HC Deb 11 April 1968 vol 762 cc1585-8
Q7. Earl of Dalkeith

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the decision to be concerned directly in the work of the Department of Economic Affairs, he will adopt the practice of holding regular weekly or fortnightly Press Conferences on the state of the nation's economic recovery.

Q8. Mr. John Smith

asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of his decision to be concerned directly in the work of the Department of Economic Affairs, he will in future hold Press Conferences at regular intervals to give a report of the progress being made in the recovery of the economy.

The Prime Minister

No, Sir.

Earl of Dalkeith

Does not the Prime Minister agree that it is highly desirable to try to restore faith in Parliament? To that end, does not he think that a useful first step might be for him to start off a series of frank and honest admissions of his blunders that have led us to our present sorry plight?

The Prime Minister

The noble Lord will recognise that I do not accept the premises in that question. As to the proposal for Press conferences, I have, as all my predecessors had, what is far more important—that is, twice-weekly sessions of Questions in the House. That is better than having Press conferences to deal with what the noble Lord has in mind.

Mr. Heath

Is it true that the Prime Minister has now relinquished his overall responsibility for the Department of Economic Affairs?

The Prime Minister

The answer to that is "Yes", except—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—certainly. I took over [Interruption.]—this is a very serious matter. I took over that responsibility last August because I was not satisfied with the co-ordination among the industrial departments on the industrial work. With the new changes I have made, which I think are pretty well known to the House and to the right hon. Gentleman, of course I retain my present and previous responsibility for the coordination, not only of industrial matters, but of economic matters in general; and this will continue. But I am all the time trying to take steps to ensure that the industrial departments are able to do even more than they have done so far for industrial productivity and efficiency. Hence the changes announced last week.

Mr. Heath

Is it not thoroughly unsatisfactory that both on the occasion when the Prime Minister took overall responsibility for D.E.A. and on the occasion of his relinquishing it now, no statement of any official or formal kind was made and neither did he come to the House to tell it? It was done in both instances purely by guidance to the Press. This is a deplorable procedure, and I ask the Prime Minister never to do it again.

The Prime Minister

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, I do not take instructions from him, or the country would be in a very serious mess. As regards the first occasion, the House was not sitting, and I dealt with it when we came back. On this occasion, knowing that these Questions were down, I intended to take the opportunity—[An HON. MEMBER: "Really."] If the hon. Gentleman doubts what I have said, I invite him to come and look at the announcement in this file. I am really sick of the hon. Gentleman's tittering.

Mr. Thorpe

In order that Parliament may have a greater say in economic affairs, will the Prime Minister give serious thought to a Select Committee on economic affairs which could go wider than the D.E.A. and possibly include the Board of Trade and the Ministry of Labour?

The Prime Minister

We are pretty fully manned up with Select Committees and Standing Committees at present. Indeed, the House will be aware of the difficulty in finding enough hon. Members able, because of the devoted work which they give to existing Committees, to man some of the legislative Standing Committees. We are experimenting with a wider range, but it is essential that some of our important and historic Committees should not be short of hon. Members. I do not think that it would be the general wish of the House that we should extend the system of Select Committees, for example, to cover economic affairs, as we have abundant facilities for debates, as well as the annual marathon on the Finance Bill.

Dr. Gray

In trying to improve the public relations and Press relations of the Government and Government Departments, will my right hon. Friend look at the possibility of employing more working journalists in the information services and fewer public relations officers who come from differing and non-journalist backgrounds?

The Prime Minister

I cannot immediately think of many, or any, such public relations officers, though I may be wrong. Certainly, those most closely associated with me were working journalists with great experience of the Press.

Mr. Maudling

The Prime Minister said that he intended to make the announcement to the House in the course of answering these Questions. As he could not have been certain that the Questions would be reached, why did he not put the statement in his original Answer, instead of relying on supplementaries?

The Prime Minister

I was very optimistic that I should answer all my Questions today, in view of the usual absenteeism on the last day. But I was wrong about that. The dedication of hon. Members who had put Questions down to me in being in their places is most commendable and welcome.

Mr. Biffen

Reverting to the original Question by my noble Friend the member for Edinburgh, North (Earl of Dalkeith), in view of the Prime Minister's reluctance to have such Press conferences, will he take this opportunity to tell the House by what number the civil servants in the Department of Economic Affairs will be reduced after the transfer of many of its functions now to the new Department of Employment and Productivity?

The Prime Minister

It will be reduced. If the hon. Gentleman will put a Question to my right hon. Friend, I shall try to have an answer for him. I have not got it in my head.

Mr. Dempsey

Will my right hon. Friend take it that we are grateful to him because he, at least, takes these decisions during Parliamentary sittings so that we we may question his actions, whereas, when the Opposition take major decisions, it is usually done during Recesses when we cannot question them?

The Prime Minister

Decisions taken by the Opposition have not much relevance to anything, and certainly no constitutional validity even when we can understand them. What was serious was that some of the most momentous decisions taken by the previous Government, touching the welfare of millions of our people, were announced in the Recess. I think, for example, the decision to introduce the Rent Bill, which was announced, of all places, at a Tory Party conference, where, obviously, it had far more acceptability than it had subsequently among tenants when it became an Act of Parliament.