HL Deb 02 November 2000 vol 618 cc1114-6

3.16 p.m.

Lord Renton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will remind all Members of the Privy Council of their duty to preserve confidentiality after discussing affairs of state confidentially with other Privy Counsellors whatever their party.

The Lord Privy Seal (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, as a Privy Counsellor himself, the noble Lord, Lord Renton, will be aware that all members of the Privy Council are appointed by Her Majesty the Queen and are bound by the individual oath that they take on becoming members of the Privy Council. I am not aware of any present intention to issue a general reminder of the obligations that the oath imposes.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that in recent years there has been a tendency on the part of some Privy Counsellors to "go public" instead of obeying the ancient convention of confidentiality?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord is thinking of some of the instances, of which all Members of the House will be aware, in which people have perhaps written about experiences which could be said to fall under the terms of their oath. As I said in my original Answer to the noble Lord, it is for individual Privy Counsellors to decide what action is necessary in order to ensure that they meet those obligations.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that it would be a great pity were we to be deprived of the memoirs of former Prime Ministers? Does she further agree that it would be a great sadness to many of us if we could not have the pleasure of reading the revelations contained in the autobiographies of, for instance, the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, and Mr Heseltine?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord about the content of the memoirs. But if he is suggesting that someone should automatically take advantage of matters about which they have learnt in the context of their Privy Council membership, that is slightly more controversial.

Lord Trefgarne

My Lords, could the noble Baroness move forward on this matter by placing a copy of the Privy Counsellors' oath in the Library?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, the Privy Counsellors' oath is in the Library.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the noble Lord who tabled the Question forgive me for having at first instance read his Question as applying to "discussion of affairs"? I omitted the words "of state" when I first read it.

Lord Renton

My Lords, the noble Lord is not going to be answered. Surely it is in the national interest that Privy Counsellors who are members of different parties should be encouraged to discuss matters of state which are above party, such as defence and foreign affairs? In order for that to be done effectively, it should be done while obeying the convention of confidentiality. Does not the Government accept that opinion?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that the Government accept that opinion. The noble Lord's original Question was about the obligations on individual Privy Counsellors to maintain their oath. The noble Lord may well be aware—although I was not aware before he asked his Question—that apparently it is regarded within the confines of the oath that a meeting of the Privy Council is taking place when only two Privy Counsellors speak to each other. I therefore had to remind the Chief Whip that he and I were both speaking in the terms of the Privy Council while sitting on the Front Bench.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that when the noble Lord, Lord Renton, lamented the breach of confidentiality by Privy Counsellors, he was mistaken in adding the words "in recent years"?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, as always, I defer to the noble Earl in his historical sweep and his view of these matters. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Renton, is concerned about the fact that these confidences are widely spread through the activities of the modern media. Those might not have been present at the time to which the noble Earl refers.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, will the noble Baroness confirm that she is as happy as I am that the traditional arrangements that have always existed between the Leader of this House and the Leader of the Opposition have been maintained and carried on, that our conversations on Privy Council terms have remained confidential, and they have always been in the interests of this House?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, and I can confirm that.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, reverting to the whole question of confidentiality referred to in the Question, does not the responsibility of a confidence freely received and given confer an obligation on a section of the population that is much greater than the Privy Council? It is usually a matter of honour that the confidences are received on the basis that they remain confidential. Is it not an obligation on us all?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, my noble friend invites me to express a personal opinion. My view is that many matters would be better discussed either on the basis that the conversation was understood to be private, or within the formal terms of an understanding of a much more serious nature such as that referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I am happy to support my noble friend in that personal view.