HC Deb 14 April 1938 vol 334 cc1386-92

2.20 p.m.

Sir Arnold Wilson

I rise to draw attention to a matter which daily affects the efficient working of Parliament, namely, the growing practice of withholding the evidence of commissions and committees whose reports are laid before this House. The use of commissions and committees to elucidate public matters, on the initiative of the Government, is an integral part of our procedure. In January, 1620, Lord Chancellor Bacon begged King James I to appoint commissions to examine, among other things: advancing the cloth trade of England, staying treasure within the realm and the reiglement of money; for the provision of the realm with corn and grain and public granaries; for introducing and nourishing manufactures within the realm, for setting people awork, for the improvement of highways and the recovery of drowned lands. He concluded with these words: For the good that comes of particular and select committees and commissions, I need not commonplace … it will make many good spirits that we think little of, co-operate in them."—("Works," Vol. VI, p. 250.) I quote that in order to show the historical importance attaching to departmental committees and to royal commissions. There are five forms of Parliamentary inquiry which involve the taking of evidence. The first is private Bill legislation where the Rules of the House require that all evidence shall be printed and made available on the following day. Secondly, there are Select Committees. The evidence given before them must be printed and laid before the House in due course. Select Committees are not so much in use as they were. Nowadays, Royal Commissions or Departmental Committees have taken their place. I can find no case before 1914 where all the evidence before the Royal Commissions has not been laid before Parliament and printed in full, but in three cases during the last two years, namely, on Durham University, the Tyneside, and Merthyr Tydfil, Royal Commissions have reported without the evidence being printed. In the case of the Tyneside Commissions, I apprehend that real damage has been done for the recommendations of the Commission were not accepted by the Government.

The suggestions for the solution made by the Minister of Health were objected to by the local authorities. So Parliament is left with a report which is not going to be acted upon and none of the evidence on which Parliament can judge or the Government act. The evidence has indeed been placed in the Library and is available for the Members to consult—3,000 pages of foolscap. It has no index, and when I asked whether an index could be provided, I was told that that was not the usual practice. Important papers are included in this vast bundle of hay, and that is the only available record for Members of this House of the evidence on which the Royal Commission reached their conclusions. I have been informed by the Financial Secretary in some cases that the Treasury decided not to publish evidence on account of cost. I estimate that the cost of duplicating this mass of paper would come to about £400, and the cost of printing it would be £800 or about twice as much, and the net return of the Stationery Office from the sales of evidence is about half the total cost of printing, so that there would have been little extra expense incurred in printing, providing the printing began at the outset. Apart from this, there is no index, and thus valuable State papers are hidden from sight indefinitely. All of us who have had occasion to consult State papers on matters of public policy know that after a lapse of five years the evidence is more important than the report, and I think it is of grave disadvantage that the public should not have access to the material upon which a Royal Commission have based their views.

The fourth form of inquiry is by Departmental Committee and more recently by committees set up by the Prime Minister on the recommendation and under the auspices of the Economic Advisory Council. Here again before 1914 the evidence of departmental committees was almost invariably printed. Since 1920 it has to an increasing extent been withheld, nominally on financial grounds. The responsibility for deciding whether the evidence of a Royal Commission or a Departmental Committee is to be printed is not clear to me. When I asked the Home Secretary why he was not printing the evidence of the Stewart Committee on Workmen's Compensation, he replied that it was only in exceptional circumstances that the publication of the evidence given before departmental com- mittees was authorised and that a strong case would have to be shown to justify a departure from the established practice.

Those are strong words. There is no question there of Treasury sanction. The net cost would never be more than £100 or £200. The evidence of the Departmental Committee on Trade Marks was printed. The evidence of the Committee on Ministers' Powers was printed. The evidence of the Committee on the Cinematograph Films Industry was in due course printed. There was also the evidence of the Cohen Committee on Industrial Assurance, which was published at the grotesque price of £4, making it impossible for more than half-a-dozen copies to be sold, so that for all practical purposes that most valuable evidence was withheld from further knowledge.

That, however, is not the end of the matter. A practice has now grown up of deciding in advance whether evidence shall or shall not be published, and notifying witnesses to that effect. I received a letter from the War Office a few days ago courteously inviting me to give evidence before a committee which was sitting to consider the reform of court-martial procedure. Before the committee had even held its first meeting I was assured that nothing that I said or wrote would be published. There may be good grounds for not publishing such evidence, but it is a matter which ought to be decided by the Secretary of State or put into the terms of reference, or the order for the appointment of the committee or commission when it is announced to the House. I would be glad to see a change in procedure whereby Ministers, when announcing the appointment of committees or commissions, would also announce that the evidence would be printed and published unless, in the opinion of the chairman, any particular piece of evidence should be withheld.

I wish to draw particular attention to the Stewart Committee on Workmen's Compensation, which has just reported. It cost £200 to duplicate the evidence. It could have been printed for about £400, and it would have sold certainly to the extent of £200, so that there would have been no loss. I hope I am committing no breach of confidence in stating that the chairman assured witnesses in advance that their evidence would not be published. I do not think the report of a committee, however distinguished, consisting for the most part of Government officials and private persons representing trade organisations can be expected to have the full support of this House unless the evidence on which they base their conclusions is before us. Their report is an important and in some ways a surprising document. It frequently refers to "the weight of the evidence," but who is to judge? It mentions that "one or two witnesses" have said a certain thing. Was it one witness or two witnesses, and who were they? Yet the Home Secretary does not see fit to place even a copy in the Library, with the result that we are asked to discuss legislation affecting 18,000,000 persons without any evidence.

This is without precedent as far as workmen's compensation is concerned. There have been five or six Royal Commissions, Departmental Committees, and Select Committees in the last 50 years. In every case the evidence was printed in full and placed before the House with a proper index. I do not doubt that the reason why there has been comparatively little controversy upon previous workmen's compensation Measures was that the interested Members were able to study the evidence. As I have said, the importance of the evidence grows with the years. A report becomes out of date but not the evidence on which it is based. The reason why we made such advances in the 'forties and 'fifties of the last century in dealing with such matters as the employment of children and the protection of workers was not the reports of the Commissioners, excellent as they were, but the terrible nature of the evidence given before them, which convinced people as nothing else could. The measured, careful, moderate phrases of the Commissioners might convince a Department or a Minister, but the artless language of the witnesses in describing the things that were going on and that they could not stop was what moved men to action.

I believe I am doing a service to Parliament and to the country in urging the Government to reconsider the whole question of publishing evidence wherever possible. The Economic Advisory Committee four years ago published an important report on cattle diseases. It was not accompanied by anything more than a list of witnesses. In the absence of the evidence, the report did not carry full conviction. I believe that little extra cost is involved in printing instead of duplicating these regards, owing to the fact that Stationery Office sales would offset the difference in the cost of production, and I would even suggest that the Stationery Office, to whose efficiency I bear grateful testimony, might be more active in promoting the sales of evidence. I beg the Government to consider the question not merely as one of finance but as one of constitutional practice, and to make it a rule to publish all evidence unless there is good ground to the contrary, and then only to withhold such specific portions of the evidence as cannot wisely be made public. I beg them also to consider embodying specifically in all terms of reference of committees and commissions a definite injunction to the effect that the evidence will be published unless the chairman in any particular case decides otherwise.

2.35 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Colville

My hon. Friend has raised a point which he has already brought before the House in the form of Parliamentary questions, and he has also had some correspondence with various Government Departments. It may be well if I state again the present rule and practice governing the publication of evidence. The present rule imposes upon the chairman of a committee the responsibility, in the first instance, of deciding whether or not there should be publication of the evidence given before the committee. In the case of a Royal Commission, Treasury sanction is not normally withheld and the evidence then automatically goes for publication. If it is not a Royal Commission but a Departmental Committee Treasury sanction is required. I speak subject to correction, but I cannot find any instance of Treasury sanction being withheld when the chairman has pressed for publication. Equally I have not found an instance of the Treasury insisting upon publication when the chairman has recommended against it. Perhaps it would be too much to expect the watch-dog to show the way to the safe. I think it might be said that generally the Treasury would not stand in the way of publication when the chairman has put it forward unless there was some quite overwhelming reason.

The question of cost to which my hon. Friend referred is a consideration. I agree that the sums stated in relation to our national expenditure are very small indeed; nevertheless, they have to be carefully watched. He was slightly in error as to the cost of duplicating that volume and mass of papers which he has beside him on the bench. The cost of duplicating that evidence in the case of the Tyneside Commission amounted to £165, whereas it is estimated that printing would have cost £800. It is hard to say how far sales would have offset that cost. They might have done so to some extent, but it was the view of the chairman that they would not have done so to any great extent because it was a commission affecting a local area, though I agree that there was some interest in the general problem. I do not press the question of cost too far, because when we deal with national expenditure we speak of millions and hundreds of millions, and here we are speaking of £165 and £800. Nevertheless, it is proper for the Treasury to have regard for what might be in some cases useless expenditure in the printing of evidence for which there was no public demand.

My hon. Friend asked how long the present rule has been in operation. It was introduced almost 20 years ago. As my hon. Friend has pressed the point—and I attach importance to any point which he brings forward in the House with his great experience—I would say that there has not been a general demand expressed for any change in the present rule. The Government would have to be convinced of two things before a general change were made, namely, that the rule was working unsatisfactorily and that there was in fact a demand for a change. I listened with interest and attention to my hon. Friend, but I must make those observations from my knowledge of the situation as I see it.

He also spoke of the question of confidential evidence. There, again, I do not think that we can generalise, but there must obviously be some cases where there is a value to be obtained from confidential information and there must be some discretion resting upon someone to decide whether it should be withheld from general publication. We have felt that the right person in the first instance to pronounce on that point is the chairman of the commission, though there is also a Ministerial responsibility which we do not shirk. I can do no more to-day, after having heard the views of my hon. Friend, and having assured him that we have in mind the desire to make the work of commissions and committees of the greatest possible value, than to say that in general I am not convinced that the working of the rule on the whole is unsatisfactory; but I will certainly bear in mind the points which my hon. Friend has put forward.