HC Deb 13 November 1958 vol 595 cc569-72
Mr. Peart

(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether he is now in a position to make a statement as to the allegation that a Conservative Central Office Press release notice was sent out in an official Ministry of Education envelope.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) said yesterday that it was reported to Sir Norman Brook that he had in his possession a document relating to this matter. Sir Norman Brook had finished the investigation which I had asked him to make on the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) and I thought that for the general convenience of the House the report should be made and circulated as soon as possible. I have, however, made all the inquiries that are possible, after an interval of two years, on this affair.

The then Minister of Education made a speech at a party occasion at Box, on 21st July, 1956. The Press release was distributed in the usual way by the Conservative Central Office. The Ministry of Education does not issue Press releases of the Minister's party speeches and did not do so on this occasion. This is confirmed by the records. I observe from the Press that it is alleged that a copy of this speech was sent out from the Ministry to the Editor of the Labour Teacher in an official envelope dated 23rd July, two days after the delivery of the speech and its general circulation by the Conservative Central Office.

It is difficult at this length of time to find the explanation of this, assuming it to be correct. It may be that the Editor has fallen into some confusion because the Ministry's records show that he was sent a routine Press notice on pensions for teachers' dependants which was circulated generally to the Press by the Ministry of Education and which was sent in an official envelope on 23rd July—the very same day on which the Editor says he was sent the copy of the party speech in an official envelope.

Furthermore, the code number on the envelope which contained the official notice on pensions was E.8.P. I am informed that this is, in fact, the code number on the envelope in the hon. Member's possession.

Mr. Peart

The Editor of the Labour Teacher handed this over two years ago —[HON. MEMBERS: "To whom?"]—and stated that it was contained in the official envelope. I did not use it in the debate at the time, because I concentrated on the Press release of the Ministry concerned. Since then, because of the Brook inquiry, the Editor of the Labour Teacher wrote to Sir Norman Brook to say that he had received this. I have been informed by the Editor that he is still prepared to swear on oath that he received this Conservative and Unionist Central Office publication of the Minister's speech in the official envelope.

The Editor is still prepared to swear on oath that he received it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Two years ago."] Of course it is two years ago, but I am dealing with the President of the Board of Trade, who is known as "Smarty Boots".

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I think that hon. Members strengthen their case by refraining from nicknames.

Mr. Peart

That is true, Sir, but I have been provoked by hon. Members interrupting. I am merely stating that the Editor insists that this circular was contained in this envelope, and I have reason to believe it is so. I believe that the very fact that he is prepared to swear an affidavit indicates—

Mr. Pickthorn

On a point of order. Since we had yesterday a long and ragged debate about the nonsense from "Brummagem", may I inquire now what we are debating and whether what, in fact, we are having are supplementary questions? If so, how was that either a supplementary or a question?

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart), who asked a Private Notice Question, was entitled to ask supplementary questions, but it is true that he omitted to put himself in order by saying, "Is the Prime Minister aware that—" but I assume that he meant to do that.

The Prime Minister

The point is a quite simple one. It is rather difficult to establish the precise facts, but the facts are that the general circular of this speech, or whatever it might be, running into hundreds of copies, was made by the Conservative Central Office, and, quite naturally, made before the speech was made, because a Press release made two days after a speech has been made is not a very helpful exercise. It was also established that there was no circulation of the Ministry circular before the speech was made, because the records of all that are in the Ministry and show that no general circulation was made.

Now it is said, and I am quite sure in good faith, by this gentleman that he received an envelope in which a copy of this speech was included, two days after it was made. We know that he received an envelope with this document about teachers' pensions. It is possible, but, I should have thought, very unlikely, that both these documents were put in the same envelope, nor do I see why it should have been done. It is very unlikely that it would have been done and it is not likely that it would have been sent out two days after the speech. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] I think that right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite have some experience of the purpose of a Press release. It is not very useful to send it out after a speech has been made.

Mr. Peart

The Prime Minister must agree that it is most unusual that, although two years ago is a long time, this Editor should complain as he did and that he should be prepared to present his point of view to an important inquiry. Would the Prime Minister see, therefore, in his instructions on the principles of procedure to be pursued by Government Departments, that no political Press hand-outs of Ministerial statements should be contained in Departmental envelopes?

The Prime Minister

It would, perhaps, have been easier to inquire into if the matter had been brought to my predecessor's attention two years ago.

I can add only that when we draw up this new circular I should be very much surprised if it did not deal with this point on party propaganda sent out Ministerially. I am sure that we should all wish that nothing like what the hon. Member for Workington has complained of should happen again, all the more so because I am quite satisfied that it never happened at all.