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Inquiries: Ministerial Evidence

Volume 687: debated on Wednesday 13 December 2006

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether Ministers giving evidence to committees of inquiry of foreign legislatures are bound by the Official Secrets Act 1989 and rules about the confidentiality of Cabinet discussions.

My Lords, the requirements of the Ministerial Code apply to Ministers giving evidence to committees of inquiry, whether at home or overseas.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Will he please comment on the appropriateness of the Prime Minister giving evidence to a United States Iraq group, the Baker group, on past actions of this Government and what he considers future actions should be regarding Iraq? This was done at a time when the Prime Minister has adamantly refused to hold such an inquiry in Britain.

My Lords, it seemed entirely appropriate for the Prime Minister to give such evidence, which I thought was testament to his openness of approach.

My Lords, I think it is testament to the Prime Minister’s openness of approach and the openness in general of this Government to questions relating to Iraq. The Prime Minister made himself very clear in explaining our nation’s position and his position in particular.

My Lords, does the Minister consider that the Prime Minister’s openness was demonstrated by his unwillingness to make any report to Parliament, and hardly any report to the public, on the outcome of his talks with President Bush on that inquiry?

My Lords, I am sure that the Prime Minister acted entirely properly and with great care in what is obviously a delicate situation. It is absolutely the case that the Prime Minister acted entirely properly and he has been very clear in explaining his policy and position on this issue.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that there have been four parliamentary or judicial inquiries into different aspects of the war in Iraq?

My Lords, I can confirm that. There has been the ISC report, the Foreign Affairs Committee report and the Butler and Hutton inquiries and reports. As the Prime Minister explained on many occasions, he has been extremely willing to debate our past, present and future policy in Iraq.

My Lords, has the convention, which used to be in force, whereby government policy was announced, first, in Parliament and then to the greater, wider public, here and overseas, been abandoned?

No, my Lords, of course it has not been abandoned. The Prime Minister was making plain our policy position. He was making his views and the Government’s views known to a foreign jurisdiction and legislature. It is testament to the Prime Minister’s openness on these issues and his desire further to consider and debate these matters publicly. He has done the nation a great service.

My Lords, if the Prime Minister has been so very open, why have the Government not yet acceded to the request that there should be a debate on Iraq in the Commons?

My Lords, I am making it plain that there have been a number of debates. I am sure that there will continue to be debates on Iraq, not just in the Commons but, of course, in your Lordships’ House.

My Lords, surely the question is whether the Prime Minister disclosed to a foreign legislature information about the Government’s policy towards Iraq which he had not already disclosed to our Parliament. If he did so, he was surely acting improperly.

My Lords, I do not think there is any suggestion that the Prime Minister disclosed anything during his video-link interview—

Wait for it—it is always a gem when it comes. But if the noble Lord is worried about this matter, he can study the transcript of the video-link evidence that the Prime Minister gave. The No. 10 website reference is: If the noble Lord was unable to follow that and cares to take the time to stroll down to the House Library, he will find a copy of the transcript there as well.

My Lords, the Baker commission is about the way forward in Iraq. What Members of this House, Members of the House of Commons and people in the country generally would like is a similar commission here to see the way ahead for this country in Iraq. Is it not possible to set up such a commission?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the Iraq Study Group, which is part of the United States Institute of Peace—a body independent of the American Government—is looking at future policy options. No doubt there is much to debate in that field and it will be the subject of continuing debate. There will continue to be debates in your Lordships' House and in another place on the subject. It is important that we continue that debate and the Prime Minister is making an important contribution towards it.

My Lords, I am sorry to have caused such discord, but I merely wanted to observe that it is rather strange that people should be worrying about evidence given to the Baker inquiry when the clear implication from the Statement made yesterday by the Defence Secretary is that Baker will be left on the shelf.

My Lords, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on that, but I agree with the noble Lord that it is entirely proper that there should be public debate about these issues. That should come as no surprise to your Lordships' House.

Thank you, my Lords. Is the Minister’s assurance a little while ago that the Prime Minister said nothing of interest to the Baker inquiry acceptable? I have the highest regard for Jim Baker, with whom I worked very closely and harmoniously for many years when I was Chancellor and he was Treasury Secretary in the United States. Nevertheless, does the Minister not accept that many people in this country feel that the Prime Minister’s consistent, poodle-like approach to the United States and the United States Government is demeaning and embarrassing and not in this country's interest?

My Lords, I am sure that the Prime Minister said some things of considerable interest to the Baker inquiry, but I cannot accept what the noble Lord said about our Government’s approach to issues involving the US Administration.