HC Deb 04 February 1966 vol 723 cc1539-50

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West)

Never in modern history has a Royal visit overseas evoked so much public and private criticism from all shades of opinion and from all parts of the Commonwealth as did the recent trip of Princess Margaret to the United States of America. Time does not permit me to quote them all. Adverse Press comment ranged from the far right of the Sunday Telegraph and the Sunday Express to the Observer, the Sun, the Sunday Citizen, the New Statesman and the Journalist, to mention just a few.

The visit was variously described, to quote the Sunday Citizen, as a whirl of high society dinners and receptions. The Sunday Express described it as a holiday frolic among the tinsel princes and princesses of Hollywood. The Sun talked of the insensitive vulgarity of conspicuous expenditure and the New Statesman described it as a private rubber-necking trip to the American fun centres. These are not my words. They are the words of the Press over the entire political spectrum.

The Observer and other newspapers questioned the purpose of the visit. The Observer asked was it a case of just showing the flag? Was it designed to foster British exports, as we have been led to believe from the Government Front Bench? If that was the case, then the Beatles did a better job but at much less cost to the public purse. Was it an attempted boost for the British fashion trade? After all, as the Observer remarked, the Princess is recognised as a front runner for the British rag trade.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Even if the hon. Gentleman seeks to quote from the Press may I remind him of the rules of the House? They state: Unless the discussion is based upon a substantive motion, drawn in proper terms, reflections must not be cast in debate upon the conduct of the sovereign, the heir to the throne, or other members of the royal family. The hon. Gentleman may make what reflections he likes on the Ministers concerned.

Mr. Hamilton

I took the precaution of making a copy of Erskine May, pages 455 and 457, and I shall be referring to those extracts later. I know how difficult it is in a debate of this kind to keep in order, and a lot of the things that I would say would be out of order in this House: but if what the Observer said is true then presumably the cost of the wardrobe which was variously estimated at £4,000 would be met out of public funds. I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs whether the wardrobe was paid for in whole or in part out of public funds.

The New Statesman made another suggestion, that the purpose of the visit might be to infuse vitality into a bored aristocracy which had begun to doubt its own importance. I do not know—

Mr. Speaker

Order. This again looks to me like a reflection. The mere quoting of criticism outside the House cannot justify breaking the rules of the House.

Mr. Hamilton

I leave the point.

My hon. Friend the other Minister of State, on 13th December, did not give an explanation of the purpose of the visit. He talked about the desirability of an official visit to the United States by a member of the Royal Family either during the autumn of this year"— that is 1965— or the spring of next year…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1965; Vol. 722, c. 891.] He did not say why the Government thought that it should be then or at any other time. I should be glad if my hon. Friend the Minister of State now present would tell me exactly what led the Foreign. Office to that proposition and also whether he can give us any concrete results of the visit. My hon. Friend will have a little time—I do not know how much—to reply.

I now turn to the actual origins of the visit. These again are equally obscure. The Foreign Office admitted, again in reply to my Question on 13th December, that it had all begun with a private invitation issued to Princess Margaret to visit the United States. The Foreign Office did not say where the private invitation emanated from. It emanated, as most of us know, from Miss Sharman Douglas, who is connected, I believe, with a public relations consultancy firm in the United States. But from whom did the original suggestion come that the visit should then become an official visit? Was the initiative taken by the Princess to the Foreign Office, or was it the other way round? When the Foreign Office agreed to make it official, did it then put a limit on the total cost to be paid out of public funds, or was it in the nature of a blank cheque, an open-ended commitment?

What exactly did the Foreign Office do at the outset? Is there any truth in the suggestion made in The Sun, I believe on 3rd December, that, following widespread attacks on the extravagance involved in the whole trip, the whole question of the cost of such trips is being or has been seriously examined by the Foreign Office or the Treasury? I hope that this is so. In the course of other Questions in the House I sought to obtain information of the cost to public funds of the trip. The Chancellor of the Exchequer gave me an answer that, although the bills were not yet in, he thought that it would not be much above £30,000. I think that that is the gist of his answer.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State, in a letter to which I will refer later, said that all the bills were not yet in. He thought that they might be in in about a month. I will deal with that point in a moment, but I should like my hon. Friend to give an undertaking that when that day comes I shall have not only the full total cost but a detailed breakdown of it.

Following my Question on 13th December to the Foreign Office, I sent a letter to my hon. Friend on 15th December asking him certain questions about the visit, to which he replied five weeks later. I must say that the answers to the Questions which I put on 13th December deeply shocked me. They were answers which any Tory Minister could have made—there was no difference whatever. Nor was there any difference at all between the terms of the letter which I received from the Minister five weeks later when he replied to mine.

I asked certain questions about the nature of the visit, who was met, the total cost, and whether, since it had become an official visit or was designated as an official visit, I could have a copy of the itinerary. I received a reply to that letter on 19th January. I do not know what the reasons for the delay were. Perhaps there was some good and adequate explanation. Certainly, the content of the letter did not justify that kind of delay.

But there was no copy of the itinerary. Why? In fact, I had already seen the two little booklets containing the minute by minute itinerary. Why was not I sent those by the Foreign Office? I had the one showing the trip for the West Coast up to 14th November and I had the other for the East Coast from 15th to 24th November. I want to know why the Foreign Office sought to fob me off with an abbreviated version. Was it because it distinguished, as its abbreviated version sought to do, between public and official engagements and the private part of the trip? I presume that that is the explanation.

Before I come to examine the specific details of the Foreign Office letter, I want to say to the House, and for the record, something about the size of the entourage. The Princess had with her a lady-in-waiting, two maids, a private secretary, a lady secretary, a hairdresser, a police officer, a deputy captain of the Queen's Flight, and two others. Lord Snowdon had with him a valet and a second footman. That is a total of 12. We talk about a chronic shortage of manpower in the national economy. The Sunday Express estimated the total at 14, and the New Statesman said that it eventually reached 50.

An entire first-class compartment of the B.O.A.C. plane was reserved at a cost estimated by one newspaper—I forget which—at £6,580, plus about £3,000 for excess baggage. Who footed those bills? How were they apportioned? Has the Foreign Office met the cost? Has the Treasury paid the lot? We do not know. I want to know. Who paid the hairdresser? I understand that he lost three weeks' business while he was away. Does he get compensation for the loss of that business?

What was the total bill, and who paid it? The whole entourage had to be accommodated in United States hotels throughout the three weeks. According to the New Statesman, the bill in one hotel called the Arizona Inn must have been not less than £3,000. But the most vulgar extravagance of all was the use of a plane from the Queen's Flight. That plane was flown specially to the United States.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Walter Padley) indicated dissent.

Mr. Hamilton

I am subject to correction. I am trying to find out the facts. The great difficulty for the back bencher is to find out the truth about these things. My information is that this plane was specially flown to the United States with its crew of seven. The cost to the Treasury was estimated—again, I am querying this, putting it in interrogatory form—at £450 per hour. I do not know what the total cost was and how it was shared.

I come now to the itinerary. The answer to my Question on 13th December was that 14 of the 20 days were entirely taken up with public engagements, and the list sent to me by the Foreign Office purported to prove that. Anyone who had just seen this list and not an official itinerary might have been convinced. It appears to be a very full programme. It talks about several Press conferences, Some of these occasions are timed in the itinerary. A Press conference on 4th November lasted 20 minutes, another on 15th November lasted 45 minutes. There was "attendance at display of British goods," said the Foreign Office blurb. On 5th November there was a fashion parade. Two and a half hours were spent there. On Monday, 8th November, at J. W. Robinson's Beverley Hills store —20 minutes. On 22nd November, a visit unspecified in minutes or hours or seconds—visited Filth Avenue stores. Visits to universities? One which is here documented in the Foreign Office brief was on 6th November to California University-50 minutes there. A visit to Monterey Naval Air Station, no time on the brief; I am told five minutes there.

And so it goes on, meetings with British communities and American personalities. The Foreign Office letter said that she met "a wide range of American people" including Americans of all races and colours. This is certainly not apparent from the official itinerary. As the New Statesman remarked: If they fulfilled their desire to meet all kinds of Americans they must have done it on the sly". I could quote a whole lot of names which seem to me to be those of people in top society in America, but none of the names of those I thought, and many other people thought, might have been met.

Since I first raised this matter on the Floor of the House I have received a postbag of hundreds of letters from all parts of the world—Canada, the United States, as one might expect, Australia, New Zealand, even Germany, and from all parts of the United Kingdom, and in those letters there is a five-to-one majority in favour of the view which I take. I can show the Minister the letters and let him sort them out for himself if he does not believe me. I do not attach undue significance to the figures, but I feel that they justify me in saying that there are very many people certainly, I think millions of people, in this country who feel as strongly as I do about this matter. Many of them are afraid to speak. Many even in this House have approached me privately and said that they agree with me, but would not express themselves publicly.

Throughout this speech I have tried to bear in mind the words which you yourself quoted, Mr. Speaker, that reflections must not be cast in debate upon the conduct of the sovereign, the heir to the throne, or other members of the royal family. I am also aware of the earlier passage in Erskine May about warnings of dire consequences for any Member of Parliament who uses treasonable or seditious language about the Royal Family. I do not think I have used any in this speech today. Erskine May says: Members have not only been called to order for such offences but have been reprimanded, committed to the custody of the Serjeant, or even sent to the Tower". I have no wish thus to martyr myself in this cause, and the Government can ill afford the loss of even my presence and vole, and I have no desire, anyhow, to deprive them of it, but I feel that I must say this one thing in conclusion, to put the matter in its wider perspective. The Government have embarked on policies designed to modernise Britain, to enable us to pay our way, and to raise the standards of all our people. The maximum effort is being called for from everybody—by way of income restraint, increased productivity, and a sense of social responsibility. We must all be seen to be in this struggle—and "all" means just what it says: all. Despite all the advances which have been made there are still millions of people in this country who are suffering poverty and hardship, still millions without adequate housing accommodation. No one, however exalted, must be allowed to behave, and certainly not at public expense, as if they were completely indifferent or insensitive to the expenditure—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Now comes the one moment in which the hon. Gentleman has gone out of order. If he wants to criticise Princess Margaret or the Royal Family, he has a method of doing so by putting a substantive Motion on the Order Paper, but he can criticise Her Majesty's Government as much as he likes.

Mr. Hamilton

I know that the line is very thin, Mr. Speaker, and you will no doubt keep me in order. I do not think that I have trespassed too far beyond the bounds of order so far.

It is in this context that I am criticising the Government for authorising the public expenditure incurred by this visit. My hon. Friend the Minister of State should not be too impatient. He will not have very much to say, anyhow. If it be argued, as it frequently has been, that my attacks are unfair, in that those attacked cannot answer back, then my answer is simple.

First, Conservative Members of Parliament, both back bench and Front Bench, have never hesitated to attack the advisers of Her Majesty's Government, very often on racial grounds. Secondly, considerable sums of public money are involved. Even if they are relatively minute, the principles involved are of very great importance and I believe I have the right to comment adversely on this.

Finally, I say that, if there are people who are paid out of public funds or financed out of public funds who cannot easily reply to attacks on their behaviour, the obvious way to avoid such criticism is to mend their behaviour.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the obvious way is to take the Parliamentary way of criticising.

Mr. Hamilton

I have had a good run and I appreciate the position, Mr. Speaker. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will accede to my request for further information. If he does not, I shall have to continue this campaign until I have it by other means.

4.23 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Walter Padley)

I would not challenge the right of my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) to raise this subject, but the conventions of the Adjournment debate seldom provide for leaving the Minister concerned only seven minutes in which to reply to 23 minutes of questioning. However, I will do my best.

Let me say at the outset that in the view of Her Majesty's Government the Princess Margaret visit to the United States was an outstanding success. I think that the country should be grateful to Her Royal Highness for the time and energy she devoted to it.

As my hon. Friend said, it began as a private visit in response to an invitation from a former United States ambassador in London. Then it developed—and I emphasise this—as the result of Government and official interest, into a visit which consisted mainly of official and public engagements undertaken at the specific request of Her Majesty's Government.

I say again what has been said in the House before. A visit by a member of the Royal Family had been under consideration to take place either in the autumn of last year or the early part of this year. The reason—if I may say this to my hon. Friend—was simply that the last Royal visit to the United States was when Her Majesty the Queen went in 1957. It did not appear unreasonable to Her Majesty's Ministers that, given the importance of the United States, another Royal visit should take place.

The tour, which covered visits to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington and New York as well as an entirely private visit to Arizona, lasted 20 days. Of these, 14 were entirely taken up with official and public engagements, of which there were more than 60.

It is all very well to talk about days and minutes, but these included Press conferences, civic receptions, attendances at displays of British goods, visits to universities, museums and schools, and attendances at charity functions and at receptions for British communities as well as American personalities.

In the context of trade particularly, Her Majesty's Government are informed by our representatives on the spot that Her Royal Highness and Lord Snowdon worked very hard indeed. They attended two British fashion shows and visited six shops displaying British goods. Lord Snowdon laid the foundation stone for a new building for a firm distributing British motor cycles on the West Coast of America, and visited a shop which specialises in selling men's clothes. Both also travelled on a British-designed hovercraft. As testimony to their hard work many of the Press reports praised the Princess and her husband for helping to sell British goods.

My hon. Friend referred to the visit to Fifth Avenue. It is important that we should realise that, as a result of this Royal visit to the shops on Fifth Avenue, 25 shops in the weeks before Christmas had displays of British goods, and I should have thought that Fifth Avenue in New York, just before Christmas, was about the best place to have an advertising exhibition of the potential of British exports to the important dollar market of North America. Everywhere they went the Princess and her husband were welcomed with open arms, and I think it is true to say that there was a lively interest among all sections of the American public, particularly the young, in this Royal visit.

They visited the jet propulsion laboratory, the California Institute of Technology, the Berkely Campus of the University of California, and they met in private American architects who have been responsible for some of the most modern buildings in the United States. I am sure that all that was extremely valuable in furthering the picture which Americans should have, and all too frequently do not have, of a modern up-to-date Britain. In the Press, on radio, and on television, the Royal visit was given a big coverage, and I am sure that the twin purpose of the visit, approved by Her Majesty's Ministers, of fostering Anglo-American good will and promoting British interests was notably achieved.

I turn now to the question of public funds. The figures given in reply to a Question some weeks ago are in the end substantially right. The cost of the trip will turn out to be about £31,000. Of this, £940 was for advance planning—obviously necessary in any State visit of this kind—£9,811 was in respect of air passages to and from the United States—and I do not think that even my hon. Friend would expect this party to go tourist class and not first class on B.O.A.C.—£5,015 was for the use of an Andover aircraft of the Queen's Flight for internal air travel, and here perhaps I might correct my hon. Friend.

It would, in any event, have been necessary to send this plane to North America for proving flights in connection with the visit of Her Majesty the Queen to the Caribbean, and, therefore, there was a dual purpose in the expenditure of money on the Andover plane which was used during the visit of Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon.

To continue the account of money spent, £4,671 was, as my hon. Friend suggested, a contribution to the personal expenses of the Royal Household, £4,025 for hotel accommodation and local transport charges in the United States, £4,342 for official receptions, and £2,196 for telegraphic communications, printing, and so on. By far the largest part, indeed roughly half, was accounted for by transport costs alone.

It is the view of Her Majesty's Government that this visit was an outstanding success. Finally, I would add that I am sure that the value of the visit which, apart from anything else, reminded the people of the United States, through hundreds of friendly Press reports and photographs, and through radio and television, of the achievements of Britain will, as the years go by, prove to have been considerable.

4.30 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John Stevas (Chelmsford)

I think that I have a few moments in which to address the House, and I am grateful for the opportunity to do so. Any Member is entitled to raise what he wishes in the House, but I think that the action of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) in cricitising the Government in this way, and, by implication, Princess Margaret, is unchivalrous, petty, and mean-minded, and will do much to prejudice the beneficial results of this visit which have been outlined so ably by the Minister in his reply.

The Princess was prevailed upon to allow her private visit to the United States to be turned into—

The Question having been proposed after Four 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 twenty-nine minutes to Five o'clock.