HC Deb 06 August 1975 vol 897 cc499-503
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the supply of minutes of the Cabinet and of the relevant Cabinet Committees to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration in connection with Court Line.

The policy now questioned was settled in 1966, and accepted by Parliament in that year.

Section 8(4) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967 says: No person shall be required or authorised by virtue of this Act to furnish any information or answer any question relating to proceedings of the Cabinet or of any Committee of the Cabinet or to produce so much of any document as relates to such proceedings; and for the purposes of this sub-section a certificate issued by the Secretary of the Cabinet with the approval of the Prime Minister and certifying that any information, question, document or part of a document so relates shall be conclusive". On 15th November 1966, when the Bill was before this House, this was not an issue between the parties. During its Committee stage the then Financial Secretary said, and this was accepted: I do not think that there is any issue of substance between us. We are all agreed that we want to preserve the rule of Cabinet secrecy, and that, even though we have gone very far in this Bill in waiving Crown privilege, it is right to retain it for Cabinet papers. This, of course, means broadly not only the minutes of Cabinet proceedings themselves but other Cabinet business, including, of course, papers which are prepared prior to proceedings and which are discussed at proceedings. There is no issue about that".—[Official Report, Standing Committee B, 15th November 1966; c. 282.] This was accepted by the Opposition spokesman and a clarifying Opposition amendment was withdrawn. The then Opposition made it clear that they were firmly opposed to disclosure of Cabinet proceedings.

As I made clear in the House yesterday, this has remained the policy of successive Governments.

When the Parliamentary Commissioner was asked to consider the Court Line case, it was necessary to decide which documents fell within the terms of Section 8(4) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act. In order to be as forthcoming as possible, the Secretary of the Cabinet, with my approval, confined his certificate to those documents which constituted or recorded the actual transactions of a Cabinet Committee as distinct from the drafts of Cabinet Committee papers which could on a strict interpretation have been withheld under the terms of Section 8(4). The Parliamentary Commissioner was also told the outcome of a Cabinet Committee's de-liberations—and this he records in paragraph 47 of his report—although he was not shown the Committee's papers. To that extent, the Government went beyond the 1965–66 policy in terms of disclosure.

The Parliamentary Commissioner has since made it plain that, contrary to some allegations, he did not ask to see documents which were withheld. He has also said publicly that he has no reason to believe that seeing the documents would have made any difference to his investigation.

I thought it right to take the time of the House in this brief statement so that the very important debate that will be held today should not be clouded or confused by allegations not relevant to matters before the House, nor, for that matter, even true.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that we accept his statement of the legal position under Section 8(4) of the Parliamentary Commissioner Act and, of course, we accept the assurances given by the then spokesman for the Opposition, the late Mr. William Roots, during the Committee stage of that Bill? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it would seem to follow, then, that the assurance given by the Secretary of State for Energy which led holiday makers to take a course of action other than that which they would have pursued must be attributed fully to the responsibility of the Government of the day and, therefore, that if the Secretary of State for Energy in no way exceeded his authority, this is a matter between him and the Prime Minister? Until that time we must assume that the doctrine of collective responsibility means that the Government were fully responsible for the assurances then given.

The Prime Minister

The Government accept full responsibility. I accept full responsibility. The Minister was speaking in that sense in the House. Today the House will debate the issues of what was said by my right hon. Friend on that occasion. But the issue to which I have been forced to draw attention by this totally tendentious statement in the Press is the issue whether I withheld, as was alleged, in order to protect myself or anyone else, documents from the Parliamentary Commissioner which the Parliamentary Commissioner wanted or had the right to expect. The right hon. Lady is right that the House took the view that these documents should not be forthcoming. We went beyond the spirit of the Act by allowing documents to go which were not at the time of the debate envisaged as going. We have done that.

I hope that later the House will debate these very serious issues in this measure when discussing the matters raised in this newspaper pantomime of the last two days which was based on a complete misunderstanding of the legislation, despite the fact that The Times reported its terms accurately at the time and had leading articles supporting various measures contained in the Bill, but did not pursue the normal journalistic practice, before publishing such a front page article, of checking with my office about the allegations which they were making.

Mr. Richard Wainwright

Is not the real mischief of the false point which the Prime Minister has now so easily disposed of that it may have distracted public opinion from the real point of the Government's instant rejection of the Ombudsman's criticism of this case before the House has had a chance to study the Ombudsman's findings?

The Prime Minister

Although I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's view about this, he is making a point which it is fair to make in debate. As so often happens, the raising of a false procedural point throws a smokescreen over the real issues which should be the subject of serious debate in this House. This is what was done over the weekend, and we can always expect the Opposition Front Bench to make the maximum point of it. In so doing, I think that they threw a smokescreen over the serious points which the hon. Gentleman wishes to raise.