HC Deb 21 April 1970 vol 800 cc244-54
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

Mr. Speaker, with permission I should like to make a statement. I regret to trouble the House, but issues concerning relations between hon. Members of this House and public servants are involved.

The suggestion has been made that contacts between senior civil servants and Opposition leaders have been banned on my instructions. There have been no such instructions. There is no ban.

The only instruction in force was given by me orally to the Head of the Civil Service and it is that the practice of our predecessors in these matters should be followed.

I should, however, inform the House that the present Opposition have made a number of requests over the last two or three years to see civil servants and for information which have raised issues not governed by any precedent and which were not, in themselves, requests for meetings between civil servants and right hon. Gentlemen.

In March, 1968, letters were sent on behalf of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples), to whom I gave notice that I would be mentioning this matter, to certain Permanent Secretaries referring to studies he was making in the public sector at the request of the Leader of the Opposition. He asked for facilities for members of a Research Unit he had established to interview the Permanent Secretaries concerned on the process of decision-making in Government. This request was referred to Ministers, and a reply was sent to the right hon. Gentleman referring him to published material by Ministers.

In December of the same year a management consultancy firm which had been engaged by the Conservative Party to carry out a comparative study of United States and United Kingdom purchasing practices approached a number of Departments to ask for full information on present practices. This, again, was considered by Ministers, since there were no precedents for this kind of approach. It was decided that it would be inappropriate for a consultancy firm employed by the Opposition to have direct access to Government Departments and to information which could not be made available in Parliament and to the general public.

In refusing the request, Ministers were advised to point out that Opposition Members can, of course, be invited to take advantage of the opportunities open to them to make inquiries through parliamentary channels, and that Ministers should be willing to see any Member through whom such an approach was made, with officials present who could supply any factual information which seemed appropriate. The right hon. and learned Member for Wallasey then approached a number of Ministers by letter enclosing a lengthy questionnaire, quite rightly.

In consequence, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote to the right hon. Gentleman suggesting that most of the questions could be answered by means of Parliamentary Questions. Accordingly, a large number of Questions were tabled by the right hon. Gentleman and answered in late July. Hon. Members will find over 60 such Questions and Answers in HANSARD for 25th July.

I am sure that the House will agree that it was right to give any information which did not have to be treated as confidential, but that it should be done in such a way that all hon. Members and responsible organisations should have equal access to it.

I have seen that suggestions have been made that there is a much tighter regime in force today than when my right hon. Friend and I were in opposition. This is not so. In my own case, apart from the normal briefing I sought from Foreign Office Ministers when going abroad, sometimes supplemented on their direction by Foreign Office officials, I had no discussion with any senior civil servant on matters affecting the policy of the new Government until the last week of July, 1964. That discussion was related solely to machinery of government and did not take place on my initiative or at my request. The arrangements were, of course, approved by the then Prime Minister, who attached perfectly reasonable conditions to the meeting. It was around the same time, considerably less than six months from the statutory end of that Parliament, and only then, that the right hon. Gentleman authorised facilities for one or two of my senior colleagues to have other discussions on government machinery questions.

I am not aware of any other cases where access to officials was sought or agreed for such purposes when we were in opposition.

It has always been the case, and no change has been made by this Administration, that Members of Parliament, including Opposition leaders, are given normal facilities for briefing when going abroad. There have always been special arrangements in force so far as defence briefing is concerned and these have continued. Indeed, on more than one occasion I proposed that right hon. Gentlemen opposite should be given the fullest possible briefing on defence matters, including many questions on which we as an Opposition had been refused facilities.

I have sought to identify cases referred to in this morning's Press in stories alleging that a gag has been imposed by me and that senior civil servants have been warned off meetings with Opposition leaders. No such case has been referred to me. Nor would it be under instructions, to which I have referred, that the Head of the Civil Service is responsible for operating the conventions which have ruled in the past. If there have been refusals or cancellations, this has not been the result of any ruling by him or me nor has any such case been referred to either of us for a ruling.

I understand—and I have made inquiries following this report—there was one case where a senior Minister invited the Opposition spokesman to lunch at his Ministry and to meet senior officials. Subsequently, the Opposition spokesman invited a senior civil servant to lunch and the civil servant in question, within his own discretion, without consulting his Minister, decided not to accept. When he later reported this to his Minister his Minister said that he would certainly have agreed if he had been asked.

I shall, of course, try to identify the other cases referred to in this morning's reports and take any action which is appropriate. But I can inform the House that whatever decision might have been taken by an individual civil servant it has not resulted from instructions from the Head of the Civil Service or from me. Apart from the type of case I have mentioned, affecting a firm or a research organisation employed by a political party, the practice, so far as contacts between leading members of the Opposition and senior officials are concerned, has not been changed, either in October, 1964, or as this morning's allegations suggest, more recently.

Mr. Heath

Is the Prime Minister aware that we on this side of the House welcome his statement that no directive has gone from him concerning the relationship between the Civil Service, the Government machine, and leaders of the Opposition parties, and, further, that any cases which have occurred will be investigated by him and that he will no doubt ensure that his colleagues in the Cabinet, as well as senior officials in the Civil Service, have full knowledge of the statement which he has made today?

There is one factual question which I should like to ask the Prime Minister. He said that he had no relationship with the Civil Service before July, 1964, a few months before the General Election. Is he aware that his right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. George Brown) has already published a detailed statement about the formation of the D.E.A. and the policy discussions which went on beforehand and that he gives details of how full discussions went on with the Civil Service more than a year before the General Election? Is the Prime Minister, in saying that the same relationship will be maintained as was maintained under the previous Administration covering these particular questions, assuring us that similar conversations can go on?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. In that particular case the approach was not made by me, but by my right hon. Friend, to the Prime Minister of the day, who laid down the ground rules of such consultation. In my case, as I have said, the engagement was not on my initiative at all, but the then Prime Minister laid down perfectly appropriate ground rules. I am saying, therefore, that there has been no change in the practice, though it was not until very near the 1964 election that such facilities were given to us.

If the right hon. Gentleman has at any time had any case where he felt that there was a departure from the convention in these matters, which have gone on over a period of years, I am sure that he would have asked me to look into it, or asked the Minister concerned, because Ministers must take their own responsibility in these matters as well. I have had no complaint from the right hon. Gentleman at any time about this matter.

I am sure that the action of the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) was perfectly appropriate and fair in all the circumstances, as I have made clear; but no one in the House would suggest that any Government should on demand be required to provide facilities for a consultancy firm employed by the Opposition to investigate the inner workings of Departments for which they are responsible. I think that Parliament would object to that as well.

I am concerned, having given the right hon. Gentleman all the assurances that he has sought and since there have been no complaints, so far as I know, by the official Opposition, to read in the papers this morning that startling claims that Downing Street had attempted to warn off Whitehall's top civil servants were being made by leading Tories at Westminster last night in what was obviously an orchestrated story.

Mr. Hooley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have made greater and more sustained efforts to make available to Parliament and to the public at large information about the workings of Government and the extension of parliamentary control than any previous Government? If the Opposition are anxious to probe into the machinery and the workings of government they should support, not oppose, the reform of the procedures of this Parliament.

The Prime Minister

I think that we can make this claim, certainly in relation to some of the points dealt with in the Question that I answered earlier this afternoon, and, of course, in relation to the publication of certain financial statistics. I have made my statement today because I think that quite important constitutional issues have been called in question.

I should not normally waste the time of the House replying to stories in the Press that happen to be untrue. But it is important that the question of the normal relations between the Civil Service and the Opposition should be clarified and made clear, because the last thing that any of us wants to see is what appeared to be a concerted attempt this morning to bring the Civil Service into politics.

Mr. Marples

Does the Prime Minister agree that for the Opposition to formulate a detailed policy which can actually be implemented it is necessary for them to have access to a certain amount of detail? I am grateful to the Prime Minister for allowing my Questions to be answered, but I should like him to assure me that there is no one in the House more aware that promises made at election time should be kept than the right hon. Gentleman himself.

The Prime Minister

It is nice to see the right hon. Gentleman again.

I certainly agree that all reasonable facilities should be available to any Opposition to formulate their policies. After all, that is what elections should be about. The right hon. Gentleman—I hope I have made this clear—has, in my view, acted entirely properly in everything that he has done in this matter in relations with the Government. The Government, equally, were right to refuse entry to a consultancy firm employed by the Opposition into the working of Government Departments.

The right hon. Gentleman, in expressing his thanks for the response that we have made to his efforts in this matter, should recognise that when we were in opposition we did not ask for anything like the facilities for which he has asked. I do not complain. Things move on in the matter of research—and some parties have more money to spend on consultancy firms than others.

As I say, I do not complain; but the right hon. Gentleman cannot complain at what we have done, and I do not think that he has. What I resent particularly in certain of the Press stories that were assiduously put about last night is the suggestion that we have tightened up the supply of information and that we have imposed a gag when the truth is that we have given far more information to the Opposition than we were ever given.

Mr. Bottomley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the whole House will appreciate his statement, which upholds the important convention of our political way of life?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. I think that it is important to get this on record. I do not, however, intend to create a precedent—that every fabrication that I read in the Press from now on will have to take up the time of Parliament. I should like in future to issue a dementi about one in every 100 lies.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that, although this is a difficult subject, it is right that Members of Parliament or groups of Members, wherever they may sit in the House, should have the fullest access to information? Would it not be very much better that in future any such requests are channelled not to individual civil servants, but to Ministers, with the knowledge that if their refusal is thought to be unreasonable it can be raised in this House, thereby preventing civil servants from being involved in what could be political disputes?

Further, will the Prime Minister tell us whether there is reciprocity in the matter and whether, for example, it is his experience that if the Opposition find information which is in the national interest they divulge it, particularly in regard to foreign or illegal regimes?

The Prime Minister

I think, as was said on Sunday night, that the visits of the right hon. Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling) and the right hon. Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home) were attended by the fullest information given to the Government by the right hon. Gentlemen. There is no question of that. Where secrecy seems to have taken hold is in what has been going on during the last three or four months, if anything. We do not know, because we do not get any statement from them about it.

On the more important part of the right hon. Gentleman's question, it must be the duty of the Government to try to provide information not only by means of Question and Answer, but to hon. Members who seek information where that can be done on a basis that is free to everyone, not on the basis of giving exclusive secrets to certain hon. Members and not to others. This is what we are trying to do.

I still think it is right that the Head of the Civil Service should be in charge of the behaviour of civil servants in this matter. They are experienced people and they have their conventions, practices and rules. I think it better for the Head of the Civil Service to deal with these matters. After all, it is well known that there are certain conventions, essential to our constitution, where the Civil Service—[Interruption.] It is important that some of these things should be said in the House.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

The Prime Minister

Right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite must be disappointed that the Press stories that they relished at breakfast time are not true.

I was dealing with certain conventions. For example, the protection of documents of a previous Government should be left to the Civil Service without interference from Ministers. It is probably also right that the Head of the Civil Service should be responsible for the behaviour of individual civil servants within the instruction that I have given following past practice. That is what we are doing.

If any right hon. or hon. Member feels aggrieved by any decision about refusal of contact or information, it is up to that hon. Member to raise the matter with me or with the Minister responsible.

Mr. Heath

I think that the Prime Minister has introduced one qualification which he did not mean to introduce in answering the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). He said that the endeavour of the Government was to make available information which could be made available on the same basis to everybody. Surely the previous practice has been that, on the Government's decision, information is made available to leading members of the Opposition which is not available to all hon. Members or to the outside public. —[HON. MEMBERS: " 0h."] It may be disputed, but the Prime Minister said that he would adhere to previous practice, and that was the previous practice.

As regards management consultants, we accepted the decision. The Government employ management consultants who have access to all their information. They are entitled to do it, and we accepted that, but, on the specific qualification which the right hon. Gentleman has made, I do not think that he wanted to say that.

The Prime Minister

I am sorry if there was some misunderstanding. I think that when we are asked, for example, as in the case I mentioned, by a management consultancy firm, or in another case by a research unit, for special facilities to get information which is not available to the House as a whole, we are right to say " No ", because to do otherwise would not be fair to hon. Members, to other consultancy firms and research organisations, or the general public.

We were also right to seek to help the right hon. Member for Wallasey as we did by saying how these questions could be dealt with, and by organising the Answers as fully as he organised the Questions. That is one thing. There ought not to be exclusivity in that matter.

Perhaps what I said was not very clear. On the point mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, facilities have always been available on a Privy Councillor basis to right hon. Members of the House of both Opposition parties. In addition, there has always been an understanding, I think, that where the leading Opposition representatives themselves—and this applies to more than one Opposition party—seek to have information which will help them to clarify their views and formulate their policies, this should be made available. This has been done. My claim is that, despite what has been said this morning, this has been done on a bigger scale under this Government than happened when we were in opposition.

Mr. Michael Foot

Every fair-minded person will accept the rightness of the Prime Minister making his statement, in view of the false allegations which have been made against him and the Government during the last few days.

Will my right hon. Friend take it into account that his statement and the discussion on it in the House raise extremely important questions about the relationship between the Civil Service and the House of Commons as a whole? Some of us find it intolerable that there should be a kind of first- and second-rate citizenship in the House of Commons about the information which can be obtained from the Civil Service.

Will my right hon. Friend therefore issue a rather fuller statement about the whole of this aspect of the matter, particularly because it appears, from many of our debates in recent years, that the Civil Service was presumptuous enough to apply much more rigid rules to this incoming Government in 1964 in regard to what they could find out about the behaviour of their predecessors than they did in 1951?

Will my right hon. Friend understand that we do not wish to have a situation in which the Civil Service is able to choose to which Members of Parliament it will talk?

The Prime Minister

I do not believe that there is anything in that last point. There are established rules about the access by the incoming Government to papers, Cabinet minutes, and other internal discussions held by the previous Government. I believe that what happened in 1964, and subsequently, about the transactions of right hon. Gentlemen opposite is what has appertained on previous occasions when there has been a change of Government. I have heard no evidence, and I have not seen any, of any change.

The relationship between the Civil Service and this House is a difficult question, and that is why I regret that it has been thrown into party politics by this morning's Press reports. The Ministers of each Department, and the Prime Minister in particular, are responsible for what happens in this repect. It is for any hon. Member who sees any cause for complaint to raise it with the responsible Minister, or with me.

With regard to the relationship between individual hon. Members and the Civil Service, there is the established position of the Opposition, invoked rarely when we were in opposition, but rather more since, and I am not aware of any difficulties which have arisen. In fact, what we as the Government have been doing is to give a larger number of hon. Members the chance of quizzing civil servants on a scale that has never happened before, through Select Committees. I had a far greater relationship with civil servants as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee than I ever had as an Opposition Member. I do not believe that I had any discussions with any civil servant on public policy or machinery of government issues. I had many discussions with them, and this is open to many hon. Members who are members of Select Committees.