HC Deb 02 March 1965 vol 707 cc1122-7
Q1. Mr. Ian Gilmour

asked the Prime Minister what is the Government's policy with regard to Ministers retaining positions as officers in trade unions.

Q6. Mr. Kershaw

asked the Prime Minister what instructions he has given as to the propriety of Ministers of the Crown holding office, even though unpaid, in organisations of known political commitments.

Q7. Mr. J. E. B. Hill

asked the Prime Minister whether it is the policy of Her Majesty's Government to require all Members appointed to positions in the Government to resign all appointments, even if unpaid, which may appear to conflict with their Ministerial responsibilities.

Q14. Mr. Gower

asked the Prime Minister in what circumstances, and under what conditions, a person assuming office as a Minister may retain a position as an officer in a trade union.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

The directions given to Ministers on these and similar matters are the same as those which were circulated in full in the OFFICIAL REPORT on 28th January, 1960. The basic principle is that Ministers must so order their affairs that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their private interests and their public duties.

Mr. Gilmour

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that in this matter he is acting clean contrary to the spirit of those directions? Is it not quite clear that in peace time the same rule of resignation should apply to trade union officers as applies to directors, and which applied under the first Labour Government? While complimenting the Minister of Technology on his prudence in retaining his present trade union job so that he can return to it, quite shortly, is it not high time that the Prime Minister made his constitutional position legitimate?

The Prime Minister

To the extent that there was a serious point in that supplementary question, the position being followed today is exactly that which was followed by Lord Attlee's Government.

Mr. Kershaw

Is it not clear that there is likely to be a conflict of loyalty between a member of the Cabinet and the largest trade union in the country? Is it not entirely against the spirit of the agreement that a member of the Cabinet should retain that sort of job? Why did not he resign, like the hon. Member for Ogmore (Mr. Padley) when he took a job?

The Prime Minister

It is the duty of the Prime Minister to see whether any conflict arises. If any did I would not hesitate to act. But it is clear to the House that everything that is being done is above board and is known to the public. This is a very different thing from a Government who did not even say what pressures they were subject to, financially and otherwise.

Mr. J. E. B. Hill

In deciding whether the rules of prudence and the precedents point towards resignation or the retention of office with leave of absence, unpaid, will the right hon. Gentleman take into account the fact that his predecessor, Mr. MacDonald, stated that the rules of directorships should apply to the trade union organisation and offices and that, further, in the last Labour Government when a period came when the Labour Cabinet had to face some criticism of its decision about the proclamation of the emergency in 1948 and 1949, and the manning of essential industries with Service men in 1950, by that time Mr. Ernest Bevin had ceased to hold trade union office, because he resigned in 1946?

The Prime Minister

The rule that I quoted today is exactly as stated by Lord Attlee, Sir Winston Churchill, when Prime Minister—the very same words—and, indeed, by Mr. Butler—now Lord Butler—when Leader of the House. These rules are being followed. It should be recognised that there are always moments when there may be a conflict of interest, however remote. Ministers of the last Government and of the present one have both resigned from bodies such as the National Institute for Economic Research when there was even the possibility that since a Government grant might be involved Ministers might be under pressure. Every case must be judged on its merits, and in case of difficulty or doubt the Prime Minister must decide.

Mr. Gower

Does not the Prime Minister agree that as the rule has affected company directors, in particular, it has meant that directors of public companies, in almost every instance, have resigned their directorships? As the rule has, on the whole, been beneficial, would it not be equally beneficial for it to apply similarly to offices of the kind referred to in this Question?

The Prime Minister

Where there was any question of an officer having executive functions, as a director has executive functions, there would be a conflict of that kind, but where there is no exercise of those functions the same consideration does not apply.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home

I agree with the Prime Minister that questions must be looked at each one on its own merits. In the case of the right hon. Gentleman, surely his reason for retaining office must be either to give or receive advice. In either case I say that there must be a conflict of interest and may I ask whether the Prime Minister will look again at the desirability of his right hon. Friend retaining this office?

The Prime Minister

I have been into this question very fully. I am not sure that it lies in the mouth of the right hon. Gentleman to give us this advice. He was for many years the colleague of a Minister who admitted in this House, after having been a Minister for several years, to still holding a controlling interest in a very important Government contracting firm.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Grimond.

Mr. Grimond rose

Mr. Marples rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I will come back to the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples). I have called the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland.

Mr. Grimond

Is not it the case that it has not been unknown for people to give up directorships to take office and then return to those identical directorships in a manner which does seem to suppose that they have retained some possible residual interest? May I ask whether there is any difference between that and what is being done with Ministers of the present Government? May I also say to the Prime Minister that I feel there is a case for looking at the whole matter again? I fully accept that it has been dealt with according to precedent, but lately the salaries both of Ministers and Members of this House have been increased, partly to enable them to discharge their political duties without feeling that they may suffer financial embarrassment. Therefore, I believe that there is a case for looking at the whole matter again, without casting any aspersions on the conduct of the present Minister.

The Prime Minister

Yes, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot have understood both the actual wording of the Question and the present position if he thought that there was any question of payment arising. I agree that if there were any payments it would very much change the situation. The particular case which I think the right hon. Gentleman had in mind involved no payment whatsoever. On the earlier part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, I think the position must be that, as the Leader of the Opposition said, every case does raise difficulties and they have to be looked at individually. In the case I mentioned a few moments ago in reply to the Leader of the Opposition, when the Minister concerned felt there was a possible conflict of interest of course he resigned, after being for seven years a Minister—[HON. MEMBERS: "Second thoughts"]—with a controlling interest in a contracting firm. The right hon. Gentleman must have felt that did not involve any conflict. In the case of my right hon. Friend we must take the decision whether any conflict arises, and I am satisfied that it does not.

Mr. Marples

I am grateful to the Prime Minister for sending me a letter at ten minutes past three, saying that he might use my case in answering supplementary questions. I made a statement in the House of Commons on 28th January, 1960. At the end of that statement the hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) said This was a personal statement, which we accept in the spirit in which it has been made."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th January, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 381.] When the firm which I started, and which still bears my name, had a contract in connection with the Hammersmith Flyover I was Minister of Transport, and although that contract was not with the Ministry of Transport I felt I had to resign—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am not quite certain what is happening. I called the right hon. Gentleman to ask a supplementary question, in view of what had happened. I am afraid that we are not doing very well with Questions to the Prime Minister. If it is the desire of the right hon. Gentleman to make a personal statement about something, procedures have to be gone through. It cannot be done on an invitation to ask a question.

Mr. Marples

Is the Prime Minister aware that in that statement I said I hoped that the sale would be completed very soon, and it was, and then I should have no financial interest in the company—and I have not gone back since?

The Prime Minister

This statement I know perfectly well. I refreshed my memory about it when I saw these Questions on the Order Paper. The point I was trying to make—I think it a perfectly fair point and I did not even name the right hon. Gentleman—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—the point is a perfectly fair one. Hon. Gentleman opposite are suggesting that my right hon. Friend, by having an unpaid appointment, has a conflict of interest. I am suggesting that if a Minister in the last Government could have been there for seven years with an admitted controlling interest before he resigned that interest, there was a question of a conflict of interest, with which the Leader of the Opposition did not seem to be concerned. I have explained the position today and no conflict of interest arises.

Mr. Gilmour

In view of the unsatisfactory nature—[Interruption.]—of the Prime Minister's reply, I beg to give notice that I shall—[Interruption.]—raise the matter as soon as possible.

Mr. Speaker

I assume from his posture that the hon. Gentleman was giving notice.