HC Deb 26 November 1974 vol 882 cc241-4
Q2. Mr. Brittan

asked the Prime Minister whether he will announce the names of the remaining members of the Royal Commission on Standards of Conduct in Public Life.

The Prime Minister

I hope to do so shortly, Sir.

Mr. Brittan

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that for an inquiry of this nature, which arises largely from events in the North-East, it is particularly important that the members of the commission should be persons not only of unquestioned integrity but of political balance? Does he accept that as two of the three members so far announced are former Labour Ministers it is essential that the remaining members of the commission should redress the political balance?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman has no need for anxiety. I am sure he will agree that the exact wording of his question does not suggest that Lord Houghton and Miss Herbison are anything but persons of total integrity. He need have no anxiety. I have seen the letter he wrote to The Times. When I announced the first list of names I said that it was not complete. I also said that I was in touch with the Leader of the Opposition in asking his views on who should be appointed. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that when the names are announced—I hope they will be announced in a day or two's time—there will not be a Government majority among those with parliamentary experience. It was never intended that there should be.

Mr. Whitehead

Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity of repeating the assurance he gave in the last Parliament that however long the Royal Commission sits it will not inhibit Her Majesty's Government from introducing as soon as possible a register of interests of Members in this place and in another place?

The Prime Minister

I can give that assurance. As my hon. Friend will recall this was debated in the House and the Select Committee was appointed but the coming of the election prevented it reporting. We are awaiting a report from the Committee. Hon. Members will want the fullest possible register.

Mr. Aitken

Will the right hon. Gentleman ask the commission to investigate the double standards of public life, the rules of which apparently prohibit publication of Mr. Crossman's indiscreet memoirs but two years ago allowed publication of the Prime Minister's own memoirs?

The Prime Minister

This matter does not seem to arise from the Question but I shall answer the hon. Gentleman. Apart from getting his dates wrong, his facts are wrong. I explained in answer to a Written Question from my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) on 15th November the exact rules that have applied in successive Governments. My book was submitted to the Secretary of the Cabinet. The Prime Minister of the day took no part in it. It would be inappropirate for a Prime Minister in any such case to do so, and I am not doing so either. When I wrote my book I tried to ensure that I should be able to fulfil the rules that are normally applied by the Cabinet Office. There was no disagreement between the Cabinet Office and myself about what appeared in it. As I made clear last Friday to my hon. Friend, the continuance of public life in this country, and particularly of Cabinet government, depends on discretion subsequently about what is said in full confidence between members of the Cabinet. That has been done, as I made clear to my hon. Friend in answer to the question at issue.

Mr. William Hamilton

Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that, whoever he appoints to the Royal Commission, there will be no former Lord Mayors of London?

The Prime Minister

I am not quite sure of my hon. Friend's point although I think I know what he has in mind. I do not believe that the holding of the office of Lord Mayor is either a qualification or a disqualification. When appointing Royal Commissions the Prime Minister of the day seeks to get as balanced a team of commissioners as possible and to ensure that they have the highest qualifications for the task.

Mr. Heath

As the Prime Minister will be aware, after the events referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan) there was a complete review of the rules governing the conduct of Ministers. As far as Members of the House of Commons were concerned discussions took place through the usual channels, while in the case of civil servants the Estacode was reviewed and revised. But there still remained two major sectors of activity, local government and the nationalised industries, on which no action was taken.

Can local government and the nationalised industries really be left until the Royal Commission has reported before any action is taken about them? I suggest that, because of public anxiety, we cannot afford that amount of time. Is it not possible through the members of boards of nationalised industries to ensure that the regulations are tightened up in their case, and to take action in the local authorities through the local authority associations? The Royal Commission may not report for two years, and the matter is more urgent than that.

The Prime Minister

I agree with the main point put by the right hon. Gentleman. Of course the Royal Commission is free at any time to make a quick and interim report if it feels that it should report urgently on something.

When the right hon. Gentleman himself was Prime Minister, he and I were in complete agreement on the local government aspect. I then called for a Royal Commission to be established when the inquiries were complete. He agreed, and set up the Redcliffe-Maud Committee ahead of the police inquiries being completed. Consultations are going on between my right hon. Friend and the local authority associations about the recommendations of the Redcliffe-Maud Committee. But the process has been held up a little because of the reorganisation of local government—quite inevitably.

The nationalised industries are the responsibility of the Ministers concerned. We are aware of the point stressed by the right hon. Gentleman, and which I, indeed, stressed when he was Prime Minister. I will certainly consider whether anything more needs to be done in that connection, just as I am sure that the boards of directors of public companies in the private sector are looking at the matter in exactly the way the right hon. Gentleman has indicated.

Mr. Beith

The Prime Minister does not seem to be seeking persons with extensive local government experience for membership of the Royal Commission and does not seem to wish it to go into specific instances but rather to make general observations, with the result that it is likely to prove no more valuable than a shelf on which to put an embarrassing and inconvenient problem.

The Prime Minister

I think that the hon. Gentleman must have misheard me earlier when I said I thought that people of that kind had neither more nor less qualifications to serve. I made this observation in reply to a question about Lord Mayors of London, not about local government generally. I am satisfied, from what has been done already and the further appointments to be made, taking into account also the thorough inquiry under the chairmanship of Lord Redcliffe-Maud, that local government will be adequately covered in this respect.