HC Deb 09 March 1927 vol 203 cc1238-41

(by Private Notice.) asked the Minister of Health whether he is aware that although the Report of the board of guardians of Chester-le-Street was laid as a Command Paper on Monday, and is not yet available to Members of this House, what purported to be authentic extracts from the Report appeared in two newspapers on Tuesday morning; whether the Report or the information based upon it was supplied officially to these newspapers; if so, whether it is now the practice of his Department to issue documents or reveal information of this character to certain newspapers only before they are publicly issued, and if not, can he give any explanation as to how the newspapers in question obtained the information?

The MINISTER of HEALTH (Mr. Chamberlain)

The answer to the first part of the question is in the affirmative, to the second part in the negative, and the remainder of the question does not therefore arise.


As this information could only be in the keeping of the Ministry of Health or the local guardians, may I ask whether we are to assume that it has been given away by the appointed guardians. Further, may I ask if the right hon. Gentleman is aware that the only two newspapers in the country to receive this information in time to write leading articles on it were the "Morning Post," a Conservative journal, and the "Newcastle Journal," another Conservative newspaper, and whether in view of these facts he does not consider it necessary to take some steps with the appointed guardians?


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that another newspaper also contained this information?


I think it is quite clear that the information must have been in the possession of other persons besides the officials of the Ministry of Health and the guardians at Chester-le-Street. It was in print, but I am not suggesting that anybody in particular may have given this information away. All can say is that it is not safe to make such deductions as the hon. Member has suggested. With regard to the newspapers which published it, the hon. Member seems to be paying a tribute to the enterprise of certain newspapers. I can give no explanation.


Move the Adjournment of the House.


I think it is in the interests of the House that I should say—what has been said from this Chair many times before—that it is most desirable that these papers which are presented by Command to Parliament, should be in the hands of the House at least at the same time as they appear in the Press. I am saying that without any knowledge of the methods by which these papers have been obtained. There have been mistakes in times gone by by persons who have not realised their responsibilities in this matter, and the House of Commons has always been jealous of its own rights. I think it is right that I should reaffirm them.


We are all very much obliged to you, Mr. Speaker. I was about to rise to put a question on that very point, but, seeing that you have intervened, may I ask the Minister of Health whether he does not consider that it is his responsibility to find out how the leakage took place, in order to prevent such a thing in future?


I do not see how I can find out, except by asking the editors of the papers whence they got their information. I do not think they are likely to tell me.


As the appointed guardians were the only people with the information at their disposal, are they not the people to whom the right hon. Gentleman may apply with confidence, and are they not also the only persons who were responsible for having given this information to Conservative newspapers?


After your ruling, Mr. Speaker, on the duty regarding the publication of these Command Papers, is it right for the Minister in his place in this House to pay a compliment to the enterprise of newspapers which break the ruling that you have given?


I think it was intended as a very doubtful form of compliment—what is sometimes called a back-handed compliment.


Arising out of your statement, after the opinion ex- pressed by you, which is welcomed, I think, on all sides of the House, is it a question of Privilege, and, if so, could these editors not be brought to the Bar of the House?


In the past it has not been treated strictly as a matter of Privilege, but, as I said, these things have occurred from time to time, and statements from the Chair have usually been effective with all persons concerned. I hope it will be so in this case.


Is there any reason to suppose that another day's delay in publication would have made the facts any less unpalatable?


I am not concerned with the merits of the report; I am concerned only with the rights of this House.


Seeing that the Minister has given this testimonial to the two newspapers, has he made any effort to get to know whether the report was given by the Chester-le-Street Board or not?


No, Sir.