HC Deb 17 June 1976 vol 913 cc738-40
The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

An article appeared in the magazine New Society published today which purports to describe discussions in Cabinet preceding the statement made by the Secretary of State for Social Services on 25th May about the Child Benefit Scheme.

It is clear that the author of the article had either direct or indirect access to Cabinet minutes and Cabinet papers, some extracts from which were accurately quoted in the article. This is a very grave matter. For, on the face of it, it could only have been brought about by theft, or by a betrayal of trust involving a breach of an undertaking voluntarily entered into, by someone with access to the documents. There are stringent rules governing the circulation of Cabinet memoranda and minutes and the persons to whom they may be shown. These rules have been broken.

In the first place, I have directed that an urgent and thorough inquiry should be undertaken. I have asked Sir Douglas Allen, the Head of the Home Civil Service, to do this; he has already begun.

The House will, of course, be kept informed.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that we fully share his view about the gravity of this matter? It is essential that confidentiality of discussions and documents should be assured.

Secondly, is the Prime Minister aware that, because we take such a grave view, we would think that an internal inquiry is not enough? His own statement refers to the possibility of theft, and therefore it would seem to be a matter for police investigation. In certain other circumstances a betrayal of trust was considered more appropriate for a tribunal of inquiry under a judge.

Finally, I hope that the Prime Minister's initial inquiries are of the nature only of a preliminary inquiry and that he will not, therefore, exclude the further possibilities I have indicated.

The Prime Minister

I am obliged to the right hon. Lady for what she says. The important issue here is that there are very stringent rules. These rules are accepted by those who see the papers concerned. They sign an acceptance. There has been, at the least, a betrayal of trust and a breach of an obligation. I think that it is that matter that should be examined first.

I cannot rule out the possibility of theft. Therefore, of course, it could be that the possibility of a police investigation is not excluded. However, as to the need for a further and larger tribunal, I think that I would prefer to wait and see what Sir Douglas Allen has to say in his inquiry.

I cannot emphasise enough that if there are to be good relations between members of the Government there must be absolute confidence that papers and discussions that take place are kept within the circle to whom they are given. That principle has been broken. That is not to say that a member of the Cabinet or of the Government is responsible. These papers go to a limited number, but the people who have some of these papers all sign before they have them. What is more, the number of people to whom access to them is given is known, and names are given. Therefore, a very serious breach has been committed.

Mr. English

Is the Prime Minister able to deny the widespread reports that he is stalling the revision of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act? Does he not agree with us that, as long as Section 2 is, as it were, a lame duck, anything of this character is liable to happen?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, I would not deny the rumour that I am stalling it. I certainly have some doubts about Section 2. No doubt they will come out in due course. I gave very full evidence to the Franks inquiry myself. I shall not go into detail on that matter now. This matter must be looked into carefully, and the Government are considering it.

Mr. Grimond

Everyone will share the Prime Minister's anxiety over this question. Rightly, the inquiry is to be confined to this particular situation. However, I think that the Prime Minister indicated, in answer to the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition, that he does not rule out further inquiries. If these were to take place, would be con- sider broadening the inquiry, because there have been other allegations of not only Government leakages but the theft of important documents from important members of the Government?

The Prime Minister

I shall see in the first place what Sir Douglas Allen's inquiry yields. It may be that the person who is responsible for this will indicate that he or she is responsible. I do not know. In my view, that would be the honourable thing to do, and then, in whatever capacity he or she may be serving, to offer his or her resignation. That would be the right thing, because the individual responsible has betrayed the trust that he or she freely entered into. The individual was not asked to do it. Therefore, I hope that whoever is responsible will consider the matter and decide what course of action should be taken.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

It has been said that there is to be an inquiry. I shall allow only two more questions on this matter.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Will my right hon. Friend let us know how large is the circle of people outside the Cabinet who normally see or could have access to Cabinet minutes? How many people are involved?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir, I could not give that information without notice.

Mr. Lawson


Mr. Cryer


Mr. Speaker

Mr. Lawson.

Mr. Lawson

I am sorry for the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer).

While wholly associating myself with what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has said and with what the Prime Minister has said, may I ask the Prime Minister to give an assurance that in his opinion it would be wholly inappropriate for there to be a prosecution of New Society under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act?

The Prime Minister

It is certainly not for me to comment on the question of prosecutions. That would be a matter for the Attorney-General to consider in due course.