HL Deb 17 June 1976 vol 371 cc1388-92

3.45 p.m.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, with the permission of the House, will repeat a Statement now being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. I will use his own words.

The Statement says: " 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.

" The House will of course be kept informed ".

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.


My. Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for having repeated the Statement made in another place by the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister. Clearly, this is a very serious case, requiring immediate investigation. The House will also be concerned as to whether an internal inquiry of the kind announced is enough. I note that in the Statement the announcement of the inquiry is prefaced by the words, " In the first place ". Can the noble Lord tell us how soon the results of this internal inquiry headed by Sir Douglas Allen are expected to become available? This is important because it seems clear that the police may need to be brought in. The noble Lord has mentioned theft, and there could have been some other criminal offence committed. Are the Government considering setting up some further inquiry, perhaps a tribunal, as soon as the initial internal inquiry has been completed?

May I add that I personally deeply deplore this episode, having myself been assigned, over 20 years ago, in another incarnation, to work as an official for the then Secretary of the Cabinet, the late Lord Normanbrook. Therefore I have experience of the system the noble Lord describes, both as an official and as a Minister. It appears that this episode could cause severe damage to the whole system of Cabinet collective responsibility if complete confidence in the Secretariat of the Cabinet and Cabinet Committee documents cannot be sustained.


My Lords, on behalf of my Liberal colleagues and myself, I should like to join in thanking the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. It is, indeed, a very serious matter and would seem to create a new situation of a kind which, fortunately, we have not had to face before. I would ask whether a respectable newspaper or journal ought to print material of this kind. However, so far as the inquiry is concerned, may I ask whether Sir Douglas Allen has all the powers necessary to carry out the very thorough inquiry that is referred to? On the subject of time, if only for the sake of a number of innocent people who will be only too anxious to have their names cleared, can the noble Lord give any indication as to how long this inquiry will take?


My Lords, I share with both noble Lords the sense of the great seriousness of this particular episode. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Wade, that there is not only a shadow over those who may have participated in these Cabinet discussions and Cabinet decisions, but also involved are men and women within the Civil Service. I attach the greatest importance to the fact that this matter should be dealt with with the greatest possible expedition. Sir Douglas Allen, as head of the Home Civil Service, has full powers, and has the full support of all Ministers in his initial inquiry.

My Lords, with regard to whether there should be a further examination, it is too early to reach a decision on this matter. The Attorney-General has been consulted. There is no clear evidence at this stage pointing unmistakably to any criminal offence, but Sir Douglas Allen will be in close touch with the Attorney-General at all times to ensure that the police are brought in if the Attorney-General con- siders that it be necessary. I think I have indicated the sense of urgency which I, with everyday responsibility for the Civil Service, know is shared by all members of the Cabinet. This should be dealt with with the greatest possible expedition, and, as the Statement concludes, Parliament will be kept informed.


My Lords, can my noble Leader say whether, however this matter got out and whoever may have been responsible for the leak, any separate charge would lie against the editor of the journal who printed it for publishing what obviously must be confidential matter.


My Lords, one does not yet know and one would not wish to have any conjecture upon how this material reached those responsible for this particular magazine. Therefore, I hope my noble friend will understand that I would not wish to add to what is in the Statement.


My Lords, could I put one point to the Leader of the House. I do so in all humility as one who nearly 35 years ago had the privilege of being sworn to Her Majesty's Privy Council. The Leader has said that this is a criminal offence or a betrayal. Supporting what my noble friend said from our Front Bench, in order to command the complete confidence of the Legislature, and the Executive, of which the head of the Home Civil Service is a distinguished member, would it not be wise to have a judicial committee of senior Privy Counsellors, at any rate following the Home Office chief's inquiry, so as to restore the confidence of all that the inquiry has been conducted independently and from the highest quarter?


My Lords, I hope the noble Lord will agree that an answer would be very premature. The way in which papers are safeguarded within the Civil Service, the Private Office in particular, is well known. I myself looked at it not so many months ago, and I do not believe it could be greatly improved without reducing the flexibility and the opportunity for discussion and consideration of matters. Sir Douglas Allen is starting this examination today.

He will do so with the greatest of expedition. He will be in consultation with the Attorney-General, who, at the end of the day, in his legal capacity, will have to take a view. So I would hope that the House will take it from me that we will report to the House in regard to this matter. In all the circumstances, since, frankly, I know no more than the House as to what may have occurred, I have a feeling that this is perhaps an occasion when we should leave it as it is and come back to it when the Government are in a position to make a further Statement.


My Lords, why should we? The editor ofNew Society has said that he knows the source of the leak and who gave him the information. It seems to me far better to take a short cut rather than the long-winded investigation that is envisaged.


My Lords, I have been in public life sufficiently long to know that the short cut is not always the quickest. Therefore, I suggest that the decision we have taken in this matter is perhaps the wisest.


My Lords, does not my noble friend think that it would be a good idea to bring in the police immediately, not in their role as prosecutors but in their role as very expert investigators?


My Lords, I have personal knowledge of Sir Douglas Allen. I have no doubt that he has capability and a precise mind, and that he will undertake this inquiry using all the powers that are available to him. Then it will be a matter for the Attorney-General to decide whether further steps should be taken.