(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on the Bilderberg conference, which he attended.
This is a first occasion for me, as I have never previously answered a question in the House of Commons on behalf of a private organisation for which the Government have no responsibility. I have been a member of the steering committee of Bilderberg for many years now—about 10 years, I think—and by chance this will be my last year, as we have a rule against being on the committee for too long, so I am on the point of stepping down. [Interruption.] Other roles are timeless, with no rules at all, but in this role I have now reached the end of my allotted span.
The Bilderberg organisation exists for the purpose of holding meetings once a year in various countries; it exists for no other purpose. This year, the meeting was held at a large hotel near Watford in Hertfordshire. I did not receive adequate notice of the right hon. Gentleman’s question—because I was not found in time—to put to hand the list of those who participated and the agenda we discussed. We always circulate those before the meeting, and they are readily available. I can certainly put any hon. Member in touch with a source of the list of those who took part.
Each year, we invite over 100 people—it was about 140 this year—drawn from both sides of the Atlantic; from Europe including Turkey; and from the United States and Canada. The people who attend are drawn from the worlds of government, politics, academia, defence and journalism. The people who attend change slightly each year. There is a core of those who attend regularly; different people come—[Interruption.] Well, I am trying to guess why on earth a parliamentary question has been asked about this and in what people are interested.
All the people who attend do so as individuals; we invite people as individuals. Nobody attends representing any particular organisation to which they might belong. A very interesting two or three days take place in which we have discussions on matters of public affairs. A very wide range of experience and a very wide range of political opinion is represented. I always find that it greatly adds to the depth of my understanding of what is being talked about and contemplated in many parts of the United States and in Europe as well. It is one of the many political gatherings I attend from time to time as part of the background to my activities.
If the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) finds something deeply disturbing in all this, I can advise only that he finds different people on the internet with whom to exchange tweets, and perhaps the House might be allowed to return to some matter of rather more real public interest in which this House of Commons has a role to play.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for that filibuster. The Bilderberg conference involves about 130 of the western world’s top decision makers from the banks, the multinational companies, the European Commission—[Interruption.] I am coming to the politicians. It also involves representatives of the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and, of course, leading politicians from the United States, Canada, the eurozone and the United Kingdom. Given that those people were clearly discussing some of the biggest issues confronting the western economies at this time, why have we heard no statement from the Prime Minister, the Chancellor or, indeed, the Minister without Portfolio, all of whom attended in an official capacity? Why did none of them offer a statement, although decisions of this kind may well have a significant effect on UK Government policy or the livelihood of future UK citizens?
It is said by some, including the right hon. and learned Gentleman, that Bilderberg is a conspiracy. Of course it is not a conspiracy. Nevertheless, 130 of the world’s top decision makers do not travel thousands of miles simply for a cosy chat. Those people came here in order to concert their plans to deal with a particularly awkward stage in western capitalism, and in view of that we, the public, are entitled to ask some questions and to hold them to account. The Prime Minister said in 2010:
“For too long those in power made decisions behind closed doors…and denied people the power to hold them to account. This coalition is driving a wrecking ball through that culture—and it’s called transparency.”
In the same year, the Chancellor himself announced his commitment to
“the most radical transparency agenda that the country has ever seen.”—[Official Report, 8 June 2010; Vol. 511, c. 206.]
So why is there no transparency about a very crucial meeting that could affect us all?
Finally, can the right hon. and learned Gentleman explain how at the start of last week the Prime Minister could announce a crackdown on corruption and lack of transparency among lobbyists, and by the end of the week he and the Chancellor could be insisting that the largest and most powerful lobbyists’ group in the western hemisphere—an anti-democratic cabal if ever there was one—should operate in conditions of utter blackout and complete secrecy?
The Bilderberg meeting does not make any decisions. It does not have any resolutions. We could not possibly reach decisions, because of the range of opinions represented there. It is purely a Chatham House rules discussion between the people to whom the right hon. Gentleman referred. The shadow Chancellor was there, Peter Mandelson was there, the Prime Minister was there, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was there, and most of us said things during the discussion that would not have come as a surprise to any of us, because we knew what our opinions were. We go there for the chance of having an off-the-record, informal discussion with the range of people described by the right hon. Gentleman, who are indeed distinguished, but who are not remotely interested in getting together to decide or organise anything.
If the right hon. Gentleman would like an invitation—if that is what really lies behind his question—I will take his own distinguished claims to participation in the group carefully into account, although I will of course consult the shadow Chancellor before taking that a step further.
Let me say with the greatest respect that this is total, utter nonsense. I would normally regard the right hon. Gentleman as not the sort of person to be taken in by this sort of rubbish. We all take part in lots of political and other discussions as private individuals, under Chatham House rules, and we do not expect everyone to go out giving a version of what we have just said. No one alters their opinions when we are there. As for transparency, this Government are by a street the most transparent Government I have ever been in, but we can only be transparent in regard to things for which the Government have responsibility, and for what we are doing as a Government.
Order. The Minister without Portfolio said, rather prosaically I thought, that Peter Mandelson was there. I assume he was referring to no less a figure than Lord Mandelson of Foy. I think that is the person he had in mind.
No, we all attend extremely informally; we are not there in any capacity.
Order. The Minister can resume his seat. No one in the House has a better sense of humour than the Minister, but I thought that he realised that I was gently teasing him.
Is it not rather cruel to oblige the Prime Minister to spend a weekend with Lord Mandelson of Foy and the shadow Chancellor? Did anyone at the Bilderberg conference go away any the wiser as to how the Labour party, if it were to win the next general election, would square the circle and manage to tackle the deficit?
I can only hope that some people did, but Chatham House rules prevent me from offering any further opinion on that question.
The idea of Lord Mandelson attending any meeting informally is not something I have ever experienced.
As one of the British parliamentarians who attended the weekend meeting in Watford, alongside the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, Lord Mandelson, Baroness Williams and the Minister without Portfolio himself, may I ask the right hon. and learned Gentleman whether he agrees that it is important that Ministers and shadow Ministers meet regularly to discuss important issues with fellow Ministers and Opposition politicians, academics, journalists and business leaders from around the world? Can he confirm that over the past 60 years the annual Bilderberg meeting has properly been attended by Prime Ministers, Chancellors and shadow Ministers from all parties, including Lord Healey, Lord Ashdown and the late John Smith?
Does the Minister without Portfolio agree that it is welcome that the Bilderberg group now publishes a list of all those who attend the meeting and the topics that are discussed? Does he agree that the list of topics on this weekend's agenda, including “Can the US and Europe grow faster and create jobs?”, “Africa's challenges”, “Trends in medical research” and “Developments in the middle east” are vital issues with which every Government and Opposition must grapple for the benefit of all citizens?
We fully understand that it is because the Minister without Portfolio is a member of the Bilderberg steering group that he is well qualified today to answer the urgent question that was addressed to the Chancellor; he is not doing so because of his economic expertise. If on the other hand the Minister without Portfolio were to stand in at the next Treasury questions, we and all conspiracy theorists would rightly be concerned.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for perhaps addressing the question more straightforwardly than I did. He is obviously feeling a little defensive. He is dealing with it a little more seriously and probably much more wisely than I did. Everything he said is entirely right. I have attended Bilderberg meetings for many years. The only reason I attend is that my own understanding of political and economic problems in various parts of the world is improved by the opportunity to have an informal weekend with the kind of people who go to the conference. Discussing things with, among others, the shadow Chancellor in a completely informal way, off the record, is also of considerable value. I am sure that he agrees that we derive a great deal from the meeting and we hope that it improves our contribution to debates here, too.
Our hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) was invited to a previous Bilderberg conference, and I wonder whether the Minister, as a member of the steering committee, could tell us why he has been dropped. Has he done something wrong?
Every year, about half those participating have never been before. Quite a lot of people come only for one meeting. The number of people who come every year is comparatively small—there is a kind of core and for some extraordinary reason I have been a part of that core over the past decade. My hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart) made a most distinguished contribution but he should not be disappointed that he was not invited again. The British committee was trying to bring in a rising star of a younger generation, because we do not want the whole thing to become an ageing establishment of people who used to be something important in government. I have no doubt that one day my hon. Friend will be implored to attend again, but I cannot guarantee when that will be.
I call Mr Dennis Skinner.
Have you been there, Dennis?
I wouldn’t be seen dead with them.
How come when all those media moguls, the bankers and politicians have been meeting together since 1954, not one of them was able to spot the recession coming—or maybe they caused it?
We have had trade unions there sometimes, and there are plenty of social democrats. I do not think anybody as left wing as the hon. Gentleman has ever attended, but if I scratch my memory I will probably remember somebody. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman forecast with absolute precision the collapse of capitalism in 2007. In that respect, I agree that his foresight was rather better than that of most pundits. We continue to meet, in the hope that next time we will see it coming with slightly more clarity.
As many UKIP voters fear that the Bilderberg group is a plot to promote more unaccountable European government, can my right hon. and learned Friend give them any reassurance or suggest why they might be wrong in that thought?
Nowadays we get accused of plots to establish a Government of the world, to poison the local watercourses, and to plan an invasion of the United States of America. Ten years ago, I was told I was attending a plot to hand over Britain to Brussels and to subordinate us to a “United States of Europe”, and the next instalment of the plot will come later. I cite that example in order to point out that a fellow member of the steering committee was Mr Conrad Black, and in private, as in public, Mr Conrad Black was not in favour of handing anything over to Brussels and was not in any way furthering that cause. I regret to say that Mr Black is, as I recall, the only member who ever attended who has since had the misfortune to be sentenced to a term of imprisonment, whereupon he withdrew from the Bilderberg meetings.
Seriously, however, I assure my right hon. Friend that the full range of opinion from left to right from across western Europe is pretty well represented at Bilderberg. That in itself shows that the idea that we are furthering any kind of agenda is absolute nonsense. If I were plotting to do anything, I would not assemble that particular group of people, because we would never agree on an objective.
Can the Minister confirm that he declared his trusteeship of the body that funds the conference to his permanent secretary when he was appointed by the Prime Minister?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. I am looking that up, because I had forgotten. Actually, I am a member of the steering committee. When we were hosting at Watford, I discovered that I am, among other things, a trustee of the British steering group, so I am checking, with the aid of my constituency office, whether I ever put that in. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I had completely forgotten that it was set up on that basis, long before the rules were established. The trustees have never met as trustees. All I actually do is sit as a member of a committee and play my part in helping with the organisation of a meeting, and that is all I have ever done.
We have had a bit of fun today—indeed, who would want to spend a weekend of irredeemable tedium discussing world economics with a bunch of establishment toffs? Surely the serious point is this, however: why on earth does the House of Commons think it is necessary to discuss what was said in a private meeting?
Perhaps my hon. Friend was not here when I started answering this question and said that this is the first time I have ever risen in the House of Commons to answer questions on behalf of a private organisation for which the British Government have absolutely no responsibility.
I know I cannot be described as a rising star, so should I not presume that my invitation was lost in the post? Can the Minister say whether or not, either formally or informally, he took the opportunity while at the conference to discuss his campaign to keep the UK within the European Union, and which members of the EU were there?
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn that I do not think I am being too indiscreet when I say that the subject of the future of the European Union and Britain’s participation in it did come up from time to time over the weekend. People from many countries have quite a strong interest in that subject, so it was discussed, but under Chatham House rules, and I can assure him that no conclusions of any kind were reached.
Is my right hon. and learned Friend the only British citizen on the steering committee, and who does he think his replacement will be?
The other members at the moment are John Kerr and Marcus Agius, and I do not know who my successor will be. We are slightly overrepresented on the steering committee, which is probably a reflection of the quality of debate in this place and elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
Order. I think the matters have been fairly fully explored.