HC Deb 04 February 1959 vol 599 cc531-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

10.40 p.m.

Mr. Speaker

Before I call on the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), I ought to say that the subject which he has chosen for this Adjournment puts me and the House in some difficulty. As I informed the hon. Member, it is a rule of the House, as he knows very well, that to be in order a subject to be raised on the Adjournment must relate to some administrative responsibility of the Minister. The Board of Trade has informed me that it is not responsible for the activities of the British Marketing Research Bureau. Therefore, it would not be in order, prima facie.

I may say that I have tried to see whether there is any other Minister within whose Department this subject falls. I have been unable to find any. That is the position. If it is a fact that there is no power to control, or responsibility, existing at the moment. To confer such power would involve legislation, and that would be out of order equally. Nor would asking for an inquiry serve the purpose, if the ultimate remedy of the hon. Member's grievance were legislation.

I thought it right to make that statement, and I ask the hon. Member, before he gets on to the merits of his case, to satisfy me, if he can, that this subject is in order on the Motion for the Adjournment of the House.

10.42 p.m.

Mr. A. J. Champion (Derbyshire, South-East)

In view of your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, I am in some difficulty, but I am grateful to you for the notice you so kindly gave me of your intention and of your own difficulty in this matter.

What I am suggesting to you, Sir, in the first place is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Power, acting for the nation, have some responsibility for the action of those firms in which the nation has so much money invested—for example, £60 million of the £100 million capital of the Steel Company of Wales and the £50 million which is to be invested in Messrs. Colvilles, two firms which are responsible for employing this British Market Research Bureau. I am bound to feel that the Ministers I have mentioned have some responsibility in this matter.

The second point I would put to you is that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a tax responsibility in this matter. Here is a charge upon an industry which properly ranks, or is regarded by some as properly ranking, for legitimate tax remission. This is a matter which, I understand, will be raised tomorrow as a result of Questions. Clearly a number of Members of the House feel that here is something for which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has a quite clear responsibility.

The third point I would put to you, Mr. Speaker, is this. The President of the Board of Trade, as I understand it, has responsibility under the Companies Act, 1948, for appointing inspectors to investigate the affairs of any company to ascertain, among other things, if it has given all the information with respect to its affairs which they may reasonably expect.

What I was hoping to do was to ask the President of the Board of Trade to inquire of his Ministerial colleagues if they were informed of the decision of the Steel Company of Wales and Messrs. Colvilles to use their funds for what are clearly political purposes. If not, ought not the President of the Board of Trade to appoint a competent inspector to inquire into the affairs of the company?

As I understand it, Section 165 of the Companies Act clearly places the duty upon the Minister to act in certain cases, and I believe that this is one of the cases in which the President of the Board of Trade should appoint an inspector to inquire not only into the company concerned, but into all companies which are related to this matter which I hope to raise on the Adjournment tonight.

The last point which I shall put to you, Mr. Speaker, as a reason why I should be permitted to raise this matter on behalf of my constituents—because that is where the matter started, in letters to me from my constituents—is that some of the persons who had been acting as interviewers told the people interviewed that this matter is related to Ministry of Labour inquiries. I do not put too much stress on that last point, but the other points which I have raised appear to me to justify my being permitted to make the points which I would seek to make on behalf of my constituents.

As you probably know, Mr. Speaker, I started to ballot for the Adjournment before I realised that there might be a bit of a political schemozzle about this matter. Perhaps I am a little bit of a political innocent abroad and did not realise its political implications, but the fact is that I wished to raise the matter as a result of letters from my constituents, one of which stated the matter so clearly that I proposed to start my speech by reading it.

Mr. Speaker

I have great sympathy with the hon. Member and quite accept his argument that he is raising this as a matter of interest to his constituents. I have no doubt that is so, but my trouble is this. First of all, as regards the Chancellor of the Exchequer, it is true, as the hon. Member said, that there are Questions down for answer tomorrow as to what, if any, allowance will be made for the cost of this inquiry as a legitimate charge on the profits of the company. But that is a separate matter altogether. It does not concern the activities of this bureau, of which the hon. Member gave notice, and that no doubt will be the answer by the Chancellor of the Exchequer tomorrow.

As regards the Board of Trade and its inquiries, my recollection of the Companies Act—though I stand ready to be corrected—is that that applies in the case of some financial irregularity, when the shareholders can petition and so on to get an inquiry into the affairs of the company. I doubt whether that covers the activities of this bureau. I suppose it is a company which exists for the purpose of carrying out market research.

As to the third part about the Ministry of Labour, I do not think the fact that some of the interviewers on behalf of this 'bureau have represented themselves as Ministry of Labour officials when in fact they were not, or as acting on behalf of the Ministry of Labour when they were not, places any responsibility on the Ministry of Labour. I am afraid that I am not convinced yet about it.

Mr. Champion

Would you reply, Mr. Speaker, to the point I made about the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister of Power by reason of the fact that large sums of public money are invested in these concerns?

Mr. Speaker

I am grateful to the hon. Member for reminding me. That had occurred to me. In order to try to assist the hon. Member to get his Motion discussed, I asked the Treasury if they had any responsibility in this matter. They assured me not. I have to take their paint of view on it, because they know their responsibilities better than I do; and I doubt whether loans and subscriptions to capital, which Governments of both parties have made from time to time to assist these enterprises, give them any direction over this matter. I do not know, but I should not think so.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

May I suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, that in addition to the Ministries mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), which he thought might have some responsibility but which, for the reasons you gave, you thought did not have responsibility, it is likely that the Home Secretary is responsible in this matter? I am very glad, and it may be that it is because he feels that he has some responsibility, that the right hon. Gentleman is present tonight. We all know that the Home Secretary and Leader of the House is a very conscientious person, and I am sure that if he felt that there was even a prima facie case for answering the case, which I hope my hon. Friend will have the opportunity of putting, he would feel it his duty as Home Secretary to deal with it.

I am in the difficulty that I do not know the burden of the ease which my hon. Friend intends to put, but I have seen, as no doubt you and other hon. Members have seen, an important letter in The Times of today, which deals with the subject and which is written by a professor of the London School of Economics who received one of the questionnaires or had a visit from this research bureau.

In his letter, he sets out what I regard as some very disquieting facts about the activities of this bureau. If they are right, they seem to me to raise matters of far-reaching constitutional importance—matters which the Home Secretary should certainly look into, both because of his responsibilities in regard to the criminal law and because of his over-riding duties as the Minister responsible for the operation of the Representation of the People Acts.

As we understand it, what is taking place in these marginal constituencies is something which may be said almost to transgress the rights of Parliament in regard to the holding of miniature elections, ballots and other tests of public opinion. The gravamen of the allegations contained in Professor Coleman's letter is that he says that on this occasion, when public opinion is being tested on a large scale, unlike the other kinds of Gallup poll with which we are familiar, individuals are not only being asked to give answers to specific questions, but are also being asked to record their names and the party for which they vote. I gather that in some cases the electoral number is also given.

What is most disturbing is that Professor Coleman says: The secret ballot"— which we have cherished for a long time— is aimed at preventing the juxtaposition of these items of information. Is not Mr. Hurry arrogating to himself a quite remarkable degree of authority in saying that when the names have been left with him 'what happens to them will be for me to decide as I think proper'?". The suggestion is that at Mr. Hurry's option this information may or may not be communicated to one or other of the political parties, or withheld. If that be the case, serious questions may well arise as to how far that is testing public opinion. The subsequent communication of this investigation to one or other of the political parties may or may not involve questions about electoral expenses and so on. I venture to suggest that, quite apart from the arguments raised by my hon. Friend, there are matters of grave political importance involved in the activities of this bureau which certainly call for some kind of reply from the Home Secretary.

Mr. Speaker

It occurred to me that possibly there was some oblique duty with regard to the Representation of the People Acts. I inquired into that, but I found that the Home Office had no responsibility in the matter. What use may be made of these results when they are ultimately collected must be hypothetical in the meantime. The position at the moment, as I understand it, and I am open to correction, is that these people are not under the control of any Ministry. I believe they carry out same quite useful work as well as what the hon. Member regards as not so useful work. However, in this country many people employ their money in ways of which the rest of the community disapprove. That is not to say that there is Ministerial responsibility for controlling or checking them in the way they spend their money. That is the position as I see it. It seems to be an action entirely by them.

Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

I do not want to go over the ground already covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion), but a very important question arises. It is public knowledge, and has been acknowledged by certain steel firms, that they are interested in this job and are backing this venture with a tremendous amount of money. That is well known and acknowledged.

I wish to ask a pointed question to the representative of the Treasury. In the event of my union putting £12,000 at the disposal of candidates in certain constituencies where steel is involved, will that go against the candidates' expenditure in those particular constituencies?

Mr. Speaker

That is not relevant to our particular inquiry, which is whether the activities of this research bureau are relevant to the activities of any Minister.

Mr. Frederick Mulley (Sheffield, Park)

I wanted to raise a wider question than the several points of detail which have been put forcibly.

It seems to me, Mr. Speaker, that you are put in a most difficult position if you have to be the spokesman for the Government in giving reasons why they have no responsibility in this matter. One understands that obviously the Adjournment cannot be used as a means for raising a subject on which on the surface there is clearly no Ministerial responsibility, but I should have thought that if an hon. Member can make a prima facie case it should be possible for him to make his remarks and the responsibility for responding and saying that a particular Section of an Act does not apply should be that of a Minister. I suggest that if every time an hon. Member puts down a subject for the Adjournment you have to go to four or five Ministries to find out whether they deal with these controversial matters is something which should be looked into in future.

Mr. Speaker

Of course, I have my duty to do in the House, and that is to prevent breaches of the rules of order. When I see a subject down for the Adjournment and it strikes me that there is some doubt about Ministerial responsibility, I feel it my duty to the House to inquire so that the House should not be misled into a breach of order through my ignorance. I have made the usual inquiries in this case, and the replies are entirely negative. That is the position as I know it, and I have heard nothing which convinces me that there is Ministerial responsibility for the activities of this bureau.

Mr. Harold Wilson (Huyton)

Further to that point of order. Surely the Home Secretary has responsibility for the printing, distribution and dissemination of electoral registers under a Vote of this House; indeed, that is financed by moneys provided by this House. I think there can be little doubt that the most serious misuse is being made of those electoral registers by these people. They are using them for purposes of identifying electors, canvassing their political views and the views of their wives, asking how they intend to vote and how every member of their family intends to vote. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, East (Mr. E. Fletcher) said, this is contrary to the purposes of the Secret Ballot Act, 1872.

Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth (Hendon, South)

Can the right hon. Member assure the House that he has not got a copy of the electoral register for his own constituency in his constituency office? If he has not, he is a very exceptional right hon. Member.

Mr. Wilson

Indeed I have, and I hope the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Sir H. Lucas-Tooth) has one for his constituency.

Sir H. Lucas-Tooth

Is it marked?

Mr. Wilson

I wish it were. In the discharge of my Parliamentary duties, when I receive a letter from a constituent and the signature is almost indecipherable I use the register, as one does not wish to insult a constituent by giving him a wrong name. Therefore, I look up the electoral register.

The purpose of my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate was to draw attention to a very serious misuse of these electoral registers for the purpose of asking the interviewee, if I can use that rather unpleasant word, not only how he intends to vote but also how every other member of the family intends to vote. Although it may be argued, and probably will be argued, that what happens to the electoral registers when the Home Secretary has issued them is not a matter of responsibility for him, I remember that Ministerial responsibility has been acknowledged in the House in similar circumstances, for example, in the sale of surplus military equipment by the Ministry of Supply. It might well be said that the Minister was not responsible for the firms which obtained this military equipment, but nevertheless Questions have been put and the matter has been debated when goods supplied by the Government Department have subsequently been misused.

I suggest that this is an exact parallel, and that when the Home Secretary was entrusted by the House with the issue of electoral registers, he was not authorised to enable them to be used for the kind of unscrupulous purposes for which they are being used.

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

I had not intended to intervene in the debate until the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. Wilson)—

Mr. Wilson

On a point of order. Is this a debate? I thought I raised a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

It began as a matter of order, but so many extraneous considerations have reached my ear apart from the matter of order that I was beginning to wonder what had happened. I ask the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers), if he is called, to address himself to the point whether there is or is not any Ministerial responsibility in the question which the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-Eeast (Mr. Champion) wishes to raise.

Sir S. Summers

It was my full intention to deal with the point of order which is the subject of submission to you, Mr. Speaker.

I had not intended to take part in the discussion until the right hon. Gentleman referred to the use which is made of the electoral rolls. It is customary in the House that if one has an interest to declare, one should declare it. I must acknowledge that I am concerned professionally in advertising and that it is our business to make use of the electoral roll.

It is suggested that the Home Secretary has some responsibility in this context because of the alleged misuse of electoral rolls published under the authority of his Department. In our business —and this applies to others in the direct mail business—we constantly, with the knowledge and approval of our clients, use the information contained in the electoral rolls published by my right hon. Friend's Department. If it is suggested that my right hon. Friend's responsibility goes so far as to see whether we use or misuse the information which he provides, then his authority will go far beyond its use by this market research bureau. It will go right into all advertising business, direct and otherwise, which is in the habit of making use of that information. If that is to be the case, it will be of great interest to the advertising world to know how far the Home Secretary's writ runs.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

There is one point, Mr. Speaker, on which you have not yet given your views. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Champion) said that he gave notice to raise this matter some time ago, long before some of this nonsense had begun, and that he had done it because constituents had written to him and complained that certain people had called upon them representing themselves as the representatives of the Ministry of Labour.

Traditionally, the Adjournment is an occasion upon which private Members can raise the grievances of their constituents. Is not the Home Secretary responsible for the good conduct of people in this country and for dealing with the grievances of people who feel that they have been imposed upon by false representation? Is not my hon. Friend entitled, therefore, to put the grievances of his constituents to the House and to ask the Home Secretary to take appropriate action to defend his constituents?

Mr. Speaker

It is true that the Home Secretary has a general supervision over law and order, but he acts through certain well known organs to secure that end. I do not know that the Home Secretary, for example, could be made the subject of a debate on the Adjournment because someone does something wrong in the country. We could be stretching his Ministerial responsibility beyond the proper limit. My advice to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East is that the subject he wishes to raise would be perfectly proper on a Motion, framed in proper terms, but I do not think it would be in accordance with my duty to allow it on the Adjournment, for the reasons I have stated. I do not see any Ministerial responsibility for the activities of the British Market Research Bureau.

Mr. Champion

Quite clearly, I must accept your very wise suggestion in this matter, Mr. Speaker. I am bound to say that I can understand the Government and the Ministers not wishing to accept responsibility—

Hon. Members


Mr. Champion

I can well understand why the Government and the Ministers did not wish to accept responsibility for what is clearly a squalid political manoeuvre.

Mr. Speaker

I ought to say in fairness to both sides that I have received no representations whatever on this matter from the Government or from anyone else. I have acted entirely on my own responsibility, and I hope that the hon. Member does not think it is because someone finds it inconvenient that I have stopped it. It is my duty to uphold the rules of the House.

Mr. F. H. Hayman (Falmouth and Camborne)

Might I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker, since one of these interviewers told a constituent of mine that the Ministry of Labour supported the inquiry and the Minister would issue a White Paper? Could I put a question to the Minister, asking him whether he gave authority for that, and, secondly, might I ask a question of the Home Secretary on the point of a firm helping to finance this inquiry having one of its directors as a member, or an officer, of the Conservative Party in the constituency where this investigation is being made?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Member took responsibility for the statement which he has just made and asked the question, "Was it by his authority that this canvasser represented himself as having the authority of the Minister of Labour?" certainly that would be a proper question to put down for answer.

Mr. Mulley

With respect, Mr. Speaker, if it is in order because legislation is not involved, surely that part of the activity of the British Market Research Bureau could be a proper subject for this Adjournment debate? Since we did not have the benefit of hearing my hon. Friend's speech, it might well be that he would have dealt with this point had he been allowed to continue.

Mr. Speaker

The man might not have been telling the truth. I believe that canvassers of all sorts—of vacuum cleaners and other things—frequently represent themselves as having gifts, aptitudes and authorities which they do not possess.

Mr. Mulley

But the important point concerns the rights of hon. Members to raise matters. Are we to understand that before an hon. Member can raise a matter of this sort, not only has he to convince you that he has received the letter which appertains to the activities of the Department concerned, but you also have to be satisfied that the letter is true and that the person writing it is stating the true facts? I thought that the whole point of an hon. Member raising a matter was that he stood by that and he did not have to get an affidavit in advance in order to put down a question or raise the matter on the Adjournment. Are we not going a long way towards invading the traditional rights of hon. Members?

Mr. Speaker

The rules of Questions and those for the Adjournment are quite different. The hon. Member is entitled to ask any proper question, but on the Adjournment the rule is plain: there must be Ministerial responsibility for the subject raised. I have no power to alter the rule, and I am as much bound by it as are hon. Members.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes past Eleven o'clock.