HC Deb 14 November 1946 vol 430 cc372-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."]—[Mr. Joseph Henderson.]

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Wyatt (Birmingham, Aston)

The subject which I wish to raise tonight is the question of the way in which the Government deal with their relations with the public, their methods of imparting information and keeping the public informed on matters of importance to the whole country. I want to make it clear that, in my view, these functions are the duty of any Government, but I do not in any way want to suggest that the Government should use their information services to put out Socialist propaganda. The Government have machinery at their disposal, such as the Central Office of Information and other methods of obtaining and imparting information and, presumably, they wish to use them effectively, or they would not have them at all. Therefore, I think the dispute as to whether or not taxpayers' money is being used to put out Socialist propaganda has nothing to do with the case which I propose to make.

The country is entitled to be told fully what the Government it has elected are doing, whether it is a Socialist or a Conservative Government, and there is no need for the Government information services to advance the proposition that Socialism is better than any other system or that the present Government are doing better than a Conservative Government would have done, although all Members on this side of the House would agree with that proposition. In general, the Government are not using all the means at their disposal to keep the people enthusiastically behind them, and the country does not understand the excellent home record of the Government. Many important Measures have not been sufficiently explained, such as family allowances, the National Insurance Bill, the National Health scheme, and so on, and the country is certainly not fully aware of the vital need for increased production and increased exports, because the problem has not been brought right down to the level on which they can understand those matters. Nor do they understand, in many cases, the reason for the lack of consumers' goods in the shops. But this problem has got to be tackled on a mass scale, which cannot be done by a party organisation, nor by speakers' notes sent out by well-meaning Government Departments, nor by a small trickle of posters.

Almost every time the Government have got out of sympathy with the public in home affairs it has been the fault of bad public relations. I want to give only two illustrations. The first one is the way in which the announcement of the cut in the fat ration and the withdrawal of dried eggs was made last February. This happened just after Sir Ben Smith returned from America, during his visit in the Christmas Recess. Before he left, he had said: During 1946 I shall continue to do my utmost to provide more variety in our diet. We can look forward to some improvement at any rate. Other Government spokesmen had given a similar impression, that although the world was short of food this country was not likely to suffer any immediate repercussions, and, in fact, could look forward to an improvement. This country was suddenly brought up with a bump against the fact that the food shortage did affect them, and was going to cause a sudden reduction in their ration. This was done without any preliminary preparation to the public whatsoever; no hint was given of this drastic step, and, consequently, it was a severe shock. It may be that circumstances were outside Sir Ben Smith's control, but I am sure that had adequate steps been taken in time the shock could have been softened.

My second illustration is that of demobilisation. When the rate of demobilisation began to drop it was several months before it was explained to the country and to the troops that transport was no longer a limiting factor on demobilisation, but that the limiting factor was military commitments. Even now it has not been sufficiently explained, and consequently there is great bewilderment in the Forces and in the country as to why demobilisation is being slowed down, as most hon. Members' postbags will tell them. There has been inadequate preparation for the fact that the Government will not reach its target of 1,100,000 by the end of the year. If the downward curve of demobilisation drops, as at present, I estimate there will be 1,400 000 still in the Forces at the end of the year, and the target will not be reached until some way into next year. Announcements on the slowdown are at present being put out without any background material whatsoever. The hon. Member for South Cardiff (Mr. Callaghan) incidentally, or quite by chance, elicited the information in a written answer on 24th October, that the Government target was not going to be reached by the end of the year. Then we had the alarming announcement of 6th November, made- by the Minister of Labour, that only 94,000 would be released from the Forces in the first quarter of next year, as compared with 300,000 for the last quarter of this year—and not a word of explanation as to the reason for this has been given to the country, to the relations of the people in the Forces, or to the Forces themselves.

To make the confusion slightly worse the Lord President of the Council made the most misleading statement on 30th June last. He said: Demobilisation is running ahead so rapidly that it will be virtually complete by 31st December. That is a statement which has been much misunderstood in the country, and which is obviously palpably inaccurate. No attempt has been made to explain why that statement was made, or to mitigate its unfortunate effects. In my view, the Government must be prepared to admit mistakes, at any rate in the public relations field. No one minds if somebody admits the mistakes he has made. The Government must also be prepared to take the public into their confidence, and they must not be afraid about that. People were told horrifying things during the war —although they could not be told all the detailed facts behind them—and took the bad news much better as a result, because they knew where they were. I think the people will always react badly against a Government which suddenly springs disasters on them. It the situation is going to be bad, let us be told all the facts in relation to that situation, because I do not believe there is any real need, except in a few fields, for any secrecy about things now.

With regard to the world food situation, the B.B.C. could have been told last December or last January what was likely to happen. It could then have introduced into its programmes some accurate reporting on the world food situation, which would have made clear to the public what was likely to develop They would have been prepared to do this had they been asked, despite the fact that the Director-General of the B.B.C. has issued a verbal directive that Labour Ministers are to be discouraged from the use of the air. Not enough use has been made of the B.B.C. to do for the—

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)

May I ask the hon. Gentleman—I am not contradicting what he says—whether he is sure of the truth when he says that the Director-General of the B.B.C. has said that any Member of the Government is to be discouraged from use of the B.B.C.?

Mr. Wyatt

He said that Labour Ministers were to be discouraged from use of the air in a general way. I am sorry, but I am not prepared, for obvious reasons, to disclose the source of my information, but it is a good one and I do not doubt it.

Mr. Brendan Bracken (Bournemouth)

Will the hon. Member allow me?

Mr. Wyatt

No; I have no time.

Mr. Bracken

It is a very grave charge, this.

Mr. Wyatt

Not enough use has been made of the B.B.C. to do objective reporting without political significance, which they will do if they are asked, and the Government have failed to make the best use of that medium.

Mr. Bracken

The hon. Member has to produce evidence against Sir William Haley in making a charge like that.

Mr. Wyatt

I want to deal with another medium the Government have at their disposal and are failing to use adequately —the Films Division of the Central Office of Information, virtually the old Films Division of the Ministry of Information. The Government have given them absolutely no support since the C.O.I. took them over last March. Instead they have rather hampered them. In seven months' work the Films Division has not produced one film of major importance comparable with those made between 1941 and 1945, such as "Target for Tonight," and other major films. The only successful films achieved by this organisation were produced under the old Ministry of Information regime, and I think one of the main reasons for this is that the Treasury does not understand the process of successful film production.

During the war, the Ministry of Information could plan ahead for 150 to 200 films a year, because it had got a block vote from the Treasury, and it worked on a yearly budget, so that it knew ahead how much money it had to spend. Now, it has to apply for financial sanction for each individual film and script, and haggle over each single item before making a film; and companies are placed in the position of financial insecurity because of the inability of C.O.I. to get contracts authorised by the Treasury. So the companies and the technicians are losing interest.

I want to give one example. In March this year a working party was set up. At a preliminary meeting it was explained by a controller of the Central Office of Information, aided by the director-general, an official of high rank from the Lord President's office, that three major documentary films were urgently required by Downing Street for presentation by September. The three films were "The International Food Situation," "Exports and Imports," and "Production," the very documentaries most needed. During the subsequent seven months the meetings of this working party grew fewer and fewer. Recently, they have met only at the instance of the documentary representatives concerned, and not one of these three films has been started in production; nor has a contract even been placed for their production. When one remembers that it takes anything up to six months to get a film distributed after being put into production, that is pretty serious.

What is more, the C.O.I. have made no move to consolidate and extend the friendly relations with the trade they had made during the war by making major films which went down well with the public. If the Government intend to use films as a method of communication with the public they have to work out a new system of finance such as a block vote, and they have to have a central control of film making; instead of the film makers always having to go to separate Departments; and they have to arrange for general overall films, as well.

Apart from the B.B.C. and the films, I think the Government should resort to the wartime practice of letting the public know what is going on in a mass way. It is just as urgent now to keep the public informed as it was during the war. The Secretary for the Department of Overseas Trade last Tuesday in the House asked if people had ever been told so much. He waved this document, the Digest of Statistics, in front of us, and said "Here you are, there are all the facts." I would like to ask the Government whether they think that that document makes light reading for the public on their way home. They should issue monthly, or periodically, a leaflet giving the position quite simply and pictorially; it could be pictorial, without propaganda, and show exactly where we stand in relation to the world, what is needed in our home production, the world food situation, the shortage of raw materials, and so on, so that people could quite simply see what the position is.

Again, the Government do not keep in touch very closely with what people think. There are ways of finding out quite accurately, in a general way—through opinion research methods, social surveys, mass observations and so on—how people think on broad issues. At the moment the Government only employ those methods on ad hoc problems such as the size of kitchens, whether people prefer flats to houses, and so on. They get no general opinion or imaginative trends whatsoever. The Press is quite valueless from this point of view, because there is all the difference in the world between published opinion and public opinion, and as the Press is either sharply pro-Government or anti-Government, the Government will not find out from it what the public think about it. It is no use the Government launching advertising campaigns unless the whole problem to be tackled has been ascertained clearly in advance. That is quite easy to arrange and not very expensive.

Not only in the field of films, but also in the field of social surveys too, the Government require an overall central planning organisation. It must not be left to each Department to fiddle about in its own particular area. The Government must also have a broad view and be able to take broad action as a whole, so that they can know how the people feel on big issues generally. They should draw their material not only on short term, day to day trivial issues, but on the major long term issues as well. I must urge the Government to face this issue squarely, and realise that so far they have failed in their public relations in letting the public know what is going on in time, and letting them know in simple terms. They are failing to provide the simple incentives they could provide towards the reconstruction of peace time Britain, which is just as important as winning the war. They must overhaul the machinery for communicating with the public and finding out what the public want as a whole. They must lose their terror of being accused of putting out Socialist propaganda. If they really explain fully what they are doing, no one can accuse them of that. They are a Socialist Government, so naturally if the Government do well, that will reflect to the credit of the Socialist Government, but the same situation would inevitably arise, and no one could complain, if right hon. Gentlemen opposite ever achieved office again. No one could complain, because it is the task of the Government to carry out this job of communicating with the public and finding out what they want.

If they do utilise their machinery properly, there will, I am sure be a much more willing spirit in the country. People will be willing to accept unpleasant things which are a consequence of the world position, and will be more prepared to work harder for their own benefit, because they will feel that they are at one with the Government. They will feel that the Government is not a remote organisation which merely issues instructions, but one which is closely linked with their daily lives. They will also be prepared, if they know something about them before they happen, to take any hard knocks that may be coming their way.

Mr. Bracken

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, perhaps he could look back in his vast manuscript and give us the exact instructions which, he alleges, were issued by Sir William Haley to the B.B.C. staff. It is a very grave accusation to make against the Director-General of the B.B.C. that he has given instructions to his staff not to allow Labour Members to make use of the B.B.C. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would give us the date of this instruction, because I feel sure that this charge must be investigated.

Mr. Wyatt

As I understand it, the directive was given verbally some months ago, and it was not put into writing for quite obvious reasons.

Mr. Bracken

What date?

Mr. Wyatt

It was communicated, and probably singly, to various heads of departments. I am afraid I do not know the exact day.

Mr. Nicholson

Surely the Government are not going to sit down under this very grave charge against the Director-General of the B.B.C.? In all fairness to this gentleman, who is not exactly a public servant, but is concerned with a public corporation, this charge should be investigated, disposed of, or withdrawn.

10.20 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend for having raised this matter tonight. It is quite clear that if a Member of his ability and integrity holds the views which he does about the Government information services, it is time some Minister stood up at this Box and put the truth to the House and the country at large. It may be that with the time at my disposal I shall not be able to cover all the points which have been dealt with, but if time does not permit, that does not mean that there is not a fairly good or complete answer to the charges he has made. The Government, like the rest of humankind, are fallible and have made mistakes, and it is possible that they have not made the fullest use in the public interest of the information services at their disposal. But they have done their best, and I am certain that the story is much better than my hon. Friend would have the House believe. I was delighted to hear him say at the beginning of his speech that he did not believe that it was part of this service to act as a propaganda machine for the Government. I am afraid that he went on to belie that by indicating that it was difficult for the public to know whether we now have a Socialist Government or a Conservative Government in office.

Mr. Wyatt

I did not say that.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

Later on he said the public does not understand the present Government's record.

Mr. Gallacher (Fife, West)

Surely, if the Government made the public relations service give the public an understanding of what the Government are doing, they would realise the difference between a Socialist Government and a Tory Government?

Mr. Wyatt

What I said was that it did not matter whether it was a Socialist or Conservative Government, because in either case the duty fell equally on them to perform these functions.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

There is a very distinct and clear division between propaganda, as such, which is the business of the party machine—its office wherever it may be, and Ministers when they speak—, and getting over of information to the public about rationing and the 'speed or slowness of demobilisation, which are facts affecting the public, which in a sense are above party altogether, although they result from the actions of a Government, Socialist or otherwise. I want to draw that distinction and to make it as plain as I can. The Government realise that there is this distinction, and will be no party whatever to using Government services to put over purely party propaganda.

Let me say and repeat that the Central Office of Information exists to explain and inform the public about facts, and not to proselytize in any shape or form. My hon. Friend made a charge against the present Director of the B.B.C. I will not pursue that point, but would ask him, if he has any information at his disposal, to let us have it. We will certainly look into it if he gives us any information. I will not say that it is a serious charge, as Members opposite seem to think, but the charge has been made and we shall be glad to have the information. I assure my hon. Friend that we will then look into the matter to the best of our ability. He made some play with the speech which my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council made at Bournemouth last June. My right hon. Friend said: Demobilisation is running through so rapidly that it will be virtually completed by 31st December, 1946, and by then the number employed on manning and equipping the Armed Forces will be down to about June, 1939, level. If I understand my hon. Friend aright— and I have no desire whatever to misinterpret him—his point is that by saying that my right hon. Friend the Lord President misled the Services, who thought that the age and service scheme would come to an end at the end of December, 1946. It is ridiculous to imagine that anyone could read that into what the Lord President said. Those words have been torn from their context. What my right hon. Friend was trying to show, both to the Conference and to the public at large, was that industry could not expect any large outpouring of men from the Forces, that as and from the end of December, 1946, the intake would more or less equal the men coming out, and that the thousands who had been coming out each week could not be relied upon by industry as a source of manpower. Time and time again the figures have been given by the B.B.C., the Ministry of Labour and the Press. My hon. Friend said that demobilisation figures would not be reached by the end of December. I have to tell him that he is wrong. Not only will the 1,100,000 be reached, but we shall do a little better than that.

Mr. Wyatt

But did not the Prime Minister in the House on Thursday, 24th October, say that the target of 1,100,000, by the end of the year, would not be achieved?

Mr. Hall

The hope is that it will be, and my information from the C.O.I. and other sources is, that although the Prime Minister may have said that, the target promised will, in fact, be reached. It is a small point, in any case. It is difficult, where you are dealing with thousands of people, to hit the target exactly. If that is all my hon. Friend has to go on I do not think his case is very strong. My hon. Friend mentioned films. It is true that some films coming out now were discussed when the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth (Mr. Bracken) was at the Ministry of Information, but I can assure him that the Treasury are not holding up this matter. The making of major films is a major operation. It takes much longer than six or seven months to produce a film.

Mr. Bracken

And there is one of the best men in London looking after the business.

Mr. Hall

Exactly. Where my hon. Friend was right was when he indicated that at least one film which had been promised by September was not then ready. That should not have been promised by whoever made that promise. The Treasury is assisting, and these films are on the stocks. There is not the slightest doubt about that. I can assure my hon. Friend that the relationship of the Films Division of the C.O.I. with the trade are happy, intimate, cordial, and continuous. In the six months ending September, 14 films have been sold to major distributors, in addition to 20 trailers and six one-reel films which have been exhibited by friendly arrangement with the Cinematograph Exhibitors' Association. I am told that there is no reason to fear, on financial or any other grounds, that output in the coming months, either in quality or in quantity, will not come up to expectations.

It is impossible for me to touch on all the points which my hon. Friend raised, but perhaps I may say something about publicity by other Departments, about which my hon. Friend had very little good to say, and appeared to think was not all that it should be. He drew attention to the Statistical Digest which, I think, is a very fine production, and gives within its covers a mass of material which is useful to all of us in some way or another. If the hon. Member asks the House or the public to believe that that is all the material that is issued he is not stating the case fully or completely. We have the "Board of Trade Journal" and the "Ministry of Labour Gazette." Every month, the Ministry of Health puts out an exact statement about the housing programme, showing the number of houses built and the number in respect of which war damage has been made good, and all the rest of it. The Board of Trade issue, every two or three months, statements dealing with the export situation and all the rest of it, and the Ministry of Labour put out very full and clear statements of the man-power situation, showing the number of men coming out of the Forces, and so on. It is untrue and unfair to the Government to pretend that these facts are not there, and that the public are not being informed. I have no time to say more, but I ask him and the House to believe that the Government are anxious to use these services to the best of their ability, and that we shall continue to do so in no party spirit.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty Nine Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.