HC Deb 19 March 1970 vol 798 cc782-94

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

I want to draw attention to the means of communication between this Parliament, as the legislature of this country and its centre of government, and the public at large.

In the Estimates upon which the Bill is founded, there are Supplementary Estimates for both the Treasury and the Foreign Office which no doubt include chief information officers and others who are responsible for disseminating information to the Press and, thus, to the public.

Before turning to the system by which that occurs, I should like to refer back to the question that we have discussed on previous occasions in this House, namely, how we might publicise our proceedings here—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harry Gourlay)

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will assist the Chair by indicating to which particular Estimates he is relating his remarks.

Mr. English

Certainly. The Supplementary Estimates of both the Treasury and the Foreign Office and other Departments relating to increases in salaries which, as they are not specified, I take to include officers engaged in these duties—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Will the hon. Gentleman help the Chair by indicating which subject, because some of the subheads at which I have looked appear merely to give increases in respect of National Insurance contributions and other matters, but nothing to do with actual increases in salaries.

Mr. English

I checked this with the Clerk's Department. There are increases—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am in charge of the debate. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will answer the question which I put to him.

Mr. English

Yes, Sir. Under both the Treasury and the Foreign Office—I have not got a copy of the Estimates: it was here a moment ago but it has now gone—you will find increases in salaries—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman may proceed until I find the relevant sub-head.

Mr. English

Before referring directly to the persons who speak to the Press on behalf of Ministers and advise Ministers in their own conversations with the Press, I should like to mention that we all realise that a large part of our proceedings is in public. Unfortunately—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I must draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that we are not discussing the general policy in the Estimates. This is not a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill approving the original Estimates, but merely on the Bill dealing with increases in the Supplementary Estimates. Therefore, his remarks must be wholly related to the increases. He cannot debate general policy on Second Reading of this Bill.

Mr. English

I entirely accept your Ruling, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that you will be aware that we have recently passed through a debate which dealt with a great deal on the police force—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I can only advise the hon. Gentleman that I rule as I hear; not on what has gone before.

Mr. English

I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I would point out, however—this is easy of proof—that the information services of Her Majesty's Government, which are included in the Estimates and in these increases in the sense that increases in salaries generally under the Treasury and the Foreign Office are included, have constantly increased over many years, particularly since the Second World War. In almost every set of Estimates and Supplementary Estimates there are increases in the items to which I wish to refer. This is only one of a long series. There are additional officers who assist the Government in their information services. This is not something which I necessarily wish to criticise, but I wish to investigate the use to which these individuals are sometimes put.

We in this Parliament have excellent means of communication with the public through the Press Gallery reporters who report our proceedings. Theoretically, there are 291 such reporters, but there are places for only 102, so it is perhaps fortunate that two-thirds of them stay away at any one time.

The facilities for reporting our proceedings to the public are excellent, but I wish that they were even better. I wish, as I believe half the Members of the House do, that there were facilities for the televising and radio broadcasting of our proceedings direct to the public. The dissemination of information about our activities in this House would be greatly improved by those means, and I hope that in the next Parliament they will be adopted.

The proposal to televise our proceedings on an experimental basis was defeated by only one vote, and I think I am right in saying that the overwhelming majority of the younger Members were in favour of it. I believe that with the passage of time, and as people brought up in the day and age of television come into the House, that decision will be reversed, and that the public will be able to see and hear what we do in this Chamber, rather than merely hear individuals being cross-questioned on a programme following our proceedings, possibly by people less well informed than Opposition Front Benchers might be.

If one goes a stage further back to the activities of the individuals referred to in the Supplementary Estimates, one finds that one of their functions—anda very valuable and correct function it is—is to ensure that whenever the Government issue a policy statement, a White Paper, or similar document, that document is handed to the Press privately, under embargo, a day or two before the date upon which the statement is to be made, or the document is to be published. This is a wholly laudable practice. It is obviously sensible that a newspaper reporter should have time to consider the policy statement in detail so that on the day of publication he can not merely produce a good summary of it, but can criticise it, favourably or unfavourably as the case may be. A good summary is all that most people ever see. They do not buy White Papers and similar documents. They read their newspapers and expect to be told what is contained in Government documents.

One wonders why these people about whom I am talking do not do the same for Members of Parliament. On Wednes- day we received the White Paper on the Annual Price Review. Presumably this was issued to the Press, under embargo, by the information officers of the Ministry of Agriculture, some time before we saw it, which was at 3.30 p.m., the time at which the Minister made his statement to the House. That was the procedure adopted for all hon. Members, except one, the exception being the Opposition Front Bench speaker on agriculture.

We are faced with the extraordinary situation that the Press is given time—and rightly so—to consider White Papers before they are made public, but we are not.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Member again, but this is a debate on general policy of a Department. I find difficulty in relating his remarks to the increases referred to in the Estimates. I am afraid the hon. Member must confine himself to that aspect. This is not a debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill—dealing with the original Estimates of the Departments he has mentioned.

Mr. English

I take your point, Mr. Deputy Speaker. We are asked to increase expenditure on these information services. We are asked to increase expenditure to provide for Her Majesty's Government, for example—I quote one example and hope to quote others—giving information to the Press in advance so that the Press may consider it. We are asked to provide for these increases, yet in this case the information services are either inefficient or perhaps, though I hesitate to say it, are deliberately endeavouring to make it more difficult for hon. Members to operate effectively as criticisers of the Executive. It seems that when we are asked for increases in money we should immediately ask whether the increases, like the original sums, are being applied efficiently to the purposes for which they are asked.

In this case, using the one example, a White Paper was issued, but, except for the Opposition Front Bench Member concerned, it came to hon. Members only at 3.30 p.m. It was impossible to read that statement while at the same time listening to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and to ask sensible questions immediately after. For exactly the same reason that the information services of the Government issued White Papers in advance to the Press, one would have thought that hon. Members, could have had it issued to them at 11 o'clock in the morning at least, on a matter which does not concern the nation's security—the Agricultural Price Review—so that they could read it and could be sensibly informed to cross-examine the Minister. That is done for the Opposition Front Bench with statements and White Papers. The only real inefficiency, but a very great one, is an attempt, one might say with the agreement of both Front Benches, to prevent a back-bencher criticising or asking questions of the Government Front Bench.

Within the rather strict limits which you correctly set, one may legitimately turn to the activities of the information services in regard to what we call the Lobby. The Lobby is almost a body which does not exist. There are permitted at any one time 80 United Kingdom and 47 overseas Press representatives in the Lobby. I have never seen so many, and I doubt whether my right hon. Friend the Minister without Portfolio and Deputy Leader of the House has seen so many, at a Lobby conference. I understand that the normal number attending a Lobby conference is about 40. The system itself might well be criticised.

We are asked, and have been asked in the past, for increases in money for the information services. Let us consider one of the principal purposes. We are not only considering the Parliamentary Lobby as the recipients of information, but also the foreign diplomatic correspondents being given Foreign Office briefings, industrial correspondents at the Department of Employment and Productivity, and so forth. One could go through a whole range. I take the case of the Foreign Office deliberately because it is in these Estimates and is probably responsible for more briefings than almost any other Department. It has them, I believe, at least daily.

In a lecture delivered at Stirling on 26th February, Mr. Alastair Hetherington made a series of criticisms of the whole system, criticisms which we ought to consider when we are considering the increased amount of money to be spent in respect of these items. He cited, for example, the comment of the Prime Minister when he was Leader of the Opposition: Press comment … is conditioned by official Press conferences—particularly in the Foreign Office. Nothing is said to Parliament by the Foreign Office, and diplomatic correspondents are reduced to utter dependence on a daily briefing at the Foreign Office. We all realise that that is true. There is a daily briefing by information officers and other officers in the Foreign Office. There is a daily briefing to the Press, but nothing like a daily briefing is given to Members of Parliament, and Parliament and the public are informed through the Press as a result of these briefings. It is, therefore, important to question the efficiency with which this is done.

Mr. Hetherington makes several substantial criticisms of the whole system and gives several examples. I shall not quote in detail, but, to put the matter briefly, the editor of a great national newspaper, who was himself once a foreign editor, is directly accusing the Foreign Office of untruth. He is accusing the Foreign Office directly, with illustrations and examples given in his lecture, of quite literally not telling the truth on all occasions.

Other criticisms can be offered. An accusation commonly levelled at the Foreign Office—I do not think it is in Mr. Hetherington's lecture—is that on occasions when they suspect that the Press may receive information from another source, officers at the Foreign Office are known to give such information at the private briefings and ask that it should be "not for writing", as the phrase has it; in other words, that it should not be used. That seems rather an unjust and improper practice if done for that reason. Obviously, it is permissible for someone to ask for something to be off the record, or not for writing, but if it is used as a method of blocking information which foreign correspondents would otherwise receive, it seems to me to he an improper practice.

One can criticise the Foreign Office information services and others in respect of these briefings by adopting Mr. Hetherington's other observation. He said—and I agree— I will not labour the point. It happens extraordinarily often. The Foreign Office in my experience are the worst offenders, but they are far from being alone". As regards his criticisms of briefings generally, one would believe that the editor of a national newspaper is a person who is likely to know that the Foreign Office is the worst offender in such breaches as there are or such misuse as there is of the Lobby system.

Here is one suggestion for improvement. These briefings, we all know, are conducted by Government Departments and even by the Leader of the Opposition. Their existence ought to be brought out into the open. The public have a right to know that they occur, as we know. If we see, on the same morning, in five national newspapers, five stories which are remarkably similar, we deduce that a Ministry or a civil servant has given a briefing. We realise that it has come from 10, Downing Street, or the Leader of the Opposition or the Leader of the House or the Foreign Office. If we know this, why should not the public? These briefings must be in private to serve their purpose, but is there any reason to conceal their existence?

Would it not often be possible to attribute the information, in the way that this is often done after White House Press conferences? There, there is a series of possibilities. Things can be said which are off the record or not for attribution, but it is much more frequent in the United States for an individual to be able to write, "A White House spokesman said today. …" If this were done more frequently in this country, when whole series of stories stem from a single original source, the public could know what hon. Members know, through their knowledge of how the system works. Why should the public be the only ones not to know? Why should they not be told in their newspapers, "A Foreign Office spokesman said today …"? This would improve the system.

I do not say that it could be done in every case, but we should more often publicise the existence of our information services, we should look at them more closely than we do, and above all, we should inform the public that they are operating and putting out stories from the Government, so that they know the source of stories which so often appear in their newspapers.

I hope that, within the limits of order, I have made my point—that we must not grant increases in these services without thought. We should consider what they are used for, we should ensure that they are used for their proper purpose, and we should keep our people in our democracy as fully informed as possible of how their Government are working.

12.53 a.m.

The Minister without Portfolio and Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Peter Shore)

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) on the skill that he has shown in relating this very wide and interesting theme to the narrow point of the increase in the Supplementary Estimates in relation to the information services of particular Government Departments. He showed the skill which we have come to expect of him in negotiating this rather difficult course.

This is a subject with which all hon. Members—and all Ministers—are very much concerned. All of us who are part of this great British democracy are concerned that we should make it possible for all those involved in it to have the maximum amount of information. This is very much a part of the work of the information services and the information departments of the Ministries. It is necessary in the world in which we live that we should maximise understanding of public issues and that through that understanding we may gain, as we so often need, consent to the policies which are being pursued.

My hon. Friend touched on one of the two great media of communicationbroadcasting—and he expressed a regret, of which I am already aware, that this House has not seen fit to agree to conduct an experiment in closed-circuit television broadcasting. I remember very well my hon. Friend's interest in this subject, since he and I served on the original Select Committee which investigated the possibilities of televising Parliamentary proceedings in the 1965–66 Session of Parliament. The work of that Select Committee was not completed, but my hon. Friend had the opportunity of continuing his work on this subject in the Session that followed.

As my hon. Friend will recall, this matter was brought before the House in a debate in, I believe, November, 1966. Then the House, by a very narrow vote, did not approve the Select Committee's recommendation that this experiment should take place. As recently as November last year the same matter was brought before the House by my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), and on that occasion, too, the question was not decided because sufficient votes were not recorded in its favour. So my hon. Friend's hopes in this respect clearly have not been fulfilled. Whether they will be at a later stage is something which I suspect another Parliament will decide, unless hon. Members bring this matter forward, and I am not aware of pressure building up for this experiment which would be likely to lead to another debate in the remainder of this year.

I turn now to the other medium—the Press—to which my hon. Friend devoted most of his remarks. He made some interesting and partially valid points in describing the information services and the relationship between them and Parliament and the journalists who write about Parliament. He argued that it would be greatly to the convenience of hon. Members if they were able to receive copies of White Papers and statements to the House earlier than is customary. He suggested that it would be very helpful to hon. Members if they could receive some documents at the same time as did the Lobby and other correspondents. This is not always possible. He referred in particular to statements that Ministers may make.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, they are customarily made available to Opposition spokesmen, but the statements are often drafted and completed only a very short time before they are made available. It would be difficult in some cases to make such statements available to Members generally. Often the publication of White Papers and other documents is not possible except at a relatively short period of time before the time when they are available to the Press. My hon. Friend says that White Papers and other documents are made available to correspondents. He will agree that it is important, if we are to get a proper communication between Parliament and the public, that the Press should have the opportunity to write up, to describe, the material being published. It is necessary, simply because they have dead-lines to meet and have to turn the material into columns in the newspaper, that they should get it in sufficient time to make this possible. The needs of Members of Parliament are slightly different. They do not have this technical requirement. They have the statement available, they can read it. If it is the subject of an immediate statement they hear the statement and can put questions. If it is not immediate, there is plenty of time to consider the contents of the White Paper in the expectation, or hope, that there will be a debate.

Mr. English

With respect, my right hon. Friend is defending a case I did not put. I accept all that he has said, even about the statements. But surely when a White Paper is already in print, issued with an embargo, there is no reason why additional copies should not be issued to Members, not necessarily at the same time as they are issued to the Press? There is another point. On the morning of the Agricultural Price Review statement I understand it is customary for the N.F.U. Council to be informed of the whole statement, as it must be to decide whether it is an agreed Price Review. If that can be done, and the Press fully informed, it seems that a few hours before such a statement is made, copies of the White Paper—which will be issued that day—could be made available in the Vote Office for hon. Members so that they could be adequately considered beforehand.

Mr. Shore

I do not make the point that this is completely impossible, mechanically or administratively. What I am saying is that I do not think that hon. Members are put at the disadvantage which he is implying. The statement and the questions that follow upon it are generally only the opening stage of the parliamentary discussion. Often, as with the Price Review White Paper, the statement which my right hon. Friend makes is possibly only the opening presentation of his policy, and it may be that time will be found for a more extended debate later.

My hon. Friend moved on to make more extended criticisms—following on the interesting lecture that the Editor of The Guardian gave a short time ago—of the Lobby system, the particular practices of the Foreign Office Press Department and the general use of unattributable briefings. My hon. Friend will recall that Mr. Hetherington's criticisms of the Lobby system were by no means severe. In his lecture he made some good points about it, saying that it … is convenient. It allows the background of Government policy to be explained. It allows for informal questioning, so that people may understand what the Government or Opposition are trying to do. It provides for continuity of knowledge, because most of the political correspondents are highly experienced people. It is true that he also warned about the possibility of abuse, but Lobby correspondents are very experienced men and it is not easy to pull the wool over their eyes. I am sure that it is not attempted very often and it does not often succeed.

The system that has grown up is one that Government, Opposition and Members of Parliament have all found of great benefit. Although no institution can escape criticism from time to time, I think that on the whole it is serving the House and Parliament very well.

Every Minister is in a sense responsible for his own information services, and I shall not attempt to deal with my hon. Friend's particular criticisms of the briefings of the Foreign Office. But I would point out that, of all Departments, the Foreign Office, dealing as it does in the highly sensitive area of international relations, diplomacy and the ever-shifting flow of events, is perhaps most naturally inclined to use off-the-record briefings. It is likely in principle to be more attracted to this form of briefing than a Department operating in the domestic sphere.

I think that generally my hon. Friend would rather have less off-the-record briefing and a good deal more on-the-record briefing. It can be too easily overlooked that an enormous amount of information is pouring out all the time on the record. I shall not bore the House by itemising it all, but to give illustrations I have checked some figures. First this House and its Questions. About 24,000 Questions, oral and written, are answered in each Session. I am told that about 6,000 to 7,000 Press notices a year are issued by Departments. There is an endless flow of speeches in the House and outside and a vast volume of written information which is being supplied in what also at times seems to be an endless stream.

This Government have been particularly anxious to increase both the quantity and the quality of information available to Parliament and the public. My hon. Friend recalled my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's words in 1963 when he was Leader of the Opposition: On vital issues Parliament is told less and less. My right hon. Friend pointed to some of the most important matters of the day. The negotiations for Britain's membership on the Common Market which were proceeding in 1963 were very much in his mind when he made that criticism.

My hon. Friend, who takes great interest in the question of negotiations with Europe, will agree that the flow of information on the problems involved in negotiating for entry into the Common Market has been far greater during the last three years than it was in the earlier period.

Mr. English

One of the main points in Mr. Hetherington's lecture was that the recent White Paper might never have been issued but for events that had taken place which put pressure upon the Government to issue it. At one time there was to be a series of White Papers on the Common Market. Only two were issued. There has not been, for example, a White Paper on the implications for taxation purposes of our entering the Common Market.

Mr. Shore

Substantial White Papers covering some of the most controversial areas of policy were issued in 1967. Although the Government may have been encouraged by the interest of the Press to produce a White Paper earlier this year, it was the Government's intention that the nation should be informed as fully as possible on this most important matter. Looking back over the past few years my hon. Friend will have detected a clear policy of collecting and releasing more information so as to inform people. There has been the development of important new methods of inviting public discussion on matters of importance. I think particularly of the series of Green Papers we have issued. There was "The Task Ahead", which was the economic survey covering the period 1968–72. There were the proposals of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology for reorganising Government research facilities. There is the Green Paper which we may be debating next week on the reform of the Health Service. The nation has found this to be a very valuable innovation.

The five-year public expenditure forecast has given Parliament information of a kind which it can use; it has broken down the information in a way meaningful for discussion and decision-making. The Government's attitude has been very well expressed in the White Paper, which was issued after the Fulton Committee reported last year, entitled "Information and the Public Interest", which outlines the Government's policy concerning information. Perhaps I may conclude by quoting what is almost the foreword of that White Paper. It is a quotation from the Fulton Committee, and it is as follows: We welcome the trend in recent years towards wider and more open consultation before decisions are taken; and we welcome, too, the increasing provision of the detailed information on which decisions are made. Both should be carried much further; it is healthy for a democracy increasingly to press to be consulted and informed. I assure my hon. Friend that it is along those lines that the Government will seek to conduct their information services and to make the best use of them in the interests of Parliament and of the nation.