Letter: Hansard holds evidence on ministers and the truth

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The Independent Online
Sir: The furore that has broken out over the Minister for Open Government's admission to the Civil Service Select Committee that it is legitimate for ministers to give false information to Parliament, or to provide partial answers to MPs' questions, has produced a top-level defence of William Waldegrave's position by the Prime Minister.

Yet on 17 February, John Major stated in a written reply that

except for matters which are confidential or on which successive governments have refused to answer questions upon grounds of public policy or when a reply is not given on grounds of disproportionate cost, answers (by ministers) should be accurate and truthful and

not misleading (Hansard Col 973, 17

February).

Mr Waldegrave, when a Foreign Office minister, was asked in April 1990 if the British Government would instruct its representatives at the United Nations and International Atomic Energy Agency to initiate investigations into the Iraqi nuclear weapons programme. He replied:

Iraq is party to the nuclear non proliferation treaty and, as such, has undertaken not to develop nuclear weapons. We expect Iraq to abide by her international legal obligation. We are currently considering, in consultation with interested parties, how to strengthen barriers against proliferation. We do not, however, envisage taking the specific action outlined (Hansard, 19 April 1990 Co1 1009).

In this reply the minister was at best taking economies with the truth, as on 6 September 1989 - we now know from the Matrix-Churchill trial papers and the Scott inquiry - Mr Waldegrave wrote to Lord Trefgarne at the DTI that,

we know from secret sources, contrary to the assurances of the manufacturer, that (Matrix Churchill) machine tools have been shipped to the major Iraqi munitions establishments.

The British government clearly knew Iraq was not abiding by her international legal obligations.

Similarly, on 13 November 1989, the then junior trade minister, John Redwood, now Welsh Secretary, told Parliament in a written reply (Hansard Col 1) - when asked what investigations his department has undertaken into the Matrix-Churchill company and the possibility that the company is supplying parts to Iraq that could be used in ballistic missile development - that,

All export licence applications are examined carefully. I have no reason to believe that the company has contravened UK Export controls.

Three years later this was revealed to be completely untrue when the Matrix-Churchill trial collapsed. Mr Redwood, in the meantime, had been promoted into the Cabinet.

Sadly these are but two of many examples of ministers giving false information to Parliament.

There is one further insidious effect of Mr Waldegrave's additional assertion that giving ministerial 'blocking answers' is legitimate (report, 9 March).

Shortly, Mr Waldegrave will publish the Government's code of practice on government information, the draft of which was included in the White Paper on open government published last year. In the section on 'statutory restrictions', it states 'information which could not be sought in a Parliamentary Question' would fall into a category of confidential exemptions to disclosure. So all ministers need to do to cover up awkward or embarrassing information is to plant a question in Parliament, block it, and then refer any request for that information to the block.

But, of course, no minister, least of all the Minister for Open Government, dreamt of such a scenario in drafting the code, did they?

Yours sceptically,

LLEWELLYN SMITH

MP for Blaenau Gwent

(Lab)

House of Commons

London, SW1

9 March

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