HL Deb 02 November 1989 vol 512 cc341-3

3.20 p.m.

Lord Orr-Ewing asked Her Majesty's Government:

What are the current regulations concerning the release of information about past Cabinet proceedings.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, the records of Cabinet proceedings are subject to the provisions of the Public Record Acts 1958 and 1967. Records may be retained or closed for longer periods than 30 years under appropriate sections of the Public Records Act 1958 and in accordance with established criteria. It has been the practice of successive administrations not to disclose the content of records which are so withheld from public release.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, will my noble friend say whether ex-Ministers nowadays abide by the recommendations of the 1976 Radcliffe Committee which were agreed and approved by the Labour Government of the time and by the Conservative Opposition? Do parliamentarians also abide by their Privy Counsellor oath not to reveal in memoirs matters touching any other of their Cabinet colleagues until 15 years later, and then only after checking the memoirs with the Cabinet Office?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the 15-year rule applies to both. My noble friend is quite right in putting his finger on the obligation on former Ministers who want to publish memoirs. They are therefore required to submit their manuscripts to the Secretary of the Cabinet and to conform to the principles set out in the Radcliffe Report of 1976. I must tell my noble friend that, quite honestly, I have not been able to trawl through all the memoirs which have been published. I cannot answer his final point as to whether there are any exceptions.

Lord Ardwick

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that, although the convention of consulting the Cabinet Secretary is still respected, it has nevertheless been greatly attenuated since the Crossman case? It was attenuated because, in the Crossman case, instead of proceeding as everyone, including the publishers, expected, under the Official Secrets Act the Government decided to extend the law of confidence. When the matter came before Lord Widgery he said that, although it was rather a sensational book, there was nevertheless no question of embarrassing anyone and there was nothing that could not be revealed at that time, and he allowed the entire book to be published.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is an enormously interesting question. I wish that I could answer it, but sadly it does not arise from the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House agree that the rules to which he referred and which were also mentioned by his noble friend Lord Orr-Ewing are breached in ways other than by memoirs or other books? For example, is it not the case that a Cabinet memorandum about the effect of electricity privatisation on the coal industry, alleging that 1,800 jobs would be lost in the coal industry as a result of privatisation, was leaked? What action is to be taken about that?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, now that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition has sat down I am delighted to tell him that I have no information to give about a government document, or, if such a document has been leaked, the regrettable circumstances in which that must have occurred.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Leader of the House bear in mind that the matter should be seen in proportion? For instance, while Mr. Benn —for whom I hold no brief but whose diaries I have just finished reading —goes into great detail about Cabinet proceedings of 13 years ago, we had an example in the course of this year in which, not within 13 years but within 13 hours, the Downing Street Press Office briefed the press, it manifestly so came, to the effect that the Secretary of State for Wales, whom I think was in particular disfavour at the time, had not been called to participate in the Cabinet discussions. There was a grandstand commentary at the time upon Cabinet proceedings. Those matters need to be seen in a certain perspective. It does not fall strongly into the hands of noble Lords opposite to throw not merely stones out of glasshouses but boulders out of crystal palaces.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord is habitually fair. I should not have thought that what he has just said about his experience of the Government's publicity services in any way contravened any of the existing rules. The noble Lord says that he has no brief for the right honourable gentleman to whom he referred. The noble Lord once had a brief for him. Perhaps he can answer his own question.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, will the noble Lord tell us whether a discussion between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the privatisation of the Bank of England constitutes a proceeding in Cabinet and, if so, what action is to be taken against Mr. Lawson?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I shall give the same answer that I gave before. I can see nothing in what the noble Lord said which breaches any of the existing rules. However, perhaps I may bring the House back to the Question. This is a Question about the release of information about past Cabinet proceedings and there is nothing further that I can add on that subject.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, is it not the convention that when a Cabinet Minister resigns he is entitled to ask Her Majesty's permission to give a resignation speech and, if he obtains it, is free to give the reasons for his resignation?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend. That is something that has happened, very often with distinction, over the years.

Lord Orr-Ewing

My Lords, perhaps I may be permitted to say that I am grateful to the House. I was not seeking to raise the dirt here. I thought that the rules should be known to parliamentarians so that we know where we stand. It is sad that those who breach the rules may be well rewarded and those who feel honour bound not to breach them obtain no rewards at all.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for his final supplementary question. Perhaps I may say that I agree with him. Let us hope that the rules are kept.