HC Deb 04 February 1960 vol 616 cc1221-3
47. Mr. Bellenger

asked the Prime Minister to what extent the rules relating to disclosure of official documents in private publications by ex-civil or military servants of the Crown differ from the rules relating to ex-Ministers; and whether he will put in the form of a White Paper the general conditions governing such privileges.

Mr. R. A. Butler

I have been asked to reply.

All persons who have held office under the Crown share the same obligation to obtain permission from the Government of the day for the disclosure of any information which they obtained by virtue of their official position. It is for the Government to decide each application on its merits.

I should like to give further study to the specific suggestion made by the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Bellenger

Will the right hon. Gentleman at the same time give consideration to this point, that in a recent publication documents were used which obviously must have been the subject of Cabinet discussion? Is it not the fact that discussions in Cabinet are secret at all times? Further, there is the Official Secrets Act. Any information the right hon. Gentleman can give the House about the rules governing all these matters will enable hon. Gentlemen to make up their minds on this subject.

Mr. Butler

Yes. Nothing irregular happened in respect of the memoirs to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. Sir Anthony Eden did not quote textually from the minutes of Cabinet meetings. In so far as documents were used, it had to be with the approval of my right hon. Friend. The treatment accorded was approximately similar to that given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) under the Government of hon. Gentlemen opposite. What I think is valuable in the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion is his last point that this might all be brought together for future guidance. I have undertaken that this shall be considered and discussed when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister returns.

Mr. Gaitskell

While welcoming what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, may I ask whether he is aware that the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations expressed himself in another place as extremely disturbed about statements appearing in memoirs relating to what had been said in Cabinet? Will he pay particular attention to this point in considering whether a new statement should be made about the circumstances in which permission is given? Is lie aware that there is a general feeling that in recent years the rule has been administered far too loosely and that what was permitted to the right hon. Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) in very exceptional circumstances in the case of his war memoirs should not necessarily be permitted to everybody else?

Mr. Butler

I am aware that there is a certain doubt on these matters, particularly in relation to Cabinet proceedings and, for example, memoranda submitted to the Cabinet. In these last two categories, it is normal for the Sovereign's permission to be sought. That remains the constitutional position. I think what I have said is all covered by the statement I made, and I think it is reasonable to anwer the right hon. Gentleman by saying that this matter should be discussed with my right hon. Friend and that any future doubts and anxieties should be cleared up.

Mr. H. Wilson

Quite apart from the rule in relation to documents and Cabinet minutes, will the right hon. Gentleman say what is the position in relation to views attributed to Ministers in the course of crises? Is he aware, for instance, that in these extracts in The Times there are some animadversions on the present Prime Minister when Chancellor of the Exchequer and the effect of the drain on the dollar situation in reversing his attitude on belligerency in Suez? Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether it was necessary for Sir Anthony Eden to obtain the permission of the present Prime Minister to disclose such an unfortunate state of affairs?

Mr. Butler

I have already covered that in the answers which I gave last week by saying that these memoirs are the private memoirs of Sir Anthony Eden, for which the Government do not accept responsibility. A private person is still entitled in a free country, which I trust this still is, to say what he likes about himself or about anybody else. I think that that is entirely different.

Mr. Wilson

But is it right for a retiring Prime Minister to say what one particular Minister, in this case the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, felt successively about the need first to invade and then to retreat from Suez? If it is right for him, whether he is now a private person or not, to disclose the attitude of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, is it right that he should fail to disclose the rather more consistent attitude of the Leader of the House?

Mr. Butler

I think we should await the total book. I have so far had only the privilege of reading with my breakfast the instalments of the memoirs which are now coming to hand. I have not read the complete volume. Until we have read the total volume, I think we cannot say how we all come off.

Mr. Gaitskell

Further to that, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman, in view of what he has just said, whether it would not be best if all concerned—that is the Leader of the House and every other member of that Cabinet—were now to publish their memoirs?

Mr. Butler

As I have said before to the right hon. Gentleman, I really have too much to do.