HC Deb 15 December 1958 vol 597 cc767-70
39 and 40. Mr. D. Howell

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1) which Government Department published the official two-page document, entitled "Transport at Elections, Origin of Section 88"; and why its distribution by an employee of the Conservative Central Office was authorised;

(2) whether he is satisfied that the document published by his Department, entitled "Transport at Elections, Origin of Section 88", was drafted in accordance with the usual practice designed to maintain the impartiality of Government Departments.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Dr. Charles Hill)

The document was a background note prepared by me for Parliamentary journalists and made available to them in answer to questions some of them had asked. It was factual, objective and accurate.

Mr. Howell

Is it not rather reprehensible that a document prepared by the Minister, and now admitted to be prepared by him, should bear no sign of its ownership or authorship? Is not the language in which it is couched partisan language which we normally accept in political warfare but not the sort of language to be used in everyday Government publications?

Is it not remarkable that two documents were issued about this matter on the same day? One is from the Home Office on 29th October, which is a perfectly proper document setting out the aims of the Bill, whatever we may feel about it, and the other document, issued by the right hon. Gentleman at the same time, is full of political innuendo and couched in language not normally used in this House but common to party political warfare. The second document was distributed not through Government agencies but by an employee of the Conservative Central Office, who is also a member of the Press Gallery. Does not this show that the right hon. Gentleman's position is synonymous with the Conservative Central Office, and is not that an abuse of Government?

Dr. Hill:

I will take the questions in turn. This document was in answer to questions asked by Parliamentary journalists as to what was the electoral background to the statement made in this House that the party opposite, when in Government, had broken the terms of the Conference on Electoral Reform. This was a factual document answering those questions and to be made available to those Parliamentary journalists who wanted it. If the facts tell an unacceptable story, I cannot help it.

On the second point, as to its distribution, this was prepared, as I have said, to be available to those who wanted it. As I could not be in the Lobby that day, I asked the Parliamentary liaison officer in question to make it available to any interested. Thirdly, on the question of its partisan character, it is true that I refer to the former Government as a Socialist Government, but that was in the highest interest of accuracy.

Mr. Gordon-Walker

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is common practice for his Department to produce a document for circulation to the Press which bears no indication of either the place or source of origin, and if it is common practice for such documents to be distributed by officials of the Conservative Central Office?

Dr. Hill:

This document was prepared by me to be handed to those who were interested, I have answered the second part of the supplementary question.

Mr. H. Morrison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are official avenues whereby Government communications can be handed to the Press in this House or elsewhere which have been used by past Governments? I know the machinery well. Will he please understand that it is really most objectionable that a Minister should use a party organisation for an official purpose in distributing Government information? We had it in the case of the Prime Minister, when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government. in connection with the pamphlet about housing, and we have had it since. Will he please understand that it is a denigration of the standards of public administration that official machinery of Government should be used by a party organisation for the purpose of distributing information? It has plenty of opportunities of its own.

Dr. Hill:

I reject the right hon. Gentleman's allegation. This was an objective document which the party opposite does not like. It is odd that such an allegation should come from a party which, when in Government, employed as its spokesman, on public funds, a Socialist propagandist. the former editor of the Daily Herald.

Mr. H. Morrison

If the right hon. Gentleman now repudiates the doctrine which I put to him, it means that he confirms that this Government reserve completely the right to mix their official machine up with the political party organisation? I very much hope that my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench will find an opportunity, either now or after the Recess, to raise this matter as an issue of great public importance.

Dr. Hill:

I do not reject the doctrine; I sustain the doctrine.

Mr. Howell

In view of the fact that the Minister has not even had the decency to apologise or to give any undertaking as to the future, and even now is not willing to stop publishing anonymous documents of this character, I beg to give notice that I will raise this matter on the Adjournment.

Mr. Dudley Williams

On a point of order. The hon. Member for Birmingham, All Saints (Mr. D. Howell), in a reference to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has said that my right hon. Friend has not even had the decency to apologise. Is that a right and proper remark, Sir?

Mr. Speaker

I think it was an expression of heat, but I cannot say that it was out of order.