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5.33 pm

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who, as always, was occasionally entertaining and, even more occasionally, accurate in his remarks and observations. I want to pick him up on the point with which he started, when he sought to belittle the motion before the House in the Conservative party's name and, by implication, the subject under debate.

I believe that this issue goes to the heart of the democratic process. Democracy requires knowledge so that people can make informed choices. Knowledge requires information that is timely, accurate and freely given. We are not political innocents in this House, and we know that, in addition, Governments have a legitimate interest in putting the best complexion on their activities. However, the activities of Ms Jo Moore, as described in the debate, go so far beyond anything legitimate or constitutionally proper that they should engage the serious attention of the House; otherwise the people whom we represent will continue to be disillusioned about the political process. That is also reflected in the disgracefully low turnout in all the elections in which we participate. So I believe that this important subject should concern all hon. Members.

The example that I wish to cite goes a very long way beyond the normal political knockabout that enriches the British political system. It also goes way beyond the Jo Moore school of news management. It concerns a political cover-up, by the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, involving a report that was embarrassing to the Government. I wish to describe the circumstances in what I intend to be a short speech—it is the only point that I wish to make, but I think that the House will agree that it is important.

I refer to the inquiry into the business affairs of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson), which involves his links to the late Robert Maxwell and, in particular, the treatment of an apparently undeclared payment of £200,000 to the hon. Gentleman by a Maxwell company. I shall not discuss the details of that payment because it is the subject of an inquiry by the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges—a Committee of the House. In other words, my subject is not the conduct of the hon. Gentleman, but rather the conduct of Ministers, especially the Secretary of State.

The House will know that, in May of this year, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Mrs. Elizabeth Filkin, whom I regret to say is not to be reappointed to her position, reported on the case of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West, and upheld the serious complaints and charges made against him. The Standards and Privileges Committee deliberated and decided to postpone judgment for three months, until after the general election. That period expired in August, and I understand that the Committee deliberated today on whether to accept Mrs. Filkin's observations and, if so, what to do about the hon. Gentleman. All that is well known, but it is less well known that everything that Mrs. Filkin investigated earlier this year, and all that the Committee is deliberating on, was already known to Ministers two years ago. Quite simply, they covered up that information for reasons of political expediency.

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The background can be easily and quickly described. In 1998, I first wrote to Ministers at the Department of Trade and Industry about serious breaches of company law, involving companies in the Maxwell group. I also stated that stock exchange regulations had been broken and that tax laws had been similarly breached. I referred to the undeclared payments to directors in the group. I wrote a total of four letters to the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I specifically asked for an external, impartial inquiry into the matters about which I had written because I knew that the Department was investigating the affairs of a Labour Member and ex-Labour Minister. Instead of accepting my request, the DTI carried out an internal inquiry during 1999. We now know that that inquiry found everything, but the result was given the Jo Moore treatment. I believe that Ms Moore was working for the right hon. Gentleman at the time and either directly, or possibly through her influence, succeeded in burying the report. On the day before the Christmas recess in December 1999, the right hon. Gentleman, who is now Secretary of State of the Department under review today, answered a planted parliamentary question, saying that the inquiry was complete and that no further action would be taken.

Mr. Redwood: Has my right hon. Friend noticed that there are no Ministers on the Front Bench? Does that not show the utter contempt in which they hold the House of Commons? My right hon. Friend is making serious allegations, but there is no Minister present and the Whip is making no effort to secure one to hear those charges.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: That is certainly a monstrous discourtesy to the House, which is typical. I could not help noticing that the Secretary of State scuttled out of the Chamber when I rose to speak; I think that he knows a lot about his doings in his previous post. The conclusion of the investigation, revealed in answer to a planted question, could have been the end of the matter. However, I, of course, corresponded with the right hon. Gentleman and pointed out that I was still awaiting a substantive reply to the four letters that I had written to the Department in 1998. I pointed out that it had not even given me the courtesy of providing a copy of the answer to the planted parliamentary question. The Secretary of State refused adamantly to engage in any further correspondence.

That would have remained the position but for a curious twist. Mr. Tom Bower, an investigative journalist, discovered the material on which inspectors and officials from the Department of Trade and Industry had worked in 1999 and publicised it in a book called "The Paymaster". It was only because of that that Mrs. Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, could reopen her inquiry—[Interruption.] Ah, the Minister for Transport has returned. The material discovered by Mr. Bower is alluded to in the 170 pages of Mrs. Filkin's report, published in May, which I have already mentioned. It contains details of the £200,000 payment and information about breaches of stock exchange regulations and tax rules. Of course, it goes beyond the duties and responsibilities of Mrs. Filkin to pronounce on apparent breaches of tax regulations, but that information is in her report. I draw to the attention of the House the fact that all that information—and more—was in the earlier DTI report, which had been drawn up two years previously and suppressed.

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The Secretary of State told me that he was prevented from publishing his internal report, but that is only because he chose to conduct an internal, in-house inquiry instead of the external, independent inquiry, followed by publication of its findings, that I had demanded. In any case, even if he could not, for reasons of commercial confidentiality, publish the entire report, he could certainly have acted on its contents. He could have sent its findings to the relevant authorities; otherwise, what is the point of having an inquiry at all? The Secretary of State said that the report was handled solely by civil servants. Why, therefore, did he answer that parliamentary question in December 1999? By doing so, he took responsibility for the report. He must therefore take responsibility for the inquiry and what happened to it. In any case, it is simply inconceivable that experienced civil servants should overlook the importance of what they discovered during that inquiry in 1999.

The reason for the cover-up is simple: one Secretary of State in a Labour Government was investigating the affairs of a colleague—and someone who had recently been a Treasury Minister. That inquiry involved the affairs of the late Robert Maxwell, who was the great Labour tycoon. Therefore there was motive and opportunity for a cover-up, and there most certainly was a cover-up. There is simply no other rational explanation.

Mr. Dalyell: Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he has given notice of what he is saying to my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson)?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: As I explained at the start of my remarks, the object of this debate and my contribution to it is not the conduct of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West. That is being investigated separately by the Committee on Standards in Public Life. It is not my duty to pronounce judgment on another Member of this House. The object of my remarks is the conduct of Ministers and specifically the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions.

I believe that there has been a cover-up, and it is an insult to the House if there has been one. It is an indictment—and a serious one—of the Government's entire attitude towards openness and the truth, and will remain a stain on the reputation of the Secretary of State until he discloses the content of the secret report.

5.46 pm

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): I have a difference of judgment from that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), and perhaps a difference of experience. In my experience, many of our fellow citizens have rightly or wrongly become deeply interested in the issue of Ms Moore, which they see as involving the heart of the Government. Those at the Linlithgow constituency Labour party meeting on Sunday were deeply interested in and very concerned by the issue. In addition, when my right hon. Friend worked for Harold Wilson, he was paid by the Labour party. He was not paid out of public funds. That makes a bit of a difference.

I want to address the matter of the civil service ethos which is based on "neutrality of process"—I understand that that is the technical term. Neutrality of process makes

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it possible for civil servants to serve faithfully Governments of different political complexions, and justifies payment from public funds.

All those on the Government Front Bench will recognise that, when they came to office, they were welcomed strongly and warmly by civil servants who had been working for Ministers of another party for 18 years, and that those same civil servants became very protective of the incoming Ministers. Similarly, when the Conservative Government entered office in 1979, I am sure that those who had been working for Labour Ministers became, overnight, protective of Ministers with very different views.

I know from my experience as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Richard Crossman that when he came to office after Keith Joseph—a man of remarkably different views—the civil service, overnight, became loyal to its new "master".

If people such as special advisers are to be paid from civil service funds, one wonders whether the neutrality of process can continue in the way that we have accepted in Britain.

Going back to the distant past, the Cabinet Minister to whom I was Parliamentary Private Secretary had three special advisers when he was Secretary of State for Social Security. They were Professor Richard Titmuss, the leading sociologist of the day; Professor Brian Abel-Smith, who probably knew more about pensions than anyone else in England; and Peter Townsend, who had written a seminal book on family life in Bethnal Green. Other Departments had special advisers. The Treasury had Nicholas Kaldor, who was an extremely distinguished economist whatever anyone thinks about his economic views. They were totally different from today's special advisers, who seem to be factotums for Ministers. What special expert advice do they bring to a Department?

I recollect that the same Mr. Crossman had a press officer called Peter Brown who was a career civil servant of weight. When Crossman wanted to do something that was slightly party political, Peter Brown said, "No, Mr. Crossman. I will not put that out for you." Not once did Crossman argue. Peter Brown's judgment was paramount: it was either, "Yes, Mr. Crossman" or "No, Mr. Crossman." Departments' press officers should be career civil servants who are prepared to say unpalatable things to Secretaries of State, however powerful, when those Ministers cross the line. If the Secretary of State cannot understand that Ms Moore has committed a sackable offence, it raises questions about his fitness for that job.

There is another matter to consider, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). What would happen to other people who made a single mistake of such enormity? A doctor would get into great trouble, and so would another civil servant.

What do senior civil servants in the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions think about that? I am not pretending that I have talked to them, but it does not take much imagination to determine what they may say. People in Ms Moore's position will ask those civil servants to make a judgment. When she does that, they may well reply, "What judgment?". I get the impression from constituents that there is searing resentment in the civil service about what has happened.

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Errors of judgment are one thing, possibly technical mistakes. Moral lapses are another matter. I fear that I come into the category of those who think that what happened with Ms Moore on 11 September was more than a technical judgment; it was a moral lapse. It mocks attempts to build up idealism and demonstrates the aggressive cynicism of media management culture. As I said to the Prime Minister's face, I fail to understand his inability to recognise that Ms Moore's continued employment in her capacity of special adviser sullies his Government. If hon. Members think that I am going over the top, we should all reflect on the 58 per cent. turnout at the election, which showed what people think of the profession of politics.

Had a Secretary of State for Transport under a previous Labour Government been in the position of my right hon. Friend, I have no doubt that whatever else they were doing, Harold Wilson or James Callaghan would have sat beside him in the House. I noticed that he was left to dry on the Front Bench. No other Cabinet Minister was present, not even the Leader of the House or Chief Whip. Only the Minister for Transport was here.

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