§ 2.49 p.m.
§ The Question was as follows:
- (a) statements made by a Minister and others on January 19 and 24 about the effect of the Government's economic policy and connected share dealings; and
- (b) the effects upon the savings and investments of thousands of United Kingdom citizens.
§ LORD WIGG
My Lords, while that reply is not unexpected, may I ask whether the noble Earl is aware that the fact has now been clearly established that the Secretary of State for Employment did brief the Press and that as a result of that briefing there were widespread losses on the Stock Exchange? I submit to the noble Earl that it is imperative, in the interests of the Government and of the nation, that the facts of what happened 836 should be clearly established by Government inquiry.
My Lords, I do not accept the implications of the noble Lord's supplementary question. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear, a number of Ministers spoke to journalists, as is natural, after the White Paper was published, explaining its terms. They, and no doubt my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Employment, drew attention to paragraph 32 of the White Paper, which deals with this particular point. But, from all that I have been able to ascertain, nothing that the Ministers said could properly have been held to imply tougher policies in phase 3, as I think was the interpretation of the Sunday Press.
§ LORD WIGG
My Lords, is the noble Earl asserting that the seven journalists who met the Minister are telling untruths? Because we have the record—it is available to the noble Earl, and I am sure he has consulted it—that seven independent, responsible newspapers said that the Minister had given the briefing which the Prime Minister now asserts did not take place.
No, my Lords; I am asserting nothing of the sort. The noble Lord must be as well aware as I am of the conventions of this and another place in relationship to journalists. I certainly do not wish to breach any confidence, and I do not wish to be drawn into breaching any confidence. But as I understand it—and I suspect that this is what the noble Lord is referring to—my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that no Press briefing took place on the particular day, which was a Saturday, which was suggested by the Leader of the Opposition, I think, and that in fact nothing that any Minister said could have been held to imply a toughening of policy in phase 3. If this was the interpretation put by journalists on what any Minister might have said, it was a false interpretation.
§ LORD WIGG
My Lords, the noble Earl must be now asserting that the Prime Minister was playing with words, for although the Leader of the Opposition made a mistake with regard to the day it is an insult to the country's intelligence to explain that fact. Is the noble 837 Earl aware that the only interpretation which can now be placed on what took place is that the Secretary of State for Employment was briefed by his officials but that he did not know what he was going to say when he spoke, he did not know what he was saying when he sad it and he did not know what he had said when he had finished?
My Lords, I am asserting nothing of the sort. What I am suggesting is that there is nothing here which demands the elaborate machinery of a tribunal inquiry; and I am also suggesting, if I may with due politeness, that the noble Lord is flogging a very dead duck on this particular issue.
§ LORD AVEBURY
My Lords, is it not rather disingenuous of the Prime Minister to deny that this meeting took place on the Saturday, when it now appears that it did take place, but on the Friday? Would not the noble Earl agree that, if these briefings were held and a widespread impression was created that tougher policies would continue into phase 3, even though he now says, that this was quite different from what it was intended to convey, then it is a definite matter of urgent public importance within the meaning of Section 1 of the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921, and that such an inquiry should be held?
My Lords, I really do not accept—and I have made it absolutely clear that the Government do not accept—that this is a matter for a tribunal of inquiry.
§ LORD SHACKLETON
My Lords, while the entire House admires the noble Earl's skilful defence in this matter, and while not necessarily accepting that a tribunal of inquiry is the appropriate way to proceed, may I ask him would he none the less agree that there is a great deal of public concern and that, notwithstanding the fact that there are certain conventions with regard to unofficial briefings, where consequences such as have flowed 838 from this particular briefing arise there is justifiable public concern? Will he consider whether or not there is some other way, perhaps by a Select Committee or some other process, which would enable us to judge the facts in the light of the evidence of the journalists themselves?
My Lords, I should certainly wish to take careful note of what the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has said, but I would suggest to him that there were many factors, other than any meeting between Ministers and journalists, which might or might not have taken place, which could have led to the movement on the Stock Exchange in the week or so following the issue of the White Paper.
§ LORD HALE
My Lords, would the noble Earl take the opportunity to say—and I think it is an opportune moment—that the Tribunals of Inquiry (Evidence) Act 1921 will never be used again; or, at any rate, not until the recommendations of the Salmon Commission have been fully implemented?
My Lords, I think I can take this opportunity to say that these recommendations have been receiving the careful attention of Her Majesty's Government, and that this House, as indeed Parliament as a whole, will soon be acquainted with the results of that consideration.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl—and I do so as one who wants to preserve the conventions of the Lobby, because I was a Lobby correspondent in the other place myself fifty years ago—whether, if he will not agree to a committee of inquiry or a tribunal, he will arrange for a transcript of the relevant part of the proceedings to be put in the Library of this House?
My Lords, I should have thought that, as a former member of this distinguished assembly of Lobby correspondents, the noble Lord would be the first to agree that nothing could be more in breach of the normal conventions than that.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
But, my Lords, have not the consequences of this particular incident been so damaging to the national economy that special measures are necessary?
My Lords, without getting into a long debate—and we are going very shortly to have a debate on the White Paper—I have suggested that there are a great many contributory factors which could have caused the movement of share prices on the Stock Exchange.
§ LORD LEATHERLAND
My Lords, who are we to believe—the Minister, who says one thing, or the group of Lobby correspondents who unanimously say the other?
My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether there is any other occasion on which a 10 per cent. fall on the Stock Exchange has been greeted with such consternation by the Labour Opposition?
My Lords, I have been greatly touched by the solicitude which the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, has shown for the Stock Exchange on this matter.