HC Deb 20 January 1949 vol 460 cc338-42
The Minister of Health (Mr. Aneurin Bevan)

On 18th December, under the headline of "Big New Fraud Enquiries" "More Sensational than the Tribunal," the "Daily Graphic" referred to a new large-scale investigation by Scotland Yard's fraud squad in which Government Departments were said to be involved and officials of the Ministry of Health were said to have been already interviewed. I should like to state categorically that, so far as my Department is concerned—and this has been verified with Scotland Yard itself—there is no vestige of foundation for the imputation so clearly conveyed in this irresponsible allegation. All newspapers were immediately so informed.

On 20th December, the Secretary of my Department after investigation wrote to the editor of the paper and asked for an immediate correction of the statement and an apology. The assistant editor replied, in the editor's absence, and promised a reply within a day or so. No further reply was received, and on 5th January another letter was sent to the editor. An acknowledgment said that inquiries were being made, and promised a reply at the earliest opportunity. The Secretary of my Department wrote again on 10th January, saying that he would imagine that the inquiries would have been made before the statement was published, and therefore again asking for an early answer.

On 13th January, he was informed that steps had been taken to verify the reliability of the sources from which the information was obtained, and that the investigations showed no reason why the statements published should be corrected. It will be seen that no evidence of any kind has been vouchsafed and no justification of the statements attempted, and, so far as the "Daily Graphic" is concerned, my officials are left under the stigma of imputations which I again assert are baseless.

Mr. Churchill

It is quite clear from the statement which the Minister has volunteered that the onus in this matter lies very directly upon the newspaper concerned.

Mr. Bevan

It will be clear that in the last answer sent by the editor of this paper he does not say that the information obtained was correct. He merely says that the sources were verifiable and reliable, so that he once more dodges the necessity of providing the evidence upon which the statement was based. I think it is quite intolerable that the officials of a great Department should rest for one whole month under a stigma that the editor of a newspaper is too cowardly to confirm.

Mr. Driberg

Although I believe that the Royal Commission on the Press has now ceased taking evidence, it has not yet reported. Would my right hon. Friend consider forwarding to the Royal Commission details of this case to which he has drawn the attention of the House—this most irresponsible example of yellow journalism by one of the most vicious anti-Government newspapers?

Mr. Bevan

Certainly, I will consider sending this information to the Press Commission. I have always been of the view that the daily conduct of the newspapers in some respects has provided all the raw material that the Commission required.

Mr. Leslie Hale

In view of the fact that it is abundantly apparent that the editor is sheltering from apologising for this scurrilous attack which was published as a headline on their front page, behind a defective law of libel, will my right hon. Friend take the opportunity of calling the attention of those who are considering the amendment of the law of libel to this matter with a view to making it actionable to libel a public authority.

Mr. Bevan

I am quite sure they will be made very well aware of the facts of this case.

Mr. Speaker

Personal statements ought not to lead to irregular Debates. A statement has been made and should not be allowed to lead on to making all kinds of various charges and suggestions which I can assure the House are not really proper to our procedure. The Department has made its defence; the Minister has made a defence of his Department; and now, as the Leader of the Opposition has said, the onus is on the other side.

Mr. Hale

On a point of Order. Is it not well within the rights, privileges and responsibilities of this House to point the moral in a case like this where opportunity has been given to a newspaper of taking the proper course, where that proper course has been refused and where a gross imputation has been made not only upon the Ministry of Health, but indirectly on the public administration of this country?

Mr. Speaker

Personally, I think the dignified course now is to leave the matter where it is and let public opinion judge.

Mr. Michael Foot

May I have permission to ask a specific question? Is it not the case that the proprietor of this newspaper stated before the Royal Commission that it was the practice of his newspapers, the Kemsley newspapers——

Mr. Speaker

There was a question before which I allowed, actually by the hon. Member for Devonport (Mr. Foot) and also by the hon. and gallant Member for Stockport (Wing-Commander Hulbert) which made some comments on a Royal Commission which is now sitting. We may not comment on what is happening before a Royal Commission. If the hon. Member for Devonport is going to comment on something which is done before a Royal Commission which is now sitting and which is still sub judice, that is a matter which is out of Order and I ought not to allow it.

Mr. Hale

Further to that point of Order. Am I to understand from your Ruling, Sir, that the Chair is assuming a new duty in expressing an ex parte view that Questions may or may not be dignified? May I venture, with the utmost respect to you, Sir, to submit that if the Chair is assuming that responsibility it would be assuming a responsibility which has not been entrusted before by this House in surrendering its privileges to the Chair.

Mr. Speaker

I do not know whether the hon. Member is suggesting I was expressing an ex parte view. I hope I was expressing the honest and proper view of the House of Commons. I will leave it at that.

Wing-Commander Hulbert

On a point of Order, Mr. Speaker. You said the hon. and gallant Member for Stockport; I presume you meant the hon. Member for Devonport.

Mr. Speaker

It was the hon. and gallant Member for Stockport. I remember the incident quite well. If he will ask me I will show it to him later.