HC Deb 13 November 1962 vol 667 cc189-93
Q2. Mr. Marsh

asked the Prime Minister if he will issue instructions to Ministers that they should cause inquiries to be made when they are made aware that junior employees who have access to secret information are able to spend considerably more than they earn.

Q8. Dame Irene Ward

asked the Prime Minister whether he will give an assurance that all papers in the flat of Vassall were impounded by the security services, and that they have been made available only to the Committee of Inquiry and to those who have a prescribed responsibility.

Q17. Mr. Dugdale

asked the Prime Minister if he will now ask the First Lord of the Admiralty far his resignation.

Q18. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the allocation of Ministerial responsibility in his administration for security.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I told the House on Thursday why I was satisfied that the Committee of senior experienced civil servants whom I had appointed were the appropriate body to investigate the facts of this case and report on them to me. Right hon. Gentlemen opposite have argued that what is needed is an inquiry undertaken by an independent person, such as a High Court Judge. In my view, an inquiry of the kind asked for by right hon. Gentlemen opposite is wholly inadequate to meet a changed situation, which has arisen since I answered Questions arising out of the Vassall case last Thursday.

There have been a number of developments which have led me to decide that it is now appropriate to set up a tribunal of inquiry under the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act of 1921.

A Motion asking the House to set up a tribunal of inquiry will be tabled today and moved as first order tomorrow. I shall tell the House then why I believe it necessary that the tribunal inquiring into this should be armed with all the powers conferred upon it by the 1921 Act.

Mr. Marsh

Would the Prime Minister not agree that his frequent changes of attitude on this is reducing the whole matter to a farce? Would he not further agree that there is a widespread feeling that these changes result either from his inability to recognise the serious implications in the beginning or, alternatively, from his desire to cover up?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I would suggest to the hon. Member that he might perhaps wait until I try to explain to the House tomorrow why I have decided that the powers conferred in the Act are essential, and what it is the tribunal will be asked to inquire into.

Dame Irene Ward

May I ask my right hon. Friend to accept the thanks of all those who agree that this alteration in policy is very wise? In view of the fact that he has now made this statement, for which I am sure many people will be profoundly grateful, I will not pursue my supplementary question to my Question which really has nothing to do with setting up the tribunal.

The Prime Minister

Without pursuing quite the logic of that, I will explain What in my mind are the new circumstances and new conditions, which I shall explain in detail, which make me feel that a tribunal of this kind, which has power of subpoena, which has power of examination on oath, and the power of examination and cross-examination, as well as privilege, should be set up in the situation as it has now arisen.

Mr. Dugdale

Is the Prime Minister aware that we on this side of the House are profoundly thankful that he has taken our advice and particularly the advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker)? Is he also aware that it is not in the best traditions of British public life to accept the resignation of a junior Minister and refuse the resignation of a senior Minister responsible?

The Prime Minister

I shall try to deal with that matter tomorrow. I have not accepted the advice offered to me, which was to set up an inquiry with a judge, but I wish the tribunal now, in circumstances which I shall explain, and which no doubt hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite will appreciate, to have all the powers of a tribunal under the Act.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is the Prime Minister aware that there will be general satisfaction on this side of the House that he has accepted our proposal for an independent inquiry and that my right hon. Friend the Member for Smethwick (Mr. Gordon Walker) proposed, as one of the possibilities of such an independent inquiry, an inquiry under the Tribunals Act? Can the right hon. Gentleman also say when the membership of the tribunal will be announced?

The Prime Minister

As I have explained, what was suggested to me was an inquiry on the lines of the Romer Inquiry.

Mr. Gaitskell


Mr. Gordon Walker indicated dissent.

The Prime Minister

All right, the right hon. Gentlemen will have an opportunity no doubt of giving evidence before this inquiry.

Mr. Callaghan

What does that mean?

The Prime Minister

As they did at the previous inquiry. As regards the question asked, I think that in accordance with precedent it would be right, first, for the House to pass the Motion, although I am ready to indicate to the House the gentlemen wham I think will be willing to accept this task.

Mr. Shinwell

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's recent statement that there is no imputation against the hon. Gentleman the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith), and since, obviously, the hon. Gentleman could not be charged with having full Ministerial responsibility, will the Prime Minister, as he himself has full Ministerial responsibility for matters of security, be good enough, when he makes his statement tomorrow, to tell us why he should not resign?

The Prime Minister

I shall try to give the House an account of certain new things which happened over the weekend and just before which have led me to make the decision to ask the House to approve this proposal. Perhaps, when the debate takes place, that would be the most convenient opportunity for explaining why I have reached this conclusion.

Mr. Gordon Walker

Does this mean that the Committee of three civil servants is being disbanded and that this inquiry will go into all aspects which arise out of the Vassall case?

The Prime Minister

I hope to have the Motion tabled in a few moments, and the terms of reference there, perhaps, will govern the tribunal. The Committee of three civil servants will, if the Motion is approved, hand over such work as it has done. One member of the Committee, of course, the Treasury Solicitor, would not be able to operate because he will be occupied, in accordance with practice, as adviser to the tribunal.

Mr. Wade

Can the Prime Minister explain how it comes about that the decision which he has just announced to the House was, apparently, known to the Press before it was announced to the House?

The Prime Minister

I think that that can hardly be so except by speculation, because it is a decision which we have only just reached.

Mr. S. Silverman

The Prime Minister's decision to have an inquiry of a more serious and independent kind than he had announced previously is welcomed, but will he explain why he has chosen this particular form of tribunal of inquiry under the 1921 Act? Is not he aware that, from investigations in the past by tribunals of this nature, it is clear that it is possible to do a great deal of injustice, without being able to protect witnesses from innuendoes of every kind?

The Prime Minister

I have chosen it because I hope to be able to persuade the House that, in view of certain statements which I shall have to reveal to the House tomorrow and certain positions, the inquiry must be armed with these powers if it is to be effective.