Speeches, Interviews & Other Statements

Complete list of 8,000+ Thatcher statements & texts of many of them

1986 Jan 27 Mo
Margaret Thatcher

HC S: [Westland plc]

Document type: speeches
Document kind: House of Commons Speech
Venue: House of Commons
Source: Hansard HC [90/651-58]
Journalist: -
Editorial comments: 1600-1628.
Importance ranking: Key
Word count: 4108
Themes: Executive, Executive (appointments), Defence (general), Industry, Labour Party & socialism, Leadership
[column 651]

The Prime Minister (Mrs. Margaret Thatcher)

Before I come to the wider aspects of this debate, let us recall one thing clearly: the background is the future of Westland and its work force. We have to remember that that future still hangs in the balance. The Government's position throughout has been that it is for the company itself to take decisions about the course to follow in the interests of the shareholders and the employees, but the Government are a major customer of the company and the Government's policies and intentions in that capacity are very relevant to the decisions that the company has to take.

It is therefore of the first importance that any pronouncements by the Government that might affect the company's decisions are accurate, consistent and in no way misleading. It is largely because Michael Heseltineone member of the Cabinet could not accept arrangements designed to secure the accuracy and consistency of Government statements that we are debating the whole matter today.

I propose to deal at once with some questions that have arisen since my statement of 23 January. I shall do so under three headings: first, the circumstances leading up [column 652]to the letter of 6 January by my hon. and learned Friend Sir Patrick Mayhewthe Solicitor-General; secondly, the reasons for having an inquiry; and, thirdly, the outcome of the inquiry.

First, I shall deal with the circumstances leading up to the Solicitor-General's letter. The House will recall that I had cleared my own letter of Wednesday 1 January to Sir John Cuckney with the Departments concerned and with my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, for the reasons I have already given.

On Friday 3 January, there was an exchange of letters between Mr. Horne of Lloyds merchant bank, representing the European consortium, and my right hon. Friend Michael Heseltinethe then Secretary of State for Defence. In his letter, Mr. Horne asked for amplification of a statement in my letter to Sir John Cuckney. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend went into considerable detail in his reply. His letter had not been discussed with my office before it was sent, even though it dealt with points arising from my letter to Sir John Cuckney.

On the following day, Saturday 4 January, I saw copies of the exchange of letters. In view of the very careful steps that I had taken to clear my letter to Sir John Cuckney with the Departments concerned and with the Solicitor-General, I made inquiries to find out whether the Defence Secretary's letter had been cleared in the same way with the Department of Trade and Industry and with the Law Officers. It had not. In view of the continuing need for accuracy and consistency in Government statements on this subject, I asked that a message be sent to my right hon. and learned Friend Leon Brittanthe then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, as the sponsoring Minister for Westland, to suggest that he should ask the Solicitor-General to consider—[Hon. Members: “Ah.” ]

Mr. Speaker

Order.

The Prime Minister

—the Defence Secretary's letter and give his opinion on whether it was accurate, and consistent with my own letter to Sir John Cuckney.

The Solicitor-General, on the basis of the evidence available to him, formed the provisional opinion that the Defence Secretary's letter contained material inaccuracies which needed to be corrected. This view was reported to me. The matter clearly could not be left there. I therefore, through my office, asked him to consider writing to the Defence Secretary to draw that opinion to his attention. I learned subsequently from the Solicitor-General that he spoke to the then Defence Secretary on the telephone that same evening and told him his provisional opinion about the letter and warned him that he would probably write to him on Monday 6 January, when he had checked the documents, and advise him to correct the inaccuracy.

The Solicitor-General further considered the documents on the morning of Monday 6 January. They confirmed him in his opinion. He therefore wrote to the Defence Secretary, advising him to write again to Mr. Horne correcting the inaccuracies. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) has asked for the further exchanges between himself and the Law Officers to be published. I have arranged for copies of the correspondence to be placed in the Library of the House.

It has been said that the letter to Mr. Horne has not been corrected. So far as the Government are concerned, we made it clear to the company—in the letter to Sir John Cuckney of 13 January from Sir Clive Whitmorethe permanent secretary to the [column 653]Ministry of Defence, a copy of which has also been placed in the Library of the House—that there was nothing to add to my letter to the company of 1 January.

Perhaps more to the point, my hon. Friend, John Leethe Minister of State for Defence Procurement made it clear, in his answer to the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) on 13 January, that the order for six additional Sea Kings would be placed if the plans for the five-nation battlefield helicopter project were approved, whichever reconstruction proposal Westland shareholders approved, and not—as my right hon. Friend had said—only if the European consortium proposals were accepted.

I explained to the House on 23 January how extracts from the Solicitor-General's letter were disclosed to the media on 6 January. I repeat that I deeply regret that this was done without reference to the Solicitor-General. Indeed, with hindsight, it is clear that this was one, and doubtless there were others, of a number of matters that could have been handled better, and that, too, I regret.

As I said to the House in 23 January, the company was informed also. There have been reports in the newspapers to the effect that that statement was wrong, and the company had not been informed. I understand that Sir John Cuckney 's office has now confirmed that he did receive a call from the Department of Trade and Industry in the early part of that afternoon. The official in the Department of Trade and Industry concerned has again clearly confirmed that he made such a call, as he told the head of the Civil Service in his evidence to the inquiry.

As the full details of the disclosure only became known as a result of the inquiry which was subsequently instituted, I propose to deal next with the question why it was decided to hold such an inquiry.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

I shall deal with these matters under the three headings I have given. On Tuesday 7 January——

Mr. Skinner

Will the Prime Minister give way?

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister is not giving way.

The Prime Minister

On Tuesday 7 January, the day after the Solicitor-General's letter was disclosed, my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Haversthe Attorney-General sought the view of Sir Robert Armstrongthe head of the Civil Service as to whether it would be appropriate for the Law Officers to seek a formal inquiry.

After discussions between the Attorney-General and the head of the Civil Service, my right hon. and learned Friend made clear his view that there should be an inquiry. The head of the Civil Service minuted me formally on Friday 10 January seeking my authority for the institution of such an inquiry. I readily gave him that authority. In fairness to everyone, it was essential to have a full and objective report on what had happened, and it was clearly desirable that all the officials concerned should be able to give their own full accounts of their part in what had occurred.

My authority was conveyed to the head of the Civil Service on Monday 13 January. The following day, I informed the House that an inquiry had been instituted. I had been asked by the Law Officers to institute such an [column 654]inquiry. I was formally advised by the head of the Civil Service to do so. I had no doubt that it was right to set up the inquiry.

Indeed, on 7 January the hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) an Opposition Front Bench spokesman——

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

rose——

The Prime Minister

—wrote to me to ask that an inquiry should be set up so that—I quote: “the full facts can be established” . Even so, some hon. Members opposite have subsequently criticised the decision to hold an inquiry.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

The Prime Minister said that she received a letter from me the day following the leak. Why on earth has she not told the House whether she knew the facts of the leak at the time that she received my letter?

The Prime Minister

I am dealing with the setting up of the inquiry—[Hon. Members: “Answer.” ]—and I shall deal then with the outcome of the inquiry and what I did know and what I did not. I have in fact done it in what I believe is the best order.

If I had rejected the advice that I had received, if I had refused to hold a formal inquiry, the parties opposite would have had just cause to criticise me. I have no doubt that they would have done so. To be criticised when I agreed to an Opposition request to hold an inquiry is, to say the least, an unusual experience. The inquiry reported to me on 22 January.

In my statement to the House the following day, I set out the steps by which the Solicitor-General's letter of 6 January was made public, as this emerged both from the accounts of officials as reported by the inquiry and also from my subsequent discussions with Leon Brittanthe then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, whom I should like in this House to thank for his years of devoted service.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

rose——

The Prime Minister

I am not giving way. I am going on because I have a long speech to make, and I must get through it.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

It was the common purpose of all concerned that, at a time when difficult commercial judgments and decisions had to be made by the company, it was important that all pronouncements by the Government should be accurate, in no way misleading, and consistent with each other. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order.

The Prime Minister

It followed from that that, if a statement was made which appeared to be inaccurate or misleading or inconsistent with other Government statements, then it was the duty of the Government to make sure that the record was corrected as soon as possible.

When the Solicitor-General's letter was brought to his attention, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry took very much that view of the matter. He was clear that it was desirable to bring into the public domain as soon as possible the fact that the Solicitor-General had written to the then Defence Secretary, and the opinion he had expressed. The Secretary of State made it clear to his [column 655]officials that, subject to the agreement of my office, he was giving authority for the disclosure to be made by his Department, if it was not made, as he said he would prefer, from 10 Downing street. That I indicated in my statement last week.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Prime Minister give way?

The Prime Minister

This is a very tightly drafted argument and I should prefer to go on. I will give way later. Officials in the Department of Trade and Industry——

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I think that the Prime Minister said that she should give way later.

The Prime Minister

Officials in the Department of Trade and Industry——

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

The Prime Minister

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later. I wish to continue this section.

Officials in the Department of Trade and Industry approached officials in my office, who made it clear that it was not intended to disclose the Solicitor-General's letter from 10 Downing street; but, being told that the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had authorised the disclosure, they accepted that the Department of Trade and Industry should make it and they accepted the means by which it was proposed that the disclosure should be made.

My officials made it clear to the inquiry that they did not seek my agreement. They told the inquiry that they did not believe that they were being asked to give my authority, and they did not do so.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Dagenham)

rose——

Hon. Members

Who?

Mr. Speaker

Order.

The Prime Minister

If they had believed——

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

The Prime Minister

If they had believed my authority was being sought, they would certainly have consulted me.

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

The Prime Minister

No, not at the moment. This is very important. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.” ]

Officials of the Department of Trade and Industry told the inquiry that they regarded the purpose of their approach to my officials as being to seek agreement to the disclosure as well as to the method. They believed that they had the agreement of my office, and acted in good faith, in the knowledge that they had authority from their Secretary of State and cover from my office.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Prime Minister allow me?

Mr. Kinnock

rose——

The Prime Minister

No, I must go on at this moment. This is vitally important.

Although, clearly, neither side realised it at the time, there was a genuine difference in understanding between officials as to exactly what was being sought and what was being given. [Interruption.]

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

[column 656]

The Prime Minister

I have given the House the view of what officials on each side told the inquiry. That is one reason why it was vital to set up the inquiry.

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

The Prime Minister

As I indicated, officials too had the right to put their view of their part of what had occurred. I deeply resent any attacks upon them.

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Prime Minister——

Mr. Speaker

No. The hon. Member knows that the Prime Minister said that she would give way later. He must not keep on rising.

The Prime Minister

But it is common ground, as I told the House on 23 January—it was accepted—that the Department of Trade and Industry should disclose the fact that the then Defence Secretary's letter of 3 January was thought by the Solicitor-General to contain material inaccuracies which needed to be corrected, and that, in view of the urgency of the matter, the disclosure should be made in the way that it was. I have given the House this account——

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

The Prime Minister

—of the accounts which were given to the inquiry.

Mr. Dalyell

rose——

Mr. Kinnock

rose——

The Prime Minister

I give way to the hon. Gentleman who has been rising, and to whom I promised to give way.

Mr. Dalyell

What are we to derive from the right hon. Lady's answer to the friendly intervention of her hon. Friend the Member for Working (Mr. Onslow), the chairman of the 1922 Committee, in relation to putting it in the public domain, when she said:

“I gave my consent.” —[Official Report, 23 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 455.] What interpretation is to be put on that?

The Prime Minister

I gave my consent to an inquiry, I co-operated with it and I set out the facts as fully as possible, in that statement. I noticed that I had said that, at that particular time. I did not give my consent to the disclosure. It was not sought and I have indicated that I deeply regret the manner in which it was made.

Mr. Stuart Bell (Middlesbrough)

rose——

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

rose——

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to the Prime Minister. Will she tell us what conceivable misunderstanding between the Department of Trade and Industry and her office could permit them to breach the Official Secrets Act and, in the words of the Solicitor-General, “immediately and flagrantly” to violate an important rule without any form of consultation with her as head of the Government. Will she now tell us when she knew?

The Prime Minister

I have just set out—[Hon. Members: “No.” ] I have just in fact set out what my officials believed and what the Department of Trade and industry's officials believed. The right hon. Gentleman [column 657]will not accept that there was a genuine difference of understanding, which is something that happens almost every day in normal life, and he tries to deny it. Officials, too, have the right to be heard and not automatically be castigated by the other side. In answer to the question which I think hon. Members will be asking, I did not myself know about the disclosure of the Solicitor-General's letter until some hours after it had occurred. [Interruption.] Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen have been asking for the facts, and I am giving them. I have taken immense trouble to have them checked. I discussed the matter with my office the following day, when I also learned of the Law Officers' concern. I was told that the Solicitor-General's advice had not been disclosed by my office.

Mr. Skinner

Why have an inquiry then?

The Prime Minister

I was also told, in general terms, that there had been contacts between my office and the Department of Trade and Industry. I did not know about the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry's own role in the matter of the disclosure until the inquiry had reported. [Interruption.]

Mr. Michael Foot (Bleaneau Gwent)

rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister is not giving way.

The Prime Minister

Hon. Gentlemen have asked me for the facts.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Prime Minister is not giving way.

The Prime Minister

Let me finish this section and them I will give way.

The difference of understanding between officials in my office and those in the Department of Trade and Industry only emerged after the inquiry had started.

Mr. Foot

Is the Prime Minister telling us that, from the day after the leak, on 6 or 7 January, right up until after the inquiry had reported, her right hon. and learned Friend the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry did not make any effort whatsoever to tell her how he had authorised the inquiry—[Hon. Members: “Leak.” ]—authorised the leak? If so, does she think that such a Member is fit to be in any Cabinet, let alone hers?

The Prime Minister

I have indicated what the facts are and I have indicated the high regard in which I hold my right hon. and learned Friend Leon Brittanthe then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order.

The Prime Minister

I have given the answers after strenuous efforts to check them with the officials concerned and with the Departments concerned.

The Government's policy throughout has been to help Westland to seek the solution which would enable the company to continue in business as a private sector concern. It is this Government who fought to help it get the Indian order; it is this Government who undertook to write off nearly £40 million of launch aid if the W30 project was terminated; it is this Government who ensured that the board of Westland had a choice of options; and it is this Government who have pledged themselves to [column 658]resist discrimination against Westland in Europe, whichever option for its future it chooses. This was, and is, the right policy.

But from the Opposition we have heard nothing constructive. Oh yes, in the debate on 15 January, they offered the company their own two options. But what were they—nationalisation, or receivership.

The fact is that the Opposition parties, with the exceptions of the hon. Members for Yeovil and for Isle of Wight (Mr. Ross) are exploiting Westland and its employees, exploiting them for nothing more than their own narrow political advantage. It was the right hon. Gentleman the leader of the Labour party who told his party conference, and I quote: “you cannot play politics with people's jobs … they have no time for such posturing” . [Interruption.] Yet that is precisely what he has been doing and has done again today.

Mr. Kinnock

rose——

Hon. Members

Give way.

The Prime Minister

Let me tell hon. Members the real reason for this debate. It is not because of the Opposition's concern for Westland and its employees; until today they have said precious little about them. It is not because of their passionate belief in the defence of the realm; their policies would leave us defenceless.

Mr. Kinnock

Let me remind the right hon. Lady of the “real reason” as she put it, for the debate. It is to find out the truth. The House is not satisfied, and the country will not be satisfied, that she has given us the full details. I ask the right hon. Lady again—when, truly, did she know? Can she expect us to believe that her office did not tell her when it knew? Can she expect us to believe that she was neither told by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry nor did she ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry exactly what was going on?

The Prime Minister

What the right hon. Gentleman cannot stand is that I have given him the facts and he does not like them.

Hon. Members

No.

Hon. Members

Yes.

The Prime Minister

The Opposition have deliberately blown up this issue out of all proportion. This debate is part of a massive diversionary tactic by the Opposition. They would like first to divert public attention from the growing extremism of their own party—as we have all seen so unmistakably in Liverpool, Lambeth and Tottenham—and secondly, to divert us from vigorously pursuing our policies and plans for our country's future.

We are not going to be diverted from the tasks we were elected to carry out. We shall gather with renewed strength—[Interruption.]—to extend freedom and ownership, to give power back to the people and to keep our country strong and secure.