HC Deb 28 April 1986 vol 96 cc757-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boscawen.]

10.48 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

The genesis of this debate on the post of chief information officer at No. 10 is to be found in the exchange on the Floor of the House on Monday 14 April, which is in Hansard at column 575.

I interject that I welcome the presence of the Leader of the House. It is good parliamentary practice when Mr. Speaker can oblige those of us who in genuine circumstances have had to resort to the time honoured phrasing, "On a point of order. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek to raise the issue on the Adjournment at the earliest opportunity."

I am acutely aware that in our system a civil servant cannot directly answer criticisms of him made on the Floor of the House, so let me say at once that my criticisms are directed not at Mr. Bernard Ingham, but at his boss, the Prime Minister, a politician who can answer back, and at the way at which she has allowed and encouraged Mr. Ingham to go about his business.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)


Mr. Dalyell

An hon. Member on the Government side shouted "Shameful."

I am not alone in these opinions, and I should like to quote from one of the grandest mandarins in Whitehall in the 1970s, Sir Frank Cooper, permanent secretary to the Ministry of Defence. In the Suntory Toyota lecture, he said: A further paradox is that the more it has become technically easier to communicate the less good has that communication become between Government and the governed. Indeed, the aim now is the management of the media with a very much higher degree of central control from No. 10 Downing Street and with the connivance of a part of the media. There is now public relations—which I would define as biased information. I suggest that the post of Chief Informatiion Officer at No. 10 Downing Street is in fact a political job in a party sense and is not a job which it is proper for a Civil Servant to fill unless he or she resigns from the Civil Service on appointment. Moreover, what is said ought to be said on the record. The participation of the media in the lobby system is a public disgrace. That is Sir Frank Cooper's view.

Mr. Harris

I am the person who shouted "Shameful" at the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr Dalyell) for his attack on a civil servant. The hon. Gentleman was a parliamentary private secretary to the late Richard Crossman. After the debate, perhaps I could refer him to the Crossman diaries. The section dealing with 28 September 1966 says that the hon. Gentleman's boss spent most of the day trying to work out how he could manipulate the press and the Government information services for the then Labour Government. Will the hon. Gentleman refresh his memory about what happened in those days of a Labour Government

Mr. Dalyell

I can refresh my memory clearly. There are different views on this. Sir Donald Maitland, for example, would not have acted in the way that a number of other chief information officers have acted. I take seriously the remarks by the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), because I remember 1966 only too well.

There are problems here. That is why I was careful to say that I was getting at the politicians, not the civil servant who cannot answer back, rough though that civil servant may have been. It is not a cheap attack. In page 60 of Henry Porter's "Lies, Damned Lies" we are told that the advice that Mr. Ingham gave was that remedial action should be taken against troublesome journals, whether national, provincial or specialist. Porter and others have at least to be answered.

What I am saying is a serious reflection on the job specification. Is it appropriate, for example, for a civil servant on his own initiative to offer cover for selectively leaking a Law Officer's letter? What sort of position did Mr. Ingham imagine that he was putting Miss Collette Bowe into when he required her to phone Mr. Chris Moncrieff with the selective contents of the Solicitor-General's letter over Westland? Can one imagine Sir Donald Maitland, the late William Clark, Sir Tom McCaffrey or any other holder of the office deeming it proper or ethical to make any such request of a civil servant colleague? [Interruption.] If the hon. Gentleman would like to name names, I shall listen to him.

Mr. Harris

The hon. Gentleman says that he is not attacking this civil servant. The allegations that he has made are a blatant attack on a civil servant who, because of the rules of procedure, is incapable of answering back. As I said in a seated interjection earlier, I think that that is shameful.

Mr. Dalyell

The reply is that any traditional civil servant proposing to do that which ethically he knew he should not do would seek a prime ministerial instruction. Did Mr. Ingham ask the Prime Minister on 6 January about the leaking of the Solicitor-General's letter? After all, the Prime Minister was next door in the very same 10 Downing street building and the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was in his Yorkshire constituency. Why are the Prime Minister and Mr. Ingham so coy about appearing before the Select Committee on Defence that is considering the Westland affair on behalf of the House? It was the Prime Minister who endorsed the reference of the Westland affair to the Select Committee of which my right hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, East (Dr. Gilbert) is a distinguished and leading member.

There is one of two explanations. Either Mr. Ingham asked the Prime Minister about the Solicitor-General's letter, or Mr. Ingham knows the Prime Minister's mental processes so well that he knows instinctively what she would want done. If an answer were given at all, was it along the lines, "You know what I think and would want done"—wink, wink?

It would seem most unlikely that the Prime Minister felt that the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had done anything very wrong in her eyes, bearing in mind that at the time of his resignation she was reported to have spent over an hour trying to dissuade him from resigning. After his resignation, the Prime Minister was reported as indicating that she hoped it would not be long before he was back in a senior position in the Government.

I have no brief for the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan), but, to put it bluntly, he was the fall guy. Many of us would agree with what Mr. Alan Watkins has stated in print—that he has heard from leading Conservatives that "Poor Leon is carrying the can". We all have to judge one another in this place. I do not find it believable that the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, a careful QC, let alone a former Home Secretary, would dream up the device of selectively leaking a Law Officer's letter. Cover having been offered to Collette Bowe, there is only one explanation why Mr. Ingham was not dismissed in the aftermath of the Westland affair—that either implicitly or explicitly the Prime Minister approved of Mr. Ingham's action in giving cover.

We should go into these matters in some detail. On 5 February the Select Committee questioned Sir Robert Armstrong in case he might be able to provide answers which would make it unnecessary to call the five civil servants, including Bernard Ingham and Collette Bowe, as Sir Robert had interviewed them all during his inquiry. However, the Committee still reserved its right to call them if not satisfied with the information obtained from Sir Robert.

It is clear that the Committee was not fully satisfied, because it asked Sir Robert to appear before it again to answer some further questions. This he did on 5 March. However, there were a number of questions which Sir Robert was not prepared to answer. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, East, who is present, asked about the officials' knowledge of the special status of the Law Officers' letters. Sir Robert would not answer. My right hon. Friend asked him if the only person who could answer was Mr. Ingham. Sir Robert said that he could answer but was not prepared to do so. My right hon. Friend then asked: Then the only person who can answer is Mr. Ingham? Sir Robert appeared to indicate that that was so. My right hon. Friend asked Sir Robert: If you can't answer, the only people who can are Mr. Powell and Mr. Ingham. In reply to several questions Sir Robert took refuge in repeatedly quoting the Prime Minister's reply to me on 27 January, the oft-repeated reply:

I gave my consent."—[Official Report, 27 January 1986; Vol. 90, c. 650.] It is of interest to note that on 5 March Sir Robert Armstrong said that the five civil servants were not responsible for the way that the leaked letter was handled, as the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry had taken full responsibility for the way in which the information was disclosed. It is of even greater interest to note that on his earlier appearance on 5 February, Sir Robert made a different statement. He said that when the letter arrived at the Department of Trade and Industry, the then Secretary of State was out fulfilling a luncheon engagement, that an official had read the letter over the telephone to him, and that the then Secretary of State had decided that it should be brought into the public domain.

Sir Robert emphasised that while the then Secretary of State had authorised the disclosure, it had been the officials who had decided on the method to be used. Sir Robert summed up by telling the Committee that, although the former Secretary of State wanted the information brought into the public domain before the Westland press conference that day, he did not say how this was to be done.

From all this, and particularly in view of Sir Robert's inability or unwillingness to answer questions himself, I believe that on 5 March the need to call for evidence from certain key civil servants had been positively established. To save time, I shall refer to the article by Richard Norton-Taylor in The Guardian on 11 March.

On 1 April, Mr. John Carvel wrote in The Guardian that Labour members of the Committee were planning to repeat their request to examine the officials, particularly Mr. Ingham. He also wrote:

The Committee has been advised that a request from Mr. Ingham would be refused by the Prime Minister, but that if the Committee instructed him to attend, he would turn up and say nothing. Although, in theory, the Committee's wish to see the civil servants was still on the table, arrangements were being made to have the final hearing, which a Minister would wind up. On 10 April, The Guardian reported that, at a private meeting of the Committee, the Labour members' move to summon the five civil servants or just Mr. Ingham was defeated.

A question along the following lines could properly be put to the Prime Minister. "It was reported in The Guardian on 1 April 1986 that the Defence Committee had been advised that a request for Mr. Ingham to attend would be refused by the Prime Minister but that if the Committee instructed him to attend he would turn up and say nothing. Is it true that the Prime Minister would refuse to allow Mr. Ingham to appear and, if so, bearing in mind Sir Robert Armstrong's inability to answer questions put to him by the Committee, on what grounds would the Prime Minister refuse to allow Mr. Ingham to appear?" If the Prime Minister replied that she would not refuse to allow Mr. Ingham to appear, the following question might then be asked: "Would the Prime Minister think it appropriate for Mr. Ingham to appear before the Committee and then to refuse to answer its questions?" Why should a civil servant—the chief press officer—be subject to special treatment before Committees of the House of Commons that does not extend to the generality of civil servants?

Westland is not simply a one-off episode. There is a whole litany of operations unbecoming to a civil servant. As one who gave evidence to the Franks Committee for an hour and 25 minutes, I was appalled at the way that the chief information officer gave that complicated report to the Lobby correspondents at 3.30 pm when their deadlines were at 5 pm. This is not the kind of guidance that a civil servant should give on behalf of the Prime Minister, but it is not the civil servant that I blame; it is the Prime Minister, because I bet that the instructions were hers. Did not Mr. Ingham have to apologise to the Lord Chancellor for suggesting that Judge Jeffries might be the appropriate judge to preside over the trial of Clive Ponting at the Old Bailey?

We are tonight not considering the role of a mere press secretary, but dealing with the position of a man who is an adviser on central decisions of Government in Britain, and whose power has grown exponentially, along a geometric progression, with the years during which he has occupied the office. The longer a man occupies this office, the more power accrues to him.

I do not think that I exaggerate if I say that, with the arguable exception of Sir Robert Armstrong, Mr. Bernard Ingham has evolved as the most important man making decisions in British politics. When I put this view to a senior Conservative Privy Councillor, he shook his head sadly and said that he could not dissent.

The blame must rest not with Mr. Ingham but with the Prime Minister who has become so dependent and has allowed this to happen. This is an unsatisfactory position.

11.5 pm

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office and the Minister for the Arts (Mr. Richard Luce)

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is well known for his persistence on many issues. He certainly gave the House notice recently that he would raise this issue about the chief press secretary at No. 10. Having listened to him, I believe that he is misguided in his views. Indeed, I would go further: the hon Gentleman is continuing to demonstrate his ability to develop obsessions—I can think of no other word—about issues, and to formulate some allegations which are completely unsubstantiated but which become genuine figments of his imagination. I can give an exact example of that from the end of his speech when he referred to Mr. Ingham as one of perhaps two men in Government who take the most important decisions. That is an exact description of a figment of his imagination. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The hon. Gentleman proceded to talk about the so-called Westland affair, and, more precisely, the events surrounding the disclosure of the Solicitor-General's letter which have been fully explained to the House by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on both 23 and 27 January. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan) contributed to the debate on 27 January. The events were the subject of an inquiry conducted by the head of the home Civil Service who subsequently gave evidence to the Defence Select Committee on 5 February and 5 March. The role of officials in this matter has thus been fully described and explained to the House and the public, and I have nothing tonight to add to what has been said. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that there is some great or sinister matter still to discover, I can assure him that he is completely mistaken. This issue is worn to a frazzle.

I shall seek to answer the debate by concentrating on the role of the chief press officer and the most unfair allegations that the hon. Gentleman makes about Mr. Ingham.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Bristol, East)

Will my hon. Friend say whether he believes that Mr. Ingham has acted in any way different from the way in which Mr. Joe Haines acted when he was chief press officer to Lord Wilson of Rievaulx when he was Prime Minister?

Mr. Luce

I can establish that. I know that Mr. Ingham has managed to maintain a steady and continuous relationship with the Lobby which has not always been the case in the past.

The hon. Gentleman argued that the post of chief press secretary should be a party political appointment, and that it is no longer possible or right for the holder of that office to be a civil servant. He cites in support of that the views of Sir Frank Cooper, ex-permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence, in a recent lecture. Obviously, both Sir Frank and the hon. Gentleman are entitled to their views on this, as on any other matter, but I do not agree with them.

It is important to stress the role of the chief press officer or any information officer. It is to promote an informed press and public about the Government's policies and measures, and to advise Ministers and officials on presentation.

Obviously, the chief press officer will aim to ensure that the merits of those policies and the arguments in their favour are brought as fully as possible to the public's attention. He would be failing in his job if he did not do that. But it is his job, as it is the job of all civil servants, to serve his Minister as a member of the Government to th best of his ability, to give him well-informed, dispassionate and impartial advice, and to give effect to the Minister's decisions with skill, vigour and loyalty. The present chief press secretary at No. 10 Downing street does just that.

On 23 January this year, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: I should like to say that Mr. Ingham has served successive Governments with devotion and dedication, and I have great confidence in him."—[Official Report, 23 January 1986, Vol. 90, c. 459.] That is absolutely right.

Let us look at Mr. Ingham's career—19 years as a professional journalist and about 19 years as a civil servant, of which 17 have been as an information officer. He has endless experience in information services within government. It is notable that Mr. Ingham has served loyally as an information adviser both Labour and Conservative Governments. It is notable that he has been an information officer to Mr. Varley, and to Barbara Castle. Above all, quite apart from his service to the Prime Minister, he has been an information adviser to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn). If Mr. Ingham is capable of serving the right hon. Gentleman and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that is a sharp demonstration of his ability to provide an impartial service as a loyal civil servant with a great deal of integrity. The allegations of the hon. Member for Linlithgow should be totally and utterly refuted.

Mr. Dalyell

If Mr. Ingham has such integrity and is a loyal civil servant, why, with all that experience, did he give cover to Collette Bowe in giving information to Mr. Chris Moncrieff of the Press Association in the form of a leaked Law Officers' letter? A man of such integrity and experience would not have done that unless he either knew the Prime Minister's mind or had prime ministerial instruction. It is the Prime Minister who is at the root of that trouble.

Mr. Luce

As I have already said, this issue has been gone over time and time again. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and Sir Robert Armstrong have given substantial evidence on it. Of course, we await the report of the Select Committee on Defence.

The feeling seems to be that the fact that the chief press secretary deals with the media somehow makes it party political. I agree that the need to deal with the media means that particular skills and qualities are required of an information officer that may not always be required for other jobs in the Civil Service. That is why many, although by no means all, information officers come, as the chief press secretary at No. 10 came, from within the Government Information Service. Information officers must, of course, have the ear of their Ministers but must also have a detailed knowledge of their Department and its responsibilities so that they are well placed to present them to the media. That does not make the task a party political one—indeed, it is the task, for example in the Conservative party, of the party chairman and others to speak for the party.

I wonder whether the correspondents who deal from day to day with information officers would prefer them to be political appointees. The reputation and the effectiveness of information officers depend on our contacts being able to rely on what they say. If they were party political appointees, there would be a much greater danger of suspicion that the information coming out of the Department was being distorted for party political considerations. It is a matter of establishing credibility and trust.

It is worth quoting from a speech in May 1983 in Cardiff by Mr. Ingham to a conference of the Guild of British Newspaper Editors in which he said: no one will, or should, take the slightest notice of a word I say if I cannot be relied upon to get it right; my crucial stock-in-trade is reliability; otherwise I lack credibility and cease to be useful either to Government or media". That is correct. I believe that it is true that Mr. Ingham is widely respected and generally respected by the press for that.

I do not agree that there is something special about the post of the chief press secretary at No. 10, apart from the fact that it is one of the two top jobs in the Government Information Service. Like any other job in the Prime Minister's office, the holder of this must be exceptionally able. A close relationship with Ministers and the ability to command the respect of the press are the essential requirements of the job, as the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Callaghan) emphasised in his evidence to the Treasury and Civil Service Sub-Committee. As I have just said, to serve a Minister successfully, any civil servant must gain his confidence. Therefore, there is no difference there. Any senior civil servant, chief information officer or permanent secretary, must advise a Minister clearly and in an unbiased manner and carry out the Minister's instructions. Therefore, there is no difference there. All senior civil servants, in advising Ministers, are serving the Government and not a political party. Again, there is no difference with No. 10.

Of course, the chief press secretary at 10 Downing street, like departmental chief information officers, has to have an understanding of political sensitivities and of the political framework and environment within which his Minister and the Government of which he is a member are operating. However, there is nothing unique about that. It is no less true of all civil servants who are in the business of advising Ministers and executing their policies.

History shows that civil servants are no less capable than others of carrying out the duties of the chief press secretary effectively and acceptably. Over the past 20 years there have been both civil servant and journalist holders of the No. 10 chief information officer job. The civil servants concerned have shown themselves perfectly capable of presenting the policies of whichever administration was currently in power. I believe that journalists would agree that the civil servant holders have performed no less satisfactorily than professional journalist occupiers of the post.

I have sought to demonstrate why, in the Government's view, Mr. Ingham is doing an excellent job and why there are strong advantages in having an experienced civil servant to do the job. I think that in answering the debate generally I must take the opportunity to say that my experience as a Civil Service Minister points to the fact that civil servants as a whole, including Mr. Ingham, serve this Government, as they would serve any Government, loyally, professionally and with integrity; and I believe that we can be proud of them.

Mr. Dalyell

If the emphasis is to be put on obeying ministerial instructions, we are now left with the fact that it was the Prime Minister's instructions, implicit or explicit, which offered the cover to Miss Bowe to leak the Solicitor-General's letter against one of her own Ministers. The Minister's reply does not put Mr. Ingham in a bad light but the Prime Minister. If all that he says about the chief press officer's virtues is true, the Prime Minister has to say how, if she was so loyally served by a man obeying ministerial instructions, cover was given to leak a letter against one of her own Ministers. After tonight it is the Prime Minister, not Mr. Ingham, who is in the dock.

Mr. Luce

The hon. Gentleman is continuing to try to make political capital out of an issue from which it is no longer possible to make any political capital. The issue has been covered time and again by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Secretary to the Cabinet and the head of the home Civil Service who has given evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes past Eleven o' clock.