HC Deb 05 February 1963 vol 671 cc406-16

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

12.11 a.m.

Mrs. Judith Hart (Lanark)

I wish to introduce a discussion on a document which, in the light of what has been a most fascinating debate, must seem an innocuous affair. I have very much enjoyed the entertainment which hon. Members opposite have provided during the last two hours. It was an interesting reflection on the present state of the party opposite which revealed the inner contradictions of capitalism most aptly.

I regard it as very fortunate to have the opportunity tonight to raise the question of a document issued by the Central Office of Information in December last year, which the Minister without Portfolio said was issued under his authority, but which was not thought to be suitable for issue as a White Paper. This he said in reply to Questions asked by my hon. Friends shortly before Christmas. The document was made available in the Library in duplicated form some little time after it had been issued to the Press. It appeared in a rather unusual form in that it is a duplicated document with a heading "Social Changes in Great Britain", without any indication of who wrote it, where it comes from or its purpose. One suspects—I may have base suspicions—that it was, in part at least, one of the first efforts of the new Minister after his appointment to brighten up his Press relations. Perhaps he thought it a good idea to issue a document to the Press which had a little more sparkle about it than the normally rather dull Government publication.

While he may have a perfectly natural desire to give to the Press material concerning the social conditions of people in this country presented in an interesting way and presented with as much exciting detail as possible. he will in fact be contravening a most important principle of Parliamentary government in this country if he issues any more documents of this character in this way. I go on to say why I make that categorical statement.

This is a document which purports to give facts derived from various factual inquiries carried out in Britain over the last few years. In particular it purports to give facts derived from the preliminary results of the 1961 census, although some facts, I think, must have been derived from some other perfectly reliable Government sources.

I do not complain about the facts presented in the document. What I complain of is that for every fact there is a comment and the comments are individual comments. With some one might agree and with others one might violently disagree. The point is not whether one agrees or disagrees with the comments, but that value judgments are made side by side with the facts, value judgments issued by a Government Department in an unsigned document which therefore carries all the weight of Government behind it. This is a dangerous principle.

The duty of the Government in this respect increases with every year that passes in the age in which we live today, in which life is much more complicated, in which we have far more statistical techniques at our disposal to discover information for ourselves. The duty of the Government is now much greater than it was to issue as much factual information as they can so that we may attempt ourselves to judge what kind of society we are moving towards. Facts must obviously be the basis of social and political judgments.

It is not the function of the Government themselves to confuse fact and judgment, and they must not do so. They do so in this document. I want to quote some examples of the way in which they do so. On page 1 the document says: The 1951 census … photographed the British people after they had been changed successively by the worst despairing years of economic depression … and a greatly diminished standing in the world as a whole. This is not a fact. It is not a fact in the sense that it cannot be challenged. It is a value judgment. When I was being trained in sociology, one of the first things I learned, and indeed when I was training students in sociology, one of the first things I had to impress upon them, was the crucial importance of separating fact from value judgment in any field of social activity.

Is it true that there was a greatly diminished standing in the world as a whole for Britain in 1951? There are many people who would strongly challenge this assertion. I will not go into the argument. The Minister can imagine for himself the argument I could make tonight in support of a claim that in 1951 after the activities of the Labour Government we had a far higher standing in the world than we had ever had before, and that our economic achievements from 1945 to 1951 were such as to give us a greater standing. I do not want to try to make the argument tonight. The statement in this document is not a fact. It is a judgment and has no right to be contained in an unsigned document issued with every Government authority.

On page 3 there is a discussion of immigration. It is said that for the first time colour strife became a factor of any seriousness in Britain. This statement is made of the late fifties. The document goes on to say this: … in the past quarter-century Britain has taken in the sad total—or, if one prefers. proud total—of about 330,000 refugees … The statement— sad total—or, if one prefers, proud total"— makes good journalism. I do not doubt that, but it is certainly not good Government factual information. The Minister will be the first to recognise that, skilled as he is at judging what is journalism and what is not.

I come to matters which are rather more serious than that. I turn for a good bit of journalese to page 7. It talks of a survey in 1954 on the length of time spent by people working in Central London in travelling to their homes in the suburbs. It quotes a fact established from the survey that on average 1½ hours are spent by people each day travelling from home and back again. It then goes on to say that a train which is late could mean a ruined evening and loudspoken apologies at the stations seem to do little to soothe savage breasts. One suspects that the author of the document is here simply quoting from the chitter-chatter in his own compartment on his own regular 6.15 train home every evening. This is not the kind of thing one expects to find in a Government document supplying factual information about the condition of the British people in 1961 or 1962.

Let us turn to another part a little later where the report describes the picture of the majority of people who have what it calls middle-level incomes. It says this: It is, of course, the solid middle-class suburban range … It must be essentially a picture of a swelling middle class migrating when it can into outlying, rural, suburban areas … around the great cities. That is now the dominant portrait of John Bull. It is not merely the fact that a judgment is being made that one challenges: it is indeed the inaccuracy of the picture, and here, for the first time, I would criticise the actual content, as against the style of writing, of the judgment in this document, because the dominant portrait of John Bull could equally be said to be the average wage earner who now earns £15 a week and who certainly does not live in a suburban middle-class house, commuting to his office in the City. The picture of John Bull, if one is to take the average—and this document is very fond of averages and deducing from averages—is the picture of the skilled worker living in a council flat or council house or waiting for a council house or council flat. Therefore, although it may have been thought by the author to be a self-obvious fact, it is in fact a judgment of a fact which may apply equally to a minority of people, people earning higher incomes than the average wage of £15 a week.

Now let us look at where the document makes comments on health. It makes this most remarkable statement and this one wants to challenge in a little more detail. It says that enough good food is going into every home. This is the statement on page 13: The health of the Briton further improved during the decade … This is a total misuse of statistics and averages. One can look at the recent Annual Report of the National Food Survey Committee on "Domestic Food Consumption and Expenditure: 1960". It says: The average household diet in 1960 met the recommended allowances. Those are the allowances for protein and so on. One supposes that that was taken to confirm this statement that enough good food goes into every home. One has only to look a little later in the Survey to inquire into the protein and calcium intake in large families in the lower income groups in 1960. In families with four or more children only 82 per cent, of the recommended allowances of protein was taken in and only 80 per cent. of the recommended allowance of calcium was in fact taken. Here is factual evidence in a Government publication which completely contradicts the other statement that enough good food goes into every home. If anything will convince the Minister that this paper is not what it ought to be, that ought to do it. What the man, whoever prepared this paper, has done is to give an incorrect impression of what can be deduced from averages. I hope that in no other document issued by the Government in the future shall we find any such distortion as that.

We get references to the behaviour of the young. I pass briefly over this statement that there has been a most alarming development of crime amongst boys and young men. A curiously subjective statement: it may be alarming to some but not to others. There is a statement on page 15 about this so-called alarming increase in crime among the young. We get this: Whether these crimes of violence are instigated by the incessant programmes of violence on television is a matter of opinion, but undoubtedly the strong flood of violence among youngsters has swept in since commercial television began. Here he admits, at last, that something may be a matter of opinion. Undoubtedly there has been a flood of violence, but should it have been put in that way? I have the greatest respect for those who work in the Central Office of Information. I had a great respect for their wartime Social Survey and I worked closely with them. But to say this is to select one possible theory of the causes of delinquency, a theory which is highly challenged and one, indeed, which has been strongly refuted by intellectual evidence, including the Hemelwhite Survey.

The trouble is that the statement I have quoted is made with the sanction of the Minister, issued as an unsigned Government document with all the authority of the Government behind it putting forward the facts of Britain today. Most social workers are convinced that standards of sexual morality among young people, and even among schoolchildren, have steeply declined during the decade. Which social workers? This is a matter of great controversy among social workers. One cannot make such allegations without giving the sources of one's information, quoting speeches made at discussions and conferences. However, there is no effort to substantiate the statement in this case. Dealing with the use of leisure, the document states: … the quality of leisure and the uses to which it is nut have changed a great deal. That might seem an innocent and fair statement, but when one says that the quality of leisure has changed, one is making a value judgment because one is judging quality. It is not a factual concept but a concept governed by a personal opinion and a personal background, and not a scientific establishable fact. The next part of the document is, perhaps, the most astonishing. He discusses holidays and the way in which youngsters go on foot and hitchhike abroad. He says: Whatever one thinks of the dubious practice of cadging lifts, here undoubtedly is a spirit and an enterprise which the parents of these youngsters rarely displayed. Did they not? Was there no enterprise among people when they marched hundreds of miles on hunger marches? Was there not enterprise of an even greater degree when people travelled vast distances in the days of the depression before the war in an effort to solve the problems of their families? The Minister may have his opinion. I am entitled to mine, but a single person's opinion represented here as fact is not good enough.

I hope I have established that this is a document which should not have been issued as an unsigned Government sanctioned piece of factual information to the Press or anyone else. It would have been perfectly proper had it been issued as a signed paper produced by one of the Minister's staff. Perhaps this would not have been possible in the C.O.I, but I know that in some Government Departments professional employees are able to publish papers in official journals. That would have been an appropriate course to have taken in this case, with the name of the writer attached so that everyone would have known that the judgments were the judgments of one person. Otherwise it should not have been issued at all.

I hope that in any future work designed to introduce dynamism in Government publicity—and it is an excellent aim that the Minister should want to make the facts about what Governments do more interesting to the general public—the right hon. Gentleman will ensure that such documents contain either intellectual, scientific facts based on evidence that can be quoted—and in such a case it is perfectly proper to issue it with all the sanction and authority of his Department—or eliminate from any such document or report the element of value judgment and personal prejudice.

12.29 a.m.

The Minister without Portfolio (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I know that the hon. Lady the Member for Lanark (Mrs. Hart) will allow me to say that she is a sociologist of some distinction. She has, I know, a degree of the first class in the honours school of sociology, and her professional career as a sociologist has included work for the Ministry of Health and work in the Scottish town of East Kilbride, which I had the pleasure of visiting the other day. To some extent, therefore, I am flattered that this document should have attracted her interest, and I have listened to her views with respect, even if I do not accept them.

Sociology is a science, and I can well see, and accept, that there are aspects of the paper which offend the canons which she was trained to respect, as all sociologists do. I also take her point with which I shall deal, about it being a Government document. I was well aware when I embarked on this exercise that the paper was open to the sort of ticking off which the hon. Lady has just given me, and I do not resent it at all.

Before meeting some of the points made by the hon. Lady, it might help if I were to say something about the background to this exercise which, I will admit, was a little unusual. Quite early in this job, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to provide certain people, including my own colleagues, with a paper that summarised the principal social changes of the last decade. This clearly had to be based on facts. There are a surprising number of facts going round Government Departments that never see the light of day. At the same time, the people I had in mind spend a lot of time reading facts, and it was rather desirable that the facts should be incorporated in a paper that was, to say the least of it, readable. Up to there, I do not think that the hon. Lady will quarrel with me.

We gathered the facts, and I am grateful to know that she does not quarrel with them. I have the annotated copy, and the facts have a respectable basis. After they were selected, we picked on an outside author to put them together. His identity has not been disclosed, and I think ought not to be disclosed. I will say why. There is nothing mysterious, and there is nothing to conceal. The author's identity would create very little surprise or criticism on the other side.

Mrs. Hart

May I say how glad I am that it was not one of the right hon. Gentleman's own C.O.I. people.

Mr. Deedes

The author wrote the paper on the understanding that it would be without his name on it, and it is fair and right to respect that understanding. I can only assure the hon. Lady that if she were to know the name I do not think that she would have any really serious criticism to make. It was an outside author chosen, if I may say so, in order that the document might be reasonably attractive to read——

Mr. Tom Driberg (Barking)

I hope that he was paid an adequate fee.

Mr. Deedes

Yes—he was paid £100. The cost altogether was, I think, pretty modest and, if I may say so, justified by the value of the paper in the hands of the people whom I thought might find it useful.

There the matter rested, and I resisted some suggestions that it should be published until some weeks later, when, from origins quite unconnected with the paper—and I give the hon. Lady this asssurance because I think that she is seriously concerned with it—a decision was taken to set up a committee to study social changes, and what is being done by Government Departments and the universities, and to make arrangements for co-ordinating this research.

It occurred to me, and it is part of the job to let such things occur to one, that such a decision might lead people—not like the hon. Lady—to ask what it was all about. It also occurred to me that in itself the decision to set up the committee offered some answer to questions that would be asked if we published the paper. In other words, if we published the paper, people would ask, "What's the point of this? What do we get next?" The answer would then be that social studies were to be taken rather more seriously, as I am sure the hon. Lady would desire, and not left to such, as she would have it, amateurish papers of this kind. In the light of this reflection, I released the paper. This again was against the impressive and not unconnected background of the proposal to pursue social studies.

I did this on a limited scale, which I think puzzled some people, because I did not think that such an exercise ought to involve the expenditure of very much public money. Ultimately we had 180 individual requests for 676 copies, including 43 from the House of Commons. There was a copy in the Library on the day it was published, and 152 copies were also requested for the Foreign Office.

Quite apart from this, it seemed to me that there was a very good reason why the paper should have been made public. One receives a good deal of advice in this job and much of it can be summed up as,"Tell people the facts and in language they understand". This is excellent advice and I often wondered what would happen if one took it and what the result would be. Now I know—an Adjournment debate and the strictures of the hon. Lady. I do not wish to make a great deal of her point about the responsibility of the Government for opinion. This process involved the expression of opinion by the one individual who wrote the paper and the hon. Lady criticised it. I readily admit that it was one man. It was a better paper for that reason and for not being a consensus of opinion as it might have become from a committee. To that extent we are vulnerable and I am vulnerable and I entirely take the hon. Lady's point about Government authority in such circumstances.

But I suggest that we should have been much more vulnerable if we had done what we did not do, which was to alter, change or water down any of the writing in the original document. I thought it was better to subject it to possible criticism than to tinker with the document in any way. I preferred that that should not be done. In the event, no change was made and I prefer the hon. Lady's criticism, which she is perfectly entitled to make, to any sense of guilt that the document was in any way altered to make it fit for public consumption.

Mrs. Hart

If only the right hon. Gentleman had said at the beginning of the paper that it was the opinion of one person, even if he could not have given the name.

Mr. Deedes

I accept that. It has been suggested that this was an exercise in political propaganda. The hon. Lady was good enough not to make that point. It emphatically was not, and it would be expected that where such an obvious charge could be made he would be a great fool who would encounter it. It seemed to me that even the risk of that charge and of an Adjournment debate ought to be taken for the sake of stimulating some awareness in people's minds of what had been going on in this country. That seemed to me most important.

I do not share the hon. Lady's professional qualifications but even without them I think it permissible to feel a sense of the profound importance of the social change going on in the country and a desire that others should be interested in it. The root of my desire to make these facts known was a reflection of the feeling that sometimes the country is in danger of becoming blind to the meaning of its own progress.

Of course it might have been better done. I accept the hon. Lady's criticism, and such exercises need not be repeated in view of what I have said about what I hope will be the future course. I know that sociologists like to move cautiously in these matters. But, once in a while, perhaps it is a good thing to try something a little bolder. Of course, we must not deliberately mislead. I do not think that this paper is open to that charge. It provided people with facts about themselves, and people love facts about themselves. It will, I hope, stimulate the desire to know more about ourselves. It may help to set a course which, I believe, the hon. Lady herself desires to see followed.

I give her this undertaking. If I am tempted at any future date to initiate a similar exercise, I undertake to seek her advice, not for her political views but for her excellent professional qualifications.

Mr. Driberg

All that the hon. Gentleman has been saying in the last minute or two is an argument for the widest possible distribution of this document. He says that it opens people's eyes to what is going on, will help to make them realise the facts, and so on. If he has the courage of his convictions, he should publish it as a White Paper. However, I agree with my hon. Friend that it should be a signed document, a sort of discussion pamphlet, if the Government had the machinery for publishing that kind of thing.

Mr. Deedes

The hon. Gentleman has heard my point about public expense. He will realise also that the free institutions of the Press gave it very generous treatment and to a great extent enabled——

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

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.