HC Deb 05 April 1965 vol 710 cc200-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr.Ifor Davies.]

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Ian Gilmour (Norfolk, Central)

I am grateful for the opportunity of raising the question of the Prime Minister's allowing Ministers to retain their trade union offices. Anybody who heard part of the recent debate will be surprised to find that I shall hold up the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs as an example of how Ministers in some ways should behave.

Nobody doubts the ability or debating skill of the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour, but it is a little odd that he should be answering the debate. The Prime Minister, plainly, is not expected to answer an Adjournment debate, but this is a matter of considerable constitutional importance, and it directly affects the Prime Minister's responsibility. In these circumstances, it is quite plain that the right man to answer the debate is the Leader of the House, for which course there are many recent precedents. It can hardly be that the Leader of the House is too busy to answer the debate. Judging by experience of the filibuster a fortnight ago, he has handed a considerable part of his duties to the Paymaster-General.

It does not appear that the right hon. Gentleman has spent an undue amount of his time talking to the Patronage Secretary. It may be, for all I know, that they are not on speaking terms, but it is remarkable that the Patronage Secretary should have led all his Whips, in direct contravention of the unequivocal advice of the Solicitor-General, into the Lobby in support of a Motion which, had it been passed, would have caused the Leader of the House the gravest possible difficulties and embarrassment.

It is quite plain, therefore, that it is not overwork that prevents the Leader of the House from answering the debate. It is only another example of the contempt which the present Government are showing for the House during their short and unhappy life. If the debate should have been answered by anybody from the Ministry of Labour, it should have been by the Minister himself, because he behaved last October in precisely the way the Prime Minister should have insisted upon the Minister of Technology behaving. The Minister of Labour very properly resigned his trade union office. Therefore, when the Joint Parliamentary Secretary comes to put the Government's case, such as it is, I hope that he will remember that his own chief at the Ministry of Labour is a standing monument to the shakiness of the Government's argument tonight and a standing monument to how Ministers should properly behave.

The primary question here is the need for Ministers to avoid any conflict of interest between their Ministerial post and their outside interests. The subsidiary question is the Prime Minister's claim in the House that he has been following the normal rules when he has been acting contrary to the spirit of those rules. The rules have been getting stricter over the years. In Palmerston's time, Ministers were allowed to hold directorships, and until the 1890s the Law Officers were allowed to indulge in private practice. In the first National Government of 1931 the rules were relaxed, because the Government was obviously a stop-gap one. Evidently, since he has gone again against this trend, the Prime Minister appears to think that his Government is a stop-gap one, and a very temporary one at that.

The rules which the Prime Minister claims to be following were laid down by Sir Winston Churchill, in 1952, and repeated by Lord Butler, in 1960. Paragraph I of those rules says that It is the principle of public life that Ministers must so order their affairs that no conflict arises or appears to arise between their private interests and their public duties.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Robert Mellish)

Like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples).

Mr. Gilmour

The hon. Gentleman is following the example of his Leader in attempting to introduce an irrelevant smear, but that is not the point at the moment.

Paragraph 6 says: Ministers must, on assuming office, resign any directorships which they hold, whether in public or private companies and whether the directorship carries remuneration or is honorary. The only exception to this rule is that directorships in private companies established for the maintenance of private family estates and only incidentally concerned in trading may be retained subject to this reservation; that if at any time the Minister feels that conflict is likely to arise between his private interests and his public duty he should even in this case divest himself of his directorships. Directorships or offices held in connection with philanthropic undertakings should also be resigned if there is any risk of conflict arising between the interests of the undertaking and the Government. This last sentence is significantly stronger than the relevant sentence laid down by Campbell-Bannerman and followed by, among others, Neville Chamberlain and Lord Attlee. When the rules say that even directorships or offices held in connection with philanthropic undertakings should be resigned if there is any risk of a conflict of interest between the interest of the undertaking and the Government, how can the Prime Minister possibly say, with even the remotest degree of plausibility, that there is no conflict of interest between a Minister of the Crown in the Cabinet and the general secretary of the largest trade union in the country? The answer is that he cannot say it. Because there is, quite plainly, an obvious conflict of interest.

The Prime Minister has admitted by implication that there is a difficulty, as has the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish). He wrote to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) five minutes before I asked my Question on this subject, saying: Dear Ernie, I am writing to let you know that, in answering Q1 and other similar Questions today, I may need, in replying to supplementaries, to refer to the personal statement … "I may need …" is a very revealing phrase. The Prime Minister was in considerable need, though his irrelevant smear did not get him out of it.

It is surely undisputable, both from the wording of the rule and on general principles, that the same rules should apply to directors as to trade union officials. Indeed, in the first Labour Government, this was explicitly the practice. The Prime Minister of the day said: Cabinet Ministers have already applied to themselves in respect of trades union organisation or work the same rule as is applied in respect to directorships of public companies."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th February, 1924; Vol. 169, c. 735.] There have been one or two exceptions, when the rules were less strict than they are today. Everyone knows that Mr. Ernest Bevin was allowed to retain his post as general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union when he joined the National Coalition Government in war time.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, West)

What is the difference?

Mr. Gilmour

I shall tell the hon. Member what the difference is.

There is no comparison whatever between Mr. Bevin and the Minister of Technology, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Cousins), either in reputation or achievement, or in the circumstances in which they joined the Government. This is obvious, because for many years Mr. Bevin was the dominating leader in the trade union movement. He joined the National Government at a time of national emergency, and in a time of national need. He was a unique figure, and he answered the national need. No one can say that the Minister of Technology answers a national need.

Mr. Orme

That is the hon. Member's opinion.

Mr. Gilmour

All that the Minister of Technology answered was the Prime Minister's need. He answered the need to shut up the factious, extreme Left-wing, rather dangerous trouble spot, far out among the unilateralists and other members of the Labour Party. His was not a national appointment; it was an intraparty juggling act. He was merely put there—

Mr. Will Griffiths (Manchester, Exchange)

The hon. Member is arguing, I gather, on a matter of principle. He has said that the difference between Mr. Bevin and my right hon. Friend was a difference of—these were the words he used—" reputation and achievement". How can he argue a matter of principle when he injects into his argument matters of that kind? He can either argue on principle or not.

Mr. Gilmour

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood. I said that there was no comparison between Mr. Bevin and the Minister of Technology either in reputation or in the circumstances of their appointment. I do not think that any serious man would really dispute the first proposition, but I agree that the second point is particularly relevant to the matter of principle which the hon. Member raised. This is quite plain. It is utterly different to join a National Government at a time of emergency in 1940 compared with joining a party Government in 1965.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)


Mr. Gilmour

I am prepared to give way to the hon. Gentleman if he thinks he can make a more effective answer than the Parliamentary Secretary. If anyone thinks that the situation in 1940 in any way approximates to the position in 1964, he cannot understand what was going on in 1940.

The Transport and General Workers' Union has very nearly 1½ million members. It is the largest union in the country. It is very powerful. It has a dominating position at the T.U.C. conference and the Labour Party conference. It has a vast spread of interests. It has been involved in a very large number of industrial disputes. It has members in key, strategic industries, such as the docks, road transport, particularly oil lorries, and the oil refineries. In other words, it is involved in industries where if there was a serious stoppage or strike the Government might well have to put in troops to make the industry carry on. How can the Government seriously argue that there is no conflict of interest between a Cabinet Minister who is considering whether troops should be used to allow an industry to carry on and the general secretary of a union which is involved in the dispute? The answer is quite plain; they certainly cannot.

As I said, the hon. Gentleman's chief at the Ministry of Labour very properly resigned when he took office. The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs did the same thing. Does he think that they should not have done so? Perhaps we stall hear the answer to that. This is what the U.S.D.A.W. magazine New Dawn said on 21st November, 1964: The Executive Council received and accepted the resignation of Mr. Walter Padley, M.P., the Union's President, arising from his appointment as Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. I emphasise "arising from his appointment".

Why did not the Transport and General Workers' Union receive and accept the resignation of the right hon. Member for Nuneaton arising from his appointment as Minister of Technology? Why should the Minister of Technology be treated differently from other right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite? Presumably because he is more powerful and the Prime Minister is more frightened of him. As a result, the appropriate rules are broken and the constitution is flouted. It is highly embarrassing to the Government, and also highly embarrassing to the union, and extremely unfair to Mr. Harry Nicholas, the acting general secretary.

Mr. Orme

He does not need the hon. Gentleman's support.

Mr. Gilmour

There was once a mediaeval French bishop who was also a large landowner. He married. Asked to explain why he had married, the bishop said that he was married in his capacity of feudal baron and strictly celibate in his capacity of bishop.

Mr. Mellish

They were odd in those days.

Mr. Gilmour

They are odd in these days.

The right hon. Member for Nuneaton is like the French bishop. As a Cabinet Minister he is celibate, strictly responsible and virtually silent. As general secretary of the trade union, he can see his real views held and acted upon on such matters as Vietnam and the incomes policy.

Naturally, of course, the T.U.C. itself would not dream of tolerating such equivocation. Naturally, the T.U.C. insisted that the right hon. Member for Nuneaton should resign from its General Council forthwith.

The T.U.C. is very concerned to demonstrate beyond any possible doubt its independence of the Government. Its standards in this matter are plainly very much higher than those of the Prime Minister. That, of course, is not a matter for surprise, but it is a matter for considerable regret.

The Minister of Technology, by retaining his trade union post, is really nothing more than a standing vote of no confidence in the survival of the Government. I have no objection to that. What is objectionable is the flouting of the rules of conflict of interests and the Prime Minister's attempt to gloss over their breach. It is utterly deplorable that the Prime Minister should show such very little regard for the true constitutional proprieties.

11.45 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Richard Marsh)

I think that every one on this side of the House, and, I hope, a number of hon. Members opposite eventually, will bitterly regret the tone of the speech of the hon. Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour). It is perfectly reasonable for the Opposition to make an attack upon any particular point of principle on anything that they think is wrong. But to use an Adjournment debate for a subtle and scarcely covered smear against an individual is unfortunate.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for the kind remarks he made about my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour, my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and about me. It was interesting to note that we were left in no doubt that the hon. Member was talking about only one man.

I do not want to make an attack upon hon. Members opposite. As my "grannie" used to put it, they are some of the best people money can buy. It would be wrong to make an individual attack in reply. But I want to state the Government's position. Clear directives to Ministers on this issue were circulated by Mr. Harold Macmillan in the OFFICIAL REPORT on 28th January, 1960. These, in turn, were a copy of the directives first circulated by Sir Winston Churchill. This Government have accepted in its entirety the practice laid down in the directives issued by previous Conservative Governments and circulated to present Ministers.

I shall put the case of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology into words of one syllable so that misunderstandings, which I got the impression would not be unwelcome, should not arise. My right hon. Friend receives no payment whatever, either in salary or in allowances, from the Transport and General Workers' Union. He plays no part whatever in its affairs and all the responsibilities and authority which he formerly exercised have been formally and legally, by resolution, transferred to Mr. Harry Nicholas.

I repeat that my right hon. Friend receives no money in any form whatever. He has no authority whatever in the union and plays no part whatever in any of its activities directly or indirectly.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)


Mr. Marsh

I only have 10 minutes left. An attack has been made on the reputation of one of my right hon. Friends. I am entitled to 10 minutes in which to reply to it. I have not the slightest intention of giving way.

A good example of a similar case is that of a solicitor. A solicitor does not have to dissolve his partnership or allow his annual practising certificate to elapse, but he is obliged to cease carrying on the daily routine work of the firm and taking any active part in its ordinary business. As I have explained, my right hon. Friend plays no part in any of the business of his union.

Again, it is interesting to note that not only this one man but a number of people serving the country, as has happened with previous Governments, are on leave either from industry or from universities. There is nothing new about this. In almost every Administration there are people on leave from certain industries, on leave from universities, and they are on leave for one reason and one reason alone—they have been asked to serve their country and have agreed to do so.

Unlike the hon. Gentleman and unlike myself, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology did not seek political office. He was asked whether he would come into the Government and he agreed to do so, like others do, whether acting for the Government in a full-time capac- ity in office as Ministers, or assisting the Government as advisers, or in any other way under any Government. It is significant that this sort of charge—and the hon. Gentleman can find examples—has always been made by Conservatives against people in a Labour Government and has never been made by a Labour Member against Conservatives.

Mr. John Page


Mr. Marsh

No. I shall not give way. The hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. John Page) may squirm in his seat. One thing that raises him in my estimation is that he has the decency to be ashamed about this debate.

Hon. Members opposite should not lose sight of the speed with which some right hon. Gentlemen opposite managed to rejoin boards from which they had resigned many years before. I do not criticise. I merely draw attention to the fact that the record was held by one right hon. Gentleman who, having left his office with his previous company, was back in his board room within 10 days of leaving office as a Conservative Minister, despite the fact that he had not worked in that field for some years previously.

I do not object to this, and I do not complain about it, because there are only two valid arguments which can be advanced against this practice. There are only two valid arguments which can be advanced against the position of the Minister of Technology. Do let us not be hypocritical about this—we are not talking about a paragraph in a report circulated to Ministers, but about the Minister of Technology.

Mr. John Page

We are talking about the principle.

Mr. Marsh

In the space of 15 minutes we have repeatedly returned to the point that the Minister of Technology did this, my right hon. Friend the Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Cousins) said that, the Prime Minister this, and the Minister of Technology the other. We are not talking about anything else. The hon. Member for Harrow, West is a nice Member, but he is deluding himself.

The only two arguments are, first that a man who takes on Government office should surrender for all time his right to return to his former occupation. If the Minister of Technology were not on leave of absence from his occupation, he could never return to it, because the rules a the Transport and General Workers' Union are such that the general secretary is elected for life. The point is that if he had not taken the course which he has taken, he would never have been able to return to his previous occupation.

I do not think that any of us would seriously suggest that people asked by Prime Ministers—and, depending on which side of the House we sit, we always have views about the wisdom of Prime Ministers' appointments—to serve a Government in any capacity should for all time cut themselves off from their previous occupations.

The second argument is more important. I make the point without equivocation that my right hon. Friend has no real connection with the Transport and General Workers' Union at all. He receives nothing from it directly or indirectly. He exercises no authority. He plays no part in the running of the union.

Therefore, there is only one way in which it can conflict with his work as a Cabinet Minister and that is if it is believed that he is a dishonourable man who would allow his unpaid position to influence his views as a Minister and a Privy Councillor. If he does not, there is nothing to worry about. He does not earn anything. He does not play any part in the Transport and General Workers' Union. Unless hon. Members opposite believe that he would allow this possibility, at some unspecified time, of going back to his union to influence his work as a Cabinet Minister and as a Privy Councillor, there can be no conflict of interest in any way. If any hon. Member thinks that there is that conflict, he should have the courage to get up and say so and not pretend to be talking about principle.

We have had a lot of selective quotations tonight. The directions given to Ministers are very clear. I quote: Such a conflict may arise if a Minister takes an active part in any undertaking which may have contractual or other relations with a Government Department, more particularly his own Department. It may arise, not only if the Minister has a financial interest in such an undertaking, but also if he is actively associated with any body even of a philanthropic character, which might have negotiations or other dealings with the Government or be involved in disputes with it. Furthermore Ministers should be free to give full attention to their official duties, and should not engage in other activities which might be thought to distract their attention from those duties. As I have said, there is no active involvement.

The former Labour Prime Minister, Earl Attlee, has been referred to. When a similar question was raised concerning the then Minister of Labour, Earl Attlee replied that it was quite true that the Minister of Labour was on leave from the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants, and he stood by this.

There is no difficulty. There is nothing in the present position which is in any way a conflict with either the word or the spirit of the directions and actions of previous Governments. So far, however, we have had six Questions put upon the Order Paper—there are two more to come—and an Adjournment debate, and all this has been directed at my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology. If hon. Members opposite wish to attack the views of my right hon. Friend, that is understandable, because he is a controversial figure. He does not ask for, and there is no reason why he should expect—I am sure he would not—any quarter. That is a perfectly justifiable thing for any Opposition to do. But the present campaign which has been conducted against my right hon. Friend ever since he entered this House—we should not be mealymouthed about it—a campaign of innuendo which can only be innuendo against his personal integrity, is becoming indecent.

Having given assurances that my right hon. Friend receives no benefit whatever from this union office, that he is on leave from the Transport and General Workers' Union because, if he were not, he would never be able, even if he wished, to return to the post which he has held for many years, that he is in the Government only because he was asked to come into the Government and into Parliament and that there is, and can be, no conflict of interest, I make this final challenge.

If any right hon. or hon. Members opposite have any concrete example or any suspicion of any way in which my right hon. Friend has allowed this present position to influence his judgment or, indeed, might allow it to influence his judgment, they have a duty to come to the House and say so publicly rather than continue a campaign which degrades them and the House.

11.59 p.m.

Mr. Peter Walker (Worcester)

I can see why the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour rather than the Leader of the House has answered this debate, because the intention was to use the reply to this debate as a slapstick party performance rather than to take seriously the serious constitutional point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, Central (Mr. Ian Gilmour).

The only argument presented on constitutional grounds was that, seemingly, the Minister of Technology was general secretary for life and that, therefore, it would be wrong to take the position away from him. What would be the position of a life director of a company? There is such a thing as a person who is elected as a director of a private or a public company for life. Does the Minister suggest that such a person should be allowed to retain his directorship because, otherwise, he could not go back and obtain his life directorship afterwards?

The Minister's performance has been disgusting. Instead of dealing with the serious constitutional point put forward by my hon. Friend—

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 Twelve o'clock.