests of the House if we do so.