HC Deb 01 July 1971 vol 820 cc572-5
Q2. Mr. McBride

asked the Prime Minister whether it is the practice of his administration that senior civil servants should appear in the rôle of speakers at meetings organised by the European Movement.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

There has been no change in the practice whereby civil servants participate in conferences and seminars with the permission of their Departments.

Mr. McBride

Is the Prime Minister aware that I have before me a cutting from the South Wales Ech of 16th June which reports that a senior civil servant accompanied the Minister of State, Welsh Office and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, to a meeting of the European Movement, which is an organisation with a biased view? Is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that the meeting was given information which repeated Questions from me and my Welsh colleagues have failed to elicit from the Secretary of State for Wales? Is not it clear that the attendance of senior civil servants at such meetings is an attempt by the Prime Minister to tilt the balance of public opinion unfairly towards accession to the Treaty of Rome?

The Prime Minister

The position is that the meeting to which the hon. Gentleman refers was a private affair at which newspaper, television and radio editors were briefed by two Ministers. It may have been reported in the Press, but I understand that it was not a public meeting. The official was there to answer questions on matters of fact. There has been no change in this practice from that followed under previous Administrations. If the hon. Gentleman has evidence that the situation is not as I have described it, I will consider it at once. If he had sent it to me beforehand, I should have been able to give a more detailed answer.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. St. John-Stevas.

Mrs. Renée Short

On your knees.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

In view of the application made by the Leader of the Opposition, when Prime Minister, to join the Common Market, would not he make a suitable supporting speaker at such gatherings?

The Prime Minister

This has a bearing on the question. On previous occasions, even when the policy was that being pursued just by the Government alone, senior civil servants have taken part, with the permission of their Departments, in giving factual information. On this issue, our application having been made by two consecutive Governments of different parties, it is even more justifiable that senior civil servants should answer questions of fact.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Whatever the rights or wrongs of this case—as usual, the Prime Minister has not told us very much about it—will not the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be less necessary to employ civil servants if the responsible Minister gave us the facts in public? I do not know whether the civil servant on this occasion gave this privately briefed meeting information about the memorandum from the Commission on steel and coal and the removal of the British Government's responsibility in those two cases. Will he tell us why the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did not inform the House at the time?

The Prime Minister

The position on the Coal and Steel Community has in no way changed from the time when the right hon. Gentleman was Prime Minister and his Administration made application.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that these issues have only recently been settled, because the Coal and Steel Community and Euratom negotiations were running behind the general programme of the other negotiations. The documents put forward in the negotiations are confidential and have always been treated as such, both in the 1961–63 and the 1967 discussions, and in the present negotiations. I suggest that it is impossible to carry on negotiations if every document exchanged between the parties is made public. When the White Paper is published, we shall do our utmost to make as clear as possible the exact position about the Coal and Steel Community.

I should remind the right hon. Gentleman that when he was Prime Minister and the Labour Government put forward their policy on industrial relations, "In Place of Strife"—which, to say the least, was not entirely non-controversial—senior civil servants in the Departments at that time took part in similar briefings to those to which he has referred.

Mr. Harold Wilson

The right hon. Gentleman will no doubt produce the evidence of any Press reports about it. Will he stick to the question which I put to him? [Interruption.] That will be a change, will it not? Is he aware that it seems a little illogical to say that nothing has changed since we put in the application but that what has developed on coal and steel has developed only in the last six weeks? He cannot have it both ways. Will he say why we were not told for six or seven weeks about this important intimation to the Government, which was never made to us—that is the difference—about the lack of control by the Government, of whatever party, on steel and coal and the removal of consumer protection and consumer councils? Why was the House not told this by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster? Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that, in accordance with the words—

Mr. Waddington

The right hon. Gentleman will never get off the hook that way.

Mr. Harold Wilson

—in accordance with the too long words with which he prefaced his manifesto, this is dealing directly and honestly with Parliament, the Press and the public?

The Prime Minister

The Question with which I am dealing is about a civil servant taking part in briefings. That has nothing whatever to do with the question raised by the right hon. Gentleman about the specific subject of the Coal and Steel Community. I said that the factual situation has not changed since the Labour Government made their application. What has happened is that the Community itself put the document in the course of the negotiations to my right and learned Friend, who was conducting the negotiations. It is right that the correct procedure should be followed that, when a conclusion is reached, my right hon. and learned Friend should tell the House what that conclusion is. That he did in his last statement about the Coal and Steel Community. I have already assured the right hon. Gentleman that the position will be set out as clearly as possible in the White Paper.

The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that the control by Governments of coal and steel is exercised through the Council of Ministers and through the Commissioners in the Community in the same way as the rest of the European arrangements. I therefore ask the right hon. Gentleman to face this situation honestly and to acknowledge it.

Forward to