HL Deb 21 April 1970 vol 309 cc636-40

3.40 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission I should like to repeat a Statement that is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"I regret to trouble the House, but issues concerning relations between honourable Members of this House and public servants are involved. The suggestion has been made that contacts between senior civil servants and Opposition Leaders have been banned on my instructions. There have been no such instructions. There is no ban. The only instruction in force was given by me orally to the Head of the Civil Service and it is that the practice of our predecessors in these matters should be followed. I should, how-ever, inform the House that the present Opposition have made a number of requests over the last two or three years to see civil servants and for information which have raised issues not governed by any precedent and which were not, in themselves, requests for meetings between civil servants and right honourable gentlemen.

"In March, 1968, letters were sent on behalf of the right honourable gentleman, the Member for Wallasey, to certain Permanent Secretaries refer-ring to studies he was making in the public sector at the request of the Leader of the Opposition. He asked for facilities for members of a research unit he had established to interview them on the process of decision-making in Government. This request was referred to Ministers, and a reply was sent to the right honourable gentleman referring him to published material by Ministers.

"In December of the same year a management consultancy firm which had been engaged by the Conservative Party to carry out a comparative study of United States and United Kingdom purchasing practices approached the Treasury to ask for full information on present practices. This again was considered by Ministers since there were no precedents for this kind of approach. It was decided that it would be inappropriate for a consultancy firm employed by the Opposition to have direct access to Government Departments and to information which could not be made available in Parliament and to the general public.

"In refusing the request Ministers were advised to point out that Opposition members can, of course, be invited to take advantage of the opportunities open to them to make inquiries through Parliamentary channels, and that Ministers should be willing to see any Member through whom such an approach was made, with officials present who could supply any factual information which seemed appropriate. The right honourable Member for Wallasey then approached a number of Ministers by letter enclosing a lengthy questionnaire.

"In consequence my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer wrote to the right honourable gentleman suggesting that most of the questions could be answered by means of Parliamentary Questions. Accordingly, a large number of Questions were tabled by the right honourable gentleman and answered in late July. Honourable members will find over 60 such Questions and Answers in Hansard for July 25. I am sure the House will agree that it was right to give any information which did not have to be treated as confidential, but that it should be done in such a way that all honourable Members and responsible organisations should have equal access to it.

"I have seen that suggestions have been made that there is a much tighter regime in force than when my right honourable friends and I were in Opposition. This is not so. In my own case, apart from the normal briefing I sought from Foreign Office Ministers when going abroad, sometimes supplemented on their direction by Foreign Office officials, I had no discussion with any senior civil servant on matters affecting the policy of the new Government until the last week of July, 1964. That discussion was related solely to machinery of Government and did not take place on my initiative or at my request. The arrangements were of course approved by the then Prime Minister who attached perfectly reason-able conditions to the meeting. It was around the same time, considerably less than six months from the statutory end of that Parliament, that the right honourable gentleman authorised facilities for one or two of my senior colleagues to have other discussions on Government machinery questions. I am not aware of any other cases where access to officials was sought or agreed for such purposes.

"It has always been the case, and no change has been made by this Administration, that Members of Parliament, including Opposition Leaders, are given normal facilities for briefing when going abroad. There have always been special arrangements in force so far as defence briefing is concerned and these have continued. Indeed, on more than one occasion I proposed that right honourable gentlemen opposite should be given the fullest possible briefing on defence matters, including many questions on which we as an Opposition had been refused facilities.

"I have sought to identify cases referred to in this morning's Press in stories alleging that a gag has been imposed by me and that senior civil servants have been warned off meetings with Opposition Leaders. No such case has been referred to me. Nor would it be under instructions, to which I have referred, that the Head of the Civil Service is responsible for operating the conventions which have ruled in the past. If there have been refusals or cancellations, and there may have been, this has not been the result of any ruling by him or me, nor has any such case been referred to either of us for a ruling.

"I understand there was one case where a senior Minister invited the Opposition spokesman to lunch at his Ministry and to meet senior officials. Subsequently the Opposition spokesman invited a senior civil servant to lunch and the civil servant in question without consulting his Minister decided not to accept. When he later reported this to his Minister, his Minister said that he would certainly have agreed if he had been asked.

"I shall of course try to identify the other cases referred to and take any action which is appropriate. But I can inform the House that whatever decision might have been taken by an individual civil servant it has not resulted from instructions from the Head of the Civil Service or from me.

"Apart from the type of case I have mentioned affecting a firm or a research organisation employed by a political Party, the practice, so far as contacts between leading members of the Opposition and senior officials are concerned, has not been changed, either in October, 1964, or as this morning's allegations suggest, more recently."


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister's Statement. It would be idle to deny that we on this side of the House, and particularly noble Lords on the Bench behind me, have heard stories of civil servants being told not to meet members of the Opposition. Therefore it is all the better to have had this Statement. I am very glad to know that we in the Opposition can see and talk to senior civil servants—and quite right too! These are highly responsible and trustworthy people. Also quite right, too, if I may say so, for the better administration of the country that members of the next Government should have these contacts.


My Lords, I also should like to thank the noble Lord for having repeated that Statement to the House. I want to make only one brief comment on it. In my experience, this convention of the Opposition seeking information from the top Civil Service has in the past worked extremely well because, as the noble Lord, Lord Carrington said, we have men and women of very high calibre and of real integrity in the Civil Service. In my experience, we run into difficulties only when the Opposition seek to impose too big a strain on this practice. I hope that this will be recognised and that we shall avoid trying to formalise procedures to deal with this problem. In my view, it is far better to leave it to the good sense of the civil servants concerned, and to run things in the way they have been run in the past, but not to put too heavy a strain on the convention.


My Lords, I do not understand all the noble Lord's remarks: the next Government, being the present Government, are fully in touch with the Civil Service. Both noble Lords have treated this Statement with moderation, and I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Byers, that this is not a matter on which one wants to go into very great formalities. A great deal depends on people themselves. There are certain noble Lords (perhaps I had better not go too far) who understand the form, who know the situation and who would know what to ask and what not to ask, what would embarrass a civil servant and what would not embarrass him. I am grateful that there is this acceptance that there has been no change in the situation since 1964.