HC Deb 13 December 1962 vol 669 cc570-3
Q1. Mr. Mason

asked the Prime Minister, in view of the number of highly placed civil servants who on retirement or resignation join industrial firms and other businesses within the restraint period, if he will now give consideration to amending the instructions governing this practice, in particular by restricting the right to accept employment with a firm which has contracted with the department in which the civil servant last served.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

The existing rule was laid down in a White Paper, Cmd. 5517 of July, 1937, and requires that all civil servants of the rank of Under-Secretary or above, and those holding certain other posts of a special or technical character, should obtain the assent of the Government before accepting an offer of employment within two years from the date of retirement. I am satisfied that this rule is adequate, and that Ministers give the most careful consideration to applications made under it. The question of the contractual relationship which a firm may have with a Department in which a civil servant has been employed is, of course, one of the factors which is always taken into account.

Mr. Mason

Is the Prime Minister aware that in the last 10 years 126 civil servants and 65 military officers, who are subject to the Civil Service rule, have left within the two-year restraint period to take jobs in industry, and 82 of those civil servants went from the Ministry of Aviation to 56 firms which had contractual relations with that Department? Having in mind that the Ministry of Aviation has been subject to criticism by the Public Accounts Committee on its tendering practices and the radio contract awarded to Plessey, and that that firm has just received a Law Officer of the Crown, a Cabinet Minister and a high-ranking office—all of whom have gone within the restraint period—does this not indicate that there is a lapse in the rules governing transfers from the Service during the restraint period into these industries and that some sort of inquiry is warranted?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I do not think there has been any change in the method by which the rules have been applied. I think that, broadly, the public as a whole gains from a certain interchange between the Civil Service and industry.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Is the Prime Minister aware that, even if it is true that the public gains, it is also true that there is very grave public disquiet—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—there certainlyis—about whether the general standard in these matters is falling? Does he not think that in view of this widespread concern it would be wise now to have a proper inquiry into this matter, maybe by a joint Select Committee?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I do not think that is necessary. I think that the rules are being enforced and will be enforced.

Mr. Gresham Cooke

Would my right hon. Friend agree that it is in the national interest that distinguished civil servants should join British firms from time to time, and that it leads to a greater understanding of the needs of Government and British industry? Further, does he agree that there have been no cases of abuse at all?

Mr. Grimond

Is there not a case for inquiry from both points of view? Is it not inevitable today when the Government have so many commercial dealings that there is a change in the situation from what it was before the war? It may be desirable that civil servants should have more experience of industry, but is not this in itself a reason for having some inquiry into the matter? Is it altogether satisfactory that at present civil servants retire and go into industry but there is no comparable benefit from people coming from industry into the Civil Service? Is there not a need for a general inquiry into the present situation? Is there not disquiet in the country art large about this?

The Prime Minister

In regard to the first part of that supplementary question, it is perfectly true that there has been a change in the range of Government purchase and work in connection with industrial firms from which they make large purchases. That, I should have thought, would have been a reason not for tightening the rule, but, if anything, for relaxing it—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—because it is inevitable if there is a movement that this should take place. In regard to the second point, which raises am interesting concept, I think it a good thing that there should be close relations between industry as a whole and the Civil Service, for both have something to learn from each other. Although sometimes a civil servant goes long before his retirement date and that is a loss to the Civil Service, it is very often a gain to the general interests of the nation.

Mr. Gaitskell

Does not the Prime Minister feel that the figures quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) about the number of civil servants who have left a single Ministry, the Ministry of Aviation, within the two-year period are very striking? Does he not feel that that merits some investigation? I appreciate that this is a difficult problem, but does not the right hon. Gentleman think that, in view of the fact that it is 25 years since the rule was originally made, it merits further inquiry?

The Prime Minister

I should be ready to see whether I think the rule ought to he altered. A great deal has happened; the Ministry of Aviation in this period has lived through a great number of changes, from the Ministry of Supply and the Ministry of Aircraft Production. All this great complex which grew up in the war has been changed. I agree that these are important considerations, but I have not the slightest doubt that absolute propriety is observed. It may be that there is some case for looking again at the actual wording of the rule.

Mr. Speaker

Mrs. Castle.

Mr. Wigg

On a point of order. Will you, Mr. Speaker, give consideration to the circumstances surrounding the question and the controversy about civilian firms inasmuch as one of the firms concerned issued a writ, or threatened to issue a writ, for libel when this controversy was blowing up, which handicapped some of us as we did not want to infringe the privileges of the House in a matter which might subsequently be regarded as improper. Later, when they thought that the matter was over, they promptly withdrew the threat of a writ for libel. In those circumstances, although it is a little belated, if the facts were submitted to you would you consider the matter as one of Privilege?

Mr. Speaker

I shall have to consider that, if and when it arises, but do not let us do it in the middle of Questions.