HC Deb 09 December 1942 vol 385 cc1574-8
Mr. Eden

I undertook last week to inquire into the arrangements made in regard to the publication of Sir William Beveridge's Report on the Social Services.

When a Report of this kind is to be published it has been the custom for some time past for copies to be communicated in advance to the Press, in confidence and under certain conditions, in order that they may have time to present the matter fully and fairly to the public. On this occasion copies were communicated to the Press somewhat earlier than usual and on a somewhat wider scale. As I explained to the House last Tuesday, arrangements were made so that the Command Paper should be available to hon. Members some hours before it appeared in the Press. I regret, however, that certain action taken by a few of those to whom copies had been supplied, which action was contrary to the conditions under which the document was made available, necessitated publication before the intended time, though not before the Command Paper was available to Parliament. Great interest had been taken in the publication of this Report, not only by hon. Members, but by the public. It is clearly in the public interest that a document of this kind should be adequately and accurately presented in the Press. Because of the length and complexity of this Report it was thought expedient to take the exceptional course of making copies available to the Press in confidence earlier than would have been done if the customary procedure had been followed.

It is in the public interest that in appropriate cases advance copies of Command Papers should be made available to the Press in confidence, but it is most desirable that such Papers should be in the hands of the House at least at the same time as they appear in the Press. In this connection, Mr. Speaker, I would like to quote a Ruling given by your predecessor on 9th March, 1927: 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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th March, 1927; col. 1240, Vol. 203.] I desire to assure the House that the arrangements which were made in regard to the Beveridge Report were dictated solely by considerations of the public interest shown in this most important and lengthy document. I must add that it is the Government's desire that—while seeing that a proper presentation of the case and the fullest information possible on all important matters is made available to the general public—nothing should be done in any way derogatory to the position of this House.

Mr. A. Bevan

Arising out of that statement, which I think the whole House will find very satisfactory, might it not be possible, in cases of this kind where there are lengthy documents which the Press must have an opportunity of digesting, for a publication day to be attached, so that the Press can have the document and Parliament can have it, but the newspapers shall be prohibited from publishing a digest until certain days have elapsed? That would meet the requirements of the Press and of the House of Commons.

Mr. Thorne

I think the general public owe a deep debt of gratitude to the papers of the country for the summaries that they gave of the Beveridge Report.

Mr. Eden

In reply to the hon. Member's question, that is exactly the practice that is followed; and, it there was an error in this case, it is not in that respect that the error took place.

Mr. Bevan

That is not a fact. In this case the Report was in the hands of the Press on Friday, and it was in the hands of the House of Commons on the following Tuesday, so that in fact the House of Commons and the Press did not have it simultaneously. It would have been quite practicable for the House to have had the issue on the Friday and the publication day for the Press to be advanced.

Mr. Eden

I do not think that what the hon. Member suggests is very practicable. The point that I have tried to cover, and thought I had covered clearly, is that nothing at all should appear in the Press until Parliament had had an opportunity of seeing the document.

Mr. Burke

What was the publication day given to the Press?

Mr. Eden

I should like to have notice of that question.

Earl Winterton

Arising out of my right hon. Friend's very satisfactory statement, could he arrange for copies to be sent to the editors of every London newspaper, in view of the fact that one prominent London journalist has taken upon himself to criticise the attitude of Members of this House and to suggest that the Press has a perfect right to have information before the House?

Mr. Eden

I will consider that suggestion. In reply to the previous question, the time fixed was the morning of the following day.

Mr. Mander

I understood the Leader of the House to say there was some breach of an undertaking by some persons. Will he inform the House who these persons were?

Mr. Eden

I have been into this very carefully, and I thought I had given a carefully considered statement, I would rather not take that action.

Mr. Maxton

The right hon. Gentleman's statement is not fair to the House, and it is not fair to a whole lot of people. He says his statement was very carefully considered; it is so carefully considered that it conveys nothing to the House at all. He condemns certain people for having taken certain action. Were they Civil servants, were they Ministers, or were they journalists? I think the House is entitled to know where the responsibility lies.

Mr. Eden

The mistakes were certainly not made by Civil servants nor by Members of the House. I understand that a mistake was made by certain persons employed by the Press. I have been into this very carefully and have done my best to present an objective and fair account of the position. I have not so much thought of what has happened as about future practice. I have tried to lay down a general principle which, if followed, will, I hope, obviate this kind of thing in future.

Sir Stanley Reed

It is obviously in the public interest that, with a document of this magnitude, the newspapers should have early advice so that they may correctly inform the public. Will my right hon. Friend also bear in mind, when documents of this magnitude and complexity are issued, that it is desirable that they should be accompanied by an authoritative summary of their principal contents; and, secondly, in view of the frequent complaints that are made that a very small section of the Press is constantly violating conditions of secrecy, will he consider taking action against that very limited number in the interests of the honourable traditions of the Press as a whole?

Mr. Eden

In reply to the first part of the question, I should very much hesitate before I took a course of that kind. These lapses are fortunately rare. I hope, as the result of what has been said to-day, they will not occur again.

Mr. Granville

As the Report was issued during the Debate on reconstruction, will the right hon. Gentleman inquire whether copies were made available to leaders of parties in the House before they were issued to other Members?

Mr. Eden

No, they were not.

Mr. Bevan

I am sure the House is still not clear about the position, or it has the advantage of me if it is. Do we understand the position to be that in the future the release date of documents for the Press will be the same date as the release for Members of the House? If that is not the position, we are in exactly the same difficulty as we were before.

Mr. Eden

The position is that the release date to the Press will in no circumstances ever be earlier than the time at which the information is available to Members of the House.