– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd July 1959.
asked the Prime Minister if he will instruct Ministers not to make statements concerning important changes in Government policy to outside bodies before making them to this House.
I do not think any formal instruction is required. These matters have been governed for many years by our traditional practice.
Yes, Sir, but will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider whether this does not need his attention, in view of the curious episode with the Defence Minister last week? That right hon. Gentleman made a speech and, in making such an announcement, used the not inconsiderable resources of his public relations department to put it out far and wide and then used the same resources afterwards to assure everybody that it was not serious and should be regarded as a joke. Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the effect of such a remark to foreign attaches was only to convince them that it was a serious matter?
My right hon. Friend used this phrase:
The decision which we have not yet taken has already been firmly announced in the newspapers.
This was, of course, a joke, which I agree is a dangerous but not yet an unconstitutional practice.
The previous sentence is:
I am having a meeting in the next few days to decide an important question of weapon policy.
Is the right hon. Gentleman clear which part of that sentence is a joke, and does he not think that the expenditure of public money on putting this out, if it was a joke, was a gross waste of public money?
I can give the right hon. Gentleman an explanation, but I cannot give him a sense of humour.
That offensive remark cannot be allowed to obscure the issue. The question which my right hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. G. Brown) asked was whether the statement that there would be an important decision on weapons policy was or was not regarded as a joke, or is it serious? Has such a decision been taken? If not, is it going to be taken?
At any rate, it was not any kind of leakage, for if there was such a decision my right hon. Friend did not say what it was. All he said was, in a jocular way, of course, that the newspapers had already announced it.
May I ask the Prime Minister seriously—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—I should have thought that the expenditure of public money and the use of a public service to put out hand-outs of this kind is a matter that should engage the attention of the House. Has the right hon. Gentleman any idea of what it cost to distribute this far and wide and afterwards the retraction to say that it was not serious?
No, Sir. I will try and find the right hon. Gentleman a sticky label and look into it.
Why is the Prime Minister hiding the truth from the House in this matter? What is the idea of the Minister of Defence solemnly putting out in a hand-out a statement that an important decision on weapons policy was to be made and shortly afterwards denying that he meant anything serious by it?
I can only repeat that if the right hon. Gentleman would read the speech as a whole, he would see that it was one of those jocular speeches which are made from time to time. I do not think that any great disservice has been done to the security of the public, or to any other public interest.