HC Deb 28 February 1967 vol 742 cc274-8
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement.

I regret that it was not possible to make this yesterday, the first Parliamentary opportunity for a formal announcement, but, as the House knows, I was in The Hague.

As hon. Members will be aware, I have appointed a Committee of Privy Councillors under the chairmanship of Lord Radcliffe with the following terms of reference: To examine the circumstances surrounding the publication of an article in the Daily Express of 21st February entitled, "Cable Vetting Sensation" in relation to the D notice system; and to consider what improvements, if any, are required in that system in order to maintain it as a voluntary system based on mutual trust and confidence between the Government and Press in the interests alike of the freedom of the Press and of the security of the State. The other members of the Committee will be my right hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) and the right hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Wirrall (Mr. Selwyn Lloyd), who was nominated by the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Heath

I am sure that the House would agree that the Prime Minister is right to appoint this Committee of In- quiry. Could the Prime Minister confirm that the phrase To examine the circumstances surrounding the publication of an article … means that the Committee can deal with the four points which I put to him in my letter, which I think is the case, and also the contents of the article to which he made reference in his own statement?

The Prime Minister

Yes. The construction of the terms of reference is now a matter for the Privy Councillor's Committee, but I would certainly assume—indeed they were drafted with this in mind —that they would be capable of that construction. That is one of the main things to which the Committee will presumably be addressing itself.

Mr. Thorpe

Since the Prime Minister has recognised that political judgments are involved, by the appointment of two distinguished politicians to serve on the Committee, would it not help to allay the concern of Members and the public alike in this very important constitutional matter if, instead of restricting it to membership of the two parties who have exclusively operated the D scheme, upon which they have now been asked to pass judgment, that the suggestion of, I think, the Leader of the Opposition, should be taken up, that it should be expanded to embrace Members of the three political parties in this House, by the appointment of one of the several Liberal Privy Councillors available?

May I finally express the hope that the Prime Minister will not fall back on the unfortunate and indefensible Conservative precedent of 1957 to justify the present action that he is taking?

The Prime Minister

There is that precedent and it is a useful one, but I would certainly be prepared to discuss with the hon. Gentleman whether a change should be made in this precedent for some future occasion, if one were to arise. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the situation when he says that this is a matter for political judgment, implying party political judgment. One of the Privy Councillors concerned said last weekend that this is not a party matter, nor is it. It is the experience of the two right hon. Gentlemen who have been nominated that the House wants to hear from, and not their political views.

As to responsibilities for the past, I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that even a Liberal Prime Minister has been involved in the particular practice that will be the subject of this inquiry.

Mr. Michael Foot

Since it is the case that this is an entirely voluntary system, and, therefore, any question of publication that may follow is a matter of judgment, would the Prime Minister confirm that, if the Committee were to make any proposal for departing, in any degree whatever, from the voluntary nature of the system, then the House of Commons, as well as distinguished Privy Councillors, would have to be consulted?

The Prime Minister

That is a very fair point. As my hon. Friend knows, the Radcliffe Committee considered the operation of the D notice system and stressed its essentially voluntary nature and said that its working depended on good will—the early Radcliffe Committee, that is.

I do not think it is for us to give any kind of lead to the Privy Councillors. Obviously, their report will be published in full, if that is possible. If not, in accordance with the usual procedure the Leader of the Opposition will see anything that it is thought should be excised on security grounds, and then the House will have the normal opportunity of debating anything in it. It is our desire to keep this a voluntary system as it has been all along.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is no suggestion that this is a party political matter, but merely that political considerations are involved, and that, therefore, the wider the canvas the more likely the value of the report is to be enhanced?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman does not like the references to the 1957 Committee, but it was a very valuable Committee and worked very well with its small membership.

What the Government are seeking to do, after consultation with the Leader of the Opposition, is to appoint a Committee, in addition to a distinguished judge, of two elder statesmen who claim the confidence of the whole House in these matters, and to rely on their judgment on all of these very difficult problems.

Sir L. Heald

Would the Prime Minister be good enough to say whether, under the terms of reference, Lord Radcliffe will be entitled to inquire into the question whether the alleged cable vetting has taken place and, if so, upon what legal authority, if any, it was done?

The Prime Minister

It will be for Lord Radcliffe to inquire into anything which he considers relevant in accordance with his terms of reference, and it could be that some inquiry into the system which the journalist in question purported to describe might be necessary for the purposes of identification. But we must leave this to the Committee. On the question of powers, the right hon. and learned Member has a Question down to me for answer later this week.

Mr. Winnick

Would not my right hon. Friend agree that this allegation of the vetting of overseas cables is far more important than the D notices? Would he agree, therefore, that there is an urgent need to review this apparently 40-year-old practice?

The Prime Minister

I do not think that one should go more into the merits of this case when we have appointed between us a Committee of Privy Councillors. It is for them to produce a report to the House. Any considerations such as that raised by my hon. Friend might be raised in the House after we have got the report.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Would the Prime Minister consider altering the terms of reference, if necessary, in two respects so that they might cover other matters which cause public anxiety: first, the attempts which were made by the Government to stop publication of this story by the Daily Express; and, secondly, the question whether there was an increase in the extent of scrutiny of cables within the recent past?

The Prime Minister

If the Committee considers that its terms of reference are unnecessarily restrictive, it must be for it to make representations to that effect.

I shall not comment on the tendentious way in which the hon. and learned Gentleman put his first question, but that view is one of the things which will have to be considered by the Committee; it is not for me to comment on it now. It is fully able to consider it within its terms of reference.

The question of the extent or method, as I have said, has not changed for 40 years, including the 13 years when the hon. and learned Gentleman sat on this side of the House. There has been no change, either, from the time when the right hon. and learned Member for Chertsey (Sir L. Heald) was Attorney-General.

Mr. Arthur Davidson

Would my right hon. Friend agree that it would be relevant for the Committee to consider the whole relationship between the Official Secrets Act and the Press in view of the fact that the very vague provisions of this Act lend themselves to the protection of Government Departments from embarrassing disclosures when national security is not affected rather than that they should be purely to protect national interests?

The Prime Minister

This question, which the Committee must be left to get on with in its own way, deals with the D notice system, or with certain circumstances which have arisen, and also with any changes considered desirable in the interests of the freedom of the Press and national security. It does not of itself raise the question of the Official Secrets Act. If the Committee feels that it should, it will, no doubt, so inform me so that the matter can be considered.

But certainly throughout the operation of the D notice system under successive Governments—as Lord Radcliffe reported, it worked very well—there has never been any question, to my knowledge, of any Government using the D notice system except when security was involved and a serious issue of security was raised. Whether that is the position in this case must be for the Committee to advise the House about.