HC Deb 25 July 1957 vol 574 cc613-7
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, Sir, I will now make a short statement.

I have made inquiries into the matter affecting my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the Member for Dumfries (Mr. N. Macpherson), which was referred to in the Question asked by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser)on 23rd July.

I understand that my hon. Friend was invited by the Directors of the Dumfries and Galloway Standard to consult with them about the conduct of the paper; that he accepted this invitation, and that in November last year he took part in a meeting between the directors and the editor at which the future policy of the paper was discussed. Six months later, the directors replaced the editor.

In this matter, my hon. Friend was involved solely as the Member for the constituency. The fact that an hon. Member holds Ministerial office does not inhibit him from dealing with matters affecting his constituency with the same freedom as a private Member so long as there is no conflict between what he does as a Member and his duties and responsibilities as a Minister.

I therefore do not consider that my hon. Friend took any action in this matter which was inconsistent with his tenure of office as a Minister, or which could not properly have been taken by any hon. Member asked by his constituents to advise and assist in dealing with a problem which was causing them concern.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the Prime Minister aware that this distinction between the Joint Under-Secretary in his capacity as Under-Secretary and his position as a Member of Parliament seems to us to be one that is difficult to sustain? Presumably, if the hon. Gentleman goes to his constituency and makes a speech, he does not at that point cease from being a member of the Government. When he went to the directors' meeting to influence their views, did he cease to be a member of the Government as soon as he got into the room?

Is the Prime Minister further aware that Mr. Williamson, who was dismissed—which was a serious matter for him—said that the hon. Gentleman had complained to the directors of the paper several times, asking why so much attention was given to Liberalism instead of to National Liberalism? Was it not very unreasonable to ask the editor to devote more space to National Liberalism, since none of us knows what it is?

Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the editor went on to say that the hon. Gentleman attended a meeting of the directors of the paper on 20th November last year and also says: … I was asked to leave the room. When I returned I was told that the paper would support Major Macpherson and the Government. I asked whether it was a Liberal paper and was told yes, and then said that if it was a proper Liberal paper it could not give full support to either the M.P. or the Government. Does not all this show that, in fact, the hon. Gentleman still retained his membership of the Government when he was in the directors' room, and was not his conduct in consequence thoroughly improper?

The Prime Minister

I understand that the paper in question has a somewhat restricted circulation. Therefore, I think it can be described as a constituency rather than as a national matter. I will put this consideration before the right hon. Gentleman—of course, it might occur to him. If by any chance he or his party were ever in office, and the leader writer of the Daily Herald suddenly began to write Tory leading articles, I have no doubt that he would interest himself.

Mr. T. Fraser

I wonder whether the Prime Minister would make some further inquiries? I know that he has not had much time since Tuesday. Would he find out whether the Joint Under-Secretary approached the editor of this paper many times over a long period, and put pressure on the editor to change his editorial policy? The complaint of the Joint Under-Secretary of State was that this editor was writing editorials criticising the policy of Her Majesty's Government. [An HON. MEMBER: "Not the local Member."] Not the local Member, but the Government's policy.

Would the Prime Minister inquire whether the Joint Under-Secretary himself took the initiative in meeting the directors prior to the meeting on 20th November? Would he inquire why it was necessary for the Joint Under-Secretary to have his meeting with the directors after the managing editor had been asked to leave the room? Would he further inquire whether there is truth in the suspicion which is current in Dumfriesshire that not only did the Joint Under-Secretary play such an ignoble part in getting the sack for the ex-editor but in recruiting his successor?

If the Joint Under-Secretary can divest himself of his Ministerial responsibility and become a Member of Parliament for a matter concerning a newspaper which certainly is beyond his constituency, what is to prevent the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister from ceasing to be Prime Minister, becoming a Member of Parliament again, and having similar meetings with editors and directors of all the national newspapers?

The Prime Minister

I did my best, as I was asked to do last Tuesday, to make an inquiry into this matter. I have made a statement, to which I have nothing to add. I still do not think that there was anything my hon. Friend did as a Minister which would make me lose confidence in him as one of my Ministerial colleagues, and, on reflection, I think that the House will be inclined to take the same view.

Mr. Grimond

There does not seem to be any dispute that pressure was brought upon this paper by a member of the Government. But I imagine that the Prime Minister will not want to go on record as saying that it does not matter because it is a small paper, or even because it is a Liberal paper. As for his analogy of the Daily Herald, surely, if the right hon. Gentleman went to see the leader writer of the Daily Herald and asked him to stop writing Socialist leading articles, it would be highly improper? That is the parallel with this case. I am sure that the Prime Minister will agree that it is improper that a member of the Government should seek to influence a paper in this way.

The Prime Minister

I have nothing to add. The reason why I mentioned the character of the paper was merely to show that its circulation was low and that this was a constituency matter. Let me put it this way: that it is not what one would call a paper with a wide national circulation.

Mr. H. Morrison

Is not the Prime Minister getting this matter out of proportion—in the wrong direction? Is it not a fact that a Member of Parliament, who was also an Under-Secretary of State, saw the directors—whether by their invitation, or as a result of pressure from himself which may have led to the invitation is not quite certain—challenged the policy of the paper, and evidently used persuasion to get it changed, the editor, incidentally, being dismissed?

Should not someone with a complaint against the policy of the paper write to the editor a letter of complaint for publication? Is it not unreasonable, especially if he is a Minister of the Crown, that he should have an interview with the board of directors, who have power of life and death, journalistically speaking, over the editor? Does not the Prime Minister see that this was a case of interference with the proper liberty of the Press?

The Prime Minister

I have nothing to add to what I have said. I think that the House, on reflection, will regard the action I have taken in this matter as the correct one.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, although he is not prepared to take any further action, the House will judge this as an improper interference with the freedom of the Press by a Minister and will still expect the hon. Member to take the appropriate action?

Mr. Hamilton

On a point of order. As we on this side of the House regard this as an extremely important matter, will you, Mr. Speaker, consider giving an opportunity to the Under-Secretary himself to make a full statement about his side of it?

Mr. Speaker

I have not had a request to that effect. We have a very important debate about to begin, with limited time. We cannot debate the matter now.