HL Deb 10 April 2001 vol 624 cc1064-7

11.29 a.m.

Viscount Goschen asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the use of unattributed briefings to the media represents an appropriate mechanism for announcing Government policy.

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, when Parliament is in Session, Ministers will want to bear in mind the desire of Parliament that the most important announcements of government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament. This is the approach that is set out in paragraph 27 of the Ministerial Code.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, in that case, I am sure that the noble and learned Lord will be in a position to give the House a categoric assurance that the Prime Minister did not authorise, or know of, the disclosure to the Sun newspaper of his decision to postpone the date of the local elections before he came to Parliament to make the announcement. I am equally sure that the noble and learned Lord will also be in a position to give the House a categoric assurance that the Home Secretary did not know of, or authorise, the disclosure of the Home Office sections of the Queen's Speech to The Times newspaper of 27th November last, before Her Majesty came to Parliament to open it and deliver her speech.

In the light of the Answer that the noble and learned Lord has given to the House, can he explain why Ministers do not follow the guidance that he has so eloquently put forward? Is it simply for reasons of political expediency, or do they feel that Ministers no longer have to answer first to Parliament?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, of course Ministers have to answer first to Parliament. As far as concerns the noble Viscount's first point regarding the delay in the date of the local elections, I can do no better than to quote what Mr Trevor Kavanagh said in the New Stalestnan yesterday. When the allegation was made that he was told first, he denied this and said: People have got a bee in their bonnet about these two stories … Sometimes, when you get written about, you realise new things about journalists. You get the most amazing theories emerging which have absolutely no basis whatsoever in truth". Perhaps the noble Viscount should not believe everything that he reads in newspaper reports.

I do not know anything about the allegation made regarding November of last year. It simply appeared in newspapers and is something that the noble Viscount believes in relation to the same issue. I wish that the party opposite would stop focusing on the trivia of politics and start focusing on issues such as foot and mouth and improving our tourism industry.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in the light of the Question, can the Minister say why Mr Blunkett and Mr Milburn chose Fulham football ground, with the permission of Mr Al Fayed, to announce the publication of a White Paper on disability—an event to which the noble Lord, Lord Rix, was invited—but tabled only a Written Answer to Parliament on the matter?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the Government ensure at all times that Parliament has the first opportunity to question the Government in relation to matters.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble and learned friend agree that the rather synthetic fuss that we are seeing created about alleged leaks to the Sun newspaper has far more to do with an Opposition running completely scared of a general election—whenever the date may be—than it has with anything to do with the sanctity of Parliament?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I do not know whether the Opposition is running scared of a general election. However, what I do know about members of the Opposition is that they never focus on the matters that concern the country. Instead, they focus only on the things that concern the small world in which they live.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, if what the noble and learned Lord has said about it all being a question for the press is correct, why has the practice of making announcements outside Parliament been condemned by successive Speakers in another place?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the point I was trying to make is that all of the questions, especially the one tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen, are based on the proposition that the press was briefed first, with the authority of the Prime Minister. The person who is alleged to have done that—or to whom it was done—was Kavanagh. That has proved to be wrong.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister aware that one of the most powerful denunciations of unattributable briefings was in a speech, much beloved of the late Mr Michael Foot, that was delivered in another place in 1576? Is the noble and learned Lord further aware that attempts to stop unattributable briefings have continued unabated since then; that they have not yet succeeded; and that they are, therefore, unlikely to succeed now?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I believe that the noble Earl's reference to the 16th century relates to a previous government. I am not able to tell the House what the hue of that government was; indeed, I did not know that the lobbies existed at that time. However, I should make one point. This Government started the practice of on-the-record lobby briefings. I do not remember the previous government doing so, neither do I recall the Leader of the Opposition having on-the-record lobby briefings.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord please address his mind again to the Question posed by my noble friend Lord Crickhowell, which I repeat: was the former Speaker of the House of Commons dealing with trivia when she condemned the Government time after time for making announcements to the media before making them to Parliament?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I cannot comment on what the Speaker said in another place. However, I can comment on the Question that I have been asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Goschen; namely, whether what Mr Kavanagh said to the New Statesman was based on a false factual premise.

Viscount Goschen

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord accept that this House presumes that he has better access to the Prime Minister than he does to Mr Trevor Kavanagh? Should not that question be addressed to the Prime Minister? Did such a leak take place, or did it not? It is a perfectly legitimate, straightforward question to which this House would like a yes or no answer from the noble and learned Lord.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the House has had a straightforward answer. The noble Viscount's material is based upon what the Sun newspaper reported. The author of this story has made it quite clear that it did not come about in the way implied by the noble Viscount.

Lord Brookman

My Lords, as we have had several references to what has been said in the other place, does my noble and learned friend the Minister agree that Dennis Skinner's comment about how to handle the Conservatives with the use of the Army after Labour wins the next election was a good one?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I believe that the Prime Minister replied that there were certain things that even the Army could not help with.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is not the noble and learned Lord rather consulting the voice of convenience when he opts to take no notice of what has been said in the other place, when obviously he is not unaware of it? Does he agree that this comparatively modern—at least, post-Goebbels—art of trimming information, timing it, and directing it with some skill, is not really the most respectable of human activities?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I keep returning to the point that this is all based upon what people read in press reports. The example that we have before us is one that does not appear to be correct.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, can the noble and learned Lord tell the House what appearance has to do with the issue? The Minister has been asked whether or not the Prime Minister had done such a thing, and his reply was that the Sun newspaper had said that he had not. Is that not an extraordinary way to conduct government?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, it was a reference to the evidence upon which the noble Viscount relies.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, since the Labour Government came into office, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the executive is strengthening, Parliament is weakening and the axis for decision making is moving to Brussels?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

No, my Lords.

Baroness Noakes

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that information from unattributable press briefings is better than no information at all in relation to the Dome?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, there has been a mass of information relating to the Dome.