Land Transactions

Industry – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th April 1974.

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Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton 12:00 am, 8th April 1974

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement.

I apologise to the Leader of the Opposition for the delay in sending a copy to him. I was with the Prime Minister of Jamaica for two and a half hours and did not get a chance to check the final typing.

On Thursday my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House indicated that I would be making a statement on the parliamentary aspects of issues featured in recent Press reports. In view of the concern which has been expressed, when I have dealt with the immediate parliamentary issues I will deal also with more general matters.

The principal matters directly affectine Parliament relate to reports which imply the theft of a sheet of headed notepaper from my office and the forgery of my signature. These matters could involve criminal offences and are now under investigation by the police. They may raise questions about access to and security in the Palace of Westminster. When the police inquiries and any resulting proceedings are completed, it will be necessary for the House to consider these implications. It may be necessary to seek from the Metropolitan Police and others technical advice on questions of access and security, so that the House can weigh these considerations against the considerations of convenience and of accessibility of Members of Parliament which also arise.

Now as to the wider issues. I should make it clear that there is no ministerial responsibility in any of the matters which have been the subject of allegations or suggestions in the Press. No civil servant, permanent or temporary, has been involved at any time. I was not myself involved in any way in any of the transactions in question. At no time have I had any financial investment or interest, direct or indirect, in any of them.

On these transactions, detailed statements have now been issued by solicitors acting for Mr. H. A. Field. I have nothing that I can add to these statements, save to say that no evidence has been produced to suggest that any of the transactions was in any way illegal or improper. Nor has any evidence been produced to suggest that Mr. Field at any time sought to use my name in connection with these transactions.

Mr. Field worked in the office of the Leader of the Opposition for two years until June 1973 as office manager on a part-time basis. He drew no salary. His duties as office manager included the recruitment of staff, pay, and PAYE, office equipment, office supplies, and my travel arrangements at home and abroad. He also helped to cope with the mechanical problems of handling over 300 letters a day from all parts of the country. He was not concerned with matters of policy, Labour Party or otherwise. He was not concerned with National Executive Committee documents, was not consulted on policy questions, did not offer advice on such questions, and was not concerned with the drafting or content of my speeches.

I have referred to Mr. Field's duties in relation to my correspondence. The House will have seen the statement issued by my solicitor's last Wednesday, referring to a letter which featured heavily in Press reports, sent by Mr. Field on my behalf to the Warwickshire County Council. This letter was treated in exactly the same routine manner as some 500 letters each week, where help was sought from me by members of the public in dealing with Ministries, local authorities, or other bodies.

I have referred to the two statements issued by Mr. Field's solicitors. One of them dealt in detail with the history of a derelict land clearance operation in Lancashire. The other endorsed the statement which was made on my behalf last Wednesday, that I was in no way involved in these transactions. This has not been in question.

I knew that in 1967—four years before he joined my office—Mr. Field has formed a family business, involving his father, a former small builder, and other members of the family. On occasion he discussed the slag clearance transaction with me. The precise details were none of my concern, though it was clearly an enterprising transaction which would have the effect of retrieving unusable land for desirable uses. But I did, of course, know that Mr. Field had been actively engaged working on the site, and, as any regular golf partner would be able to discover, that he broke his leg in an industrial accident there.

Much Press reference has been made to Mr. Field's sister, Mrs. Williams, who has been my political and private secretary for many years, though not a civil servant at any time. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and indeed some other honourable Members, know her and would pay tribute to her loyalty to our party and her contribution to the political life of this present generation. For several days now she has been subject to an intolerable degree of newspaper harassment on her doorstep, including an unauthorised entry into her car, and the incitement of children to hammer upon her door. These activities, if I may use so neutral a word to describe them, would, I am sure, offend the vast majority of journalists, all of whose names are blackened by them. Members on this side of the House might reasonably conclude that, although she has been the principal victim of this behaviour, this is a cowardly way of attacking me, which is the purpose, and, through me, the Government.

It is right that I should say straight away that Mrs. Williams played no part whatsoever in the running of the company involved in the slag clearance operation and never had any dealings, business or social, with any of the property men described in the various Press reports.

Some reports relating to myself have been repudiated in the statement by my solicitors, and in the case of other persons repudiations have been issued by the solicitors concerned. To mention only one incident in order to enable the House to form some impression of the expedients which have been resorted to in an endeavour to involve my name in all this, I might refer to a publication which is not the subject of legal action at this time, Saturday's Daily Express. Under an eight-column double-decker headline "Wilson met land dealers" and a subsidiary headline "Commons office used for talks "—headlines which clearly might raise anxieties in the minds of hon. Members in the context of this case—the supporting story underlying those headlines showed that its substance was that a surveyor who met Mr. Field and to whom I was, by chance, briefly introduced disclosed in a subsequent statement to the Press that I had noticed that he was wearing a well-known golf club tie. For a minute or two we discussed golf and golf courses—nothing else. All we discussed related to that important and certainly uncontroversial matter. Yet that conversation was the vehicle and warrant for those sensational headlines, and even for everything those headlines were designed to produce in the mind of the reader.

I have now referred in some detail to the transactions which have been the subject of stories and allegations in the Press. But I have read that there is concern among hon. and, in the main, unidentified Members, including some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House, about two other issues. I do not know how widespread this concern may be. So far I have myself received only one letter from a Member of Parliament—a perfectly courteous letter—and a couple of dozen letters in all from members of the public, a substantial majority of them expressing sympathy and support or criticising the Press.

One of the anxieties is the suggestion that transactions undertaken by my staff were inconsistent with statements made by my right hon. Friends and myself about land speculation—principally the purchase of land needed for housing and other social welfare purposes and its resale at vast, indeed—I quote the word I have used before—obscene, profits. Sir, I have condemned and do condemn that.

While I have always drawn a distinction in my public speeches before and during the election between property development and land speculation, I believe—and we are committed to this—that the only way to deal with these problems is for all land required for development and redevelopment to come into public ownership. On this we are urgently engaged, and the more that I have read in the past week, the more urgent I think it is.

In my view, one cannot compare the kind of land speculation we have condemned with the particular kind of operation involved here. This kind of operation is widely done by local authorities, but there are contractors in various former mining and steel districts where this is done by private enterprise, as far as I know entirely without criticism. In this case, I understand, the operations had the full support of the local authority, both on Eyesore grounds—Operation Spring-clean was running at that time—and because they were designed to produce new land for industry and employment in an area of heavy unemployment.

The second question, on which I gather from the Press there is concern, relates to some of the Press stories about some of the individual property dealers who have featured not in the land-clearing operations but in the subsequent negotiations for sale of the cleared land. I have been asked how certain individuals who have recently received publicity could ever have been brought into the matter. I thought it right to make direct inquiries into this since I have seen the reports. I have been informed by Mr. Field that, following an initial introduction, he was advised by a prominent and respected merchant bank of its willingness to underwrite the man he was to deal with—a Mr. Milhench—by providing him with full financial backing for the project.

It is not for me in this statement to express any view about the motivation of some of the newspapers concerned. Hon. Members will form their own judgment. But there have been a number of incidents in the gathering or the attempted gathering of news which ought to arouse the gravest concern in Fleet Street.

Sir, I have tried to set out in some detail the issues raised by the stories and allegations which have appeared in the media. I hope I have made clear that there is no justification whatever in the attempts that have been made to sensationalise the affair and no reason why any member of my own staff should forfeit the trust I place in them.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley Sidcup

The House will be grateful that the Prime Minister, in response to requests which came from both sides of the House on Thursday, has thought it right to make this statement today. I fully accept the difficulty that he had in getting the statement to us earlier, but it will, naturally, mean that hon. Members will want to study it carefully.

In the meantime, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman for an assurance on one point: that, regarding the first part of his statement—

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. [Interruption.] Was the Prime Minister making a ministerial or a personal statement? There are different rules, as the Chair has always held, governing the two.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

Had it been a personal statement there could have been no questions on it at all. It was not a personal statement.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley Sidcup

May I ask the Prime Minister for an assurance on the first matter with which he dealt, the question of the alleged forgery of his signature, and the last part of his statement, that he does not mean to preclude or prejudge any conclusion to which these investigations may come for the responsibility for that—because they may obviously involve security not only here in the Palace of Westminster but elsewhere, as far as anyone found to be associated with the matter may be concerned—that the House will be kept informed of the results of the inquiries?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Yes, certainly. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for mentioning that matter. I give every assurance that there is no question of precluding any conclusions that may be drawn as a result of these inquiries. The right hon. Gentleman will know that when my solicitors made a statement last week there was an announcement that the question of the alleged forgery would be put into the hands of the police. In the event—this followed the usual procedure in these matters—my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General took action and called in Scotland Yard. Scotland Yard has had every co-operation from myself and all others concerned. It will be for Scotland Yard to report whether there is any case that needs dealing with by criminal or by any other form of proceedings. What I said in the earlier part of my statement was related to that in this sense. If the report were to show that there is laxity in this place, whoever may be responsible, about leaving rooms unlocked when unoccupied and that kind of thing so that notepaper can be stolen, or if there is any other question of anxiety, I suggest that there should be talks through the usual channels with all parties to decide how we mutually feel that the matter should be handled, whether perhaps by the Select Committee on House of Commons (Services) or by asking the police in the first instance for advice. That is the assurance that I give to the right hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Willie Hamilton Mr Willie Hamilton , Central Fife

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when he knew of the details regarding the perfectly legal transactions in which members of his personal staff were involved? Did he know about them only after Mr. Field's solicitors had issued their statement last Friday or beforehand? Will he also tell us the distinction between derelict land and development land? Is a bomb site a derelict site or a development site? Will that be made clear in the forthcoming legislation? Does my right hon. Friend recognise that there is considerable disquiet on this side of the House about the composition of his kitchen cabinet?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

My hon. Friend asked when I knew about the particular transaction. I knew about it when it started. It is difficult for anyone to play golf with someone and not know what business he is in. I am sure that my hon. Friend will know that. That was in 1967. There was no mystery about it. I referred to the fact that I obviously knew when he was unable to play golf because he had broken his leg in operations on the site. There was no question of having to wait until last week. The whole story was printed in the Daily Mail on the day of the vote on the Gracious Speech, but for some reason it was not picked up at that time.

My hon. Friend asked about the distinction between derelict land and development land. Our policy set out in the manifesto on which he as well as I fought the General Election, is that all land required for development or redevelopment is to be taken into public ownership. That is the policy of the Labour Party and of this Government. That has never been in question. It does not arise in this case, because the previous Government had not done it. Therefore, they were not involved.

My hon. Friend and right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite may know that I draw a distinction between land speculation of a kind where someone sits in a Mayfair office and buys land at one figure—[Interruption.]—and sells it for another and where, in another case, someone works hard on the site for all the hours there are removing aggregate. [Interruption.] If hon. Gentlemen cannot see the difference, that will be very helpful when we come to the legislation. I think that there is all the difference here. A value was created and new land was available for employment. I think that is important in my part of Lancashire.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

Is the Prime Minister aware that we are grateful for his assurance that no Minister or civil servant is involved in this matter? Is he also aware that, as he indicated in his statement, the House will take a continuing interest to see whether any security matters involved may or may not be highlighted in the event of there being any criminal prosecution for the alleged forgery to which he has referred?

Is the Prime Minister further aware that, whilst there may be matters of continuing political argument, the real essence today is whether there is a par- liamentary consideration at stake? Having reserved one's position on those two matters, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman agrees that there have been enough instant headlines already and that we had better await events?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Yes, I think that is so. The police are investigating these matters. As I said to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition, I will ensure that, apart from any public announcements about any proceedings that there may be, a full report will be made to the House on the findings of the police.

Photo of Mr Norman Atkinson Mr Norman Atkinson , Haringey Tottenham

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the whole experience points directly at the problem suffered, particularly by a Leader of the opposition and leading members of an opposition party in trying to pay adequate salaries for personal assistants and researchers working on their staffs? Is it not a fact that during the whole period of our opposition leading members of the then Opposition, and particularly the then Leader of the Opposition, had difficulty in being able to select personal research assistants and secretarial staffs with the funds which were available?

Therefore, has not the time come when we ought to turn our attention to the whole question of providing funds to pay adequately research staff and personal secretarial assistants so that situations can be avoided whereby leading parliamentarians are dependent upon people who do not need salaries to do a useful job in giving help in the House? Does not my right hon. Friend recollect that in the United States it was precisely a situation of this kind which led to a conclusion that adequate funds must be made available to the leaders of the opposition to pay staff adequately and to give freedom of choice in the selection of those people who are chosen by, and who work for leading members of the opposition party?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

The question raised by my hon. Friend is very important and is a matter which I raised in the opening speeches of this Parliament on the Gracious Speech, when I said that we would hope to enter into discussions with opposition parties about providing the necessary staff. For instance, if one receives 300 letters a day this means that a lot of staff are required and they have to be paid for.

However, while the matter which my hon. Friend has raised is important it has no bearing whatsoever on my statement today on the particular case involved. The question of large sums of money being available for the Opposition and the Liberals and other parties has no relevance whatsoever today. I have attempted today to state the facts as I have known them to be.

Photo of Mr Graham Page Mr Graham Page , Crosby

As the transactions have been so proper and innocent, on what grounds has the Prime Minister issued libel writs?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I do not know how far I can answer that question today, but an answer which might be in order is that I was advised that statements in the Press—headlines and other matter—were libellous. That was why the writs were issued.

Photo of Mr Jack Ashley Mr Jack Ashley , Stoke-on-Trent South

Is my right hon. Friend aware that headlines in certain newspapers outside the House and the innuendos of certain hon. Members inside the House will fall through because some hon. Members on this side are determined that neither the House nor the country will be allowed to forget the single most fundamental fact that the Prime Minister's conduct and principles are beyond praise and so high as to be sure to shame those people who attempt to accuse him at this time?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I referred to some totally tendentious and misleading headlines which are not the subject of legal proceedings. There are exceptions—not every headline is of the kind my hon. Friend has referred to.

In yesterday's Sunday People there was a story about two Conservative property dealers, one of whom saw a name on a document which gave them the possibility of making political capital. The headline was: I exposed land deal to smash Labour. One of them explained how he got in touch with the Daily Mail, hoping to make this an election issue.

Photo of Sir Frederick Burden Sir Frederick Burden , Gillingham

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this is a matter which in various aspects affects the whole of the House of Commons and that the House is very jealous of its rights and honour? There has been no implication against anybody, but it would appear that the House of Commons paper was used and that certain transactions took place in rooms in the House of Commons. Therefore, will the right hon. Gentleman agree, after the police and security organisations have carried out their investigations, on the setting up of a Select Committee to go into the whole matter?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I have given an assurance that when any criminal investigations, as they may prove to be, are complete the House will have a full report. I agree that this matter affects the whole of the House. We shall have to decide what will happen after the investigations are complete.

I cannot accept on the basis of the headline I quoted, which related to a 90-second talk about golf, that that justified the headline which has obviously, perfectly fairly, upset the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Edward Milne Mr Edward Milne , Blyth

Is not the Prime Minister aware that he is wrong when he says that no protests have been made about the question of speculation on land reclamation? Many of us in areas affected by pit closures have repeatedly brought speculation in this particular sector to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman and previous administrations.

Is the Prime Minister aware that we commend the speed with which he has moved on this particular matter, but we regret that on an issue which we have raised with him and other administrations he has not moved so speedily or so effectively?

On the question of signatures on letters, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the signatures of himself and his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House were actually used against me during the course of the General Election campaign and that other persons concerned, including many hon. Members on the Front and back benches in the House, were equally affected, but nothing was done?

Hon. Members:

Disgraceful.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

On the first matter raised by my hon. Friend about particular development on pit heaps and slag heaps, and the rest of these matters, I know that there have been criticisms in some cases, but I drew a perfectly valid distinction in what I said today.

My hon. Friend also complains that the Leader of the Opposition and I had been slow to act on the advice he had given. He is probably referring to a Royal Commission on the Poulson affair. I replied to questions about that last week, and I referred to the action of the right hon. Gentleman opposite in setting up the committee under Lord Redcliffe-Maud, which does not arise on this question.

The other matter which my hon. Friend raised—about what happened regarding particular elections and appeals from party leaders about voting for the official candidate of a party—does not in any way arise out of my statement. The issue. I have decided, was intended to influence the election, but something went wrong at the time with the newspaper concerned. But it has nothing to do with the election in Blyth, I am happy to inform my hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

Would the right hon. Gentleman give further thought to both the desirability and the effectiveness of anyone in his tremendous position as Prime Minister issuing writs without any regard to the circumstances or to advice? Is any useful purpose served in taking such action?

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

There were the circumstances and I had the advice. It is always a question which one considers with great care. The precedents are difficult in this matter. The right hon. Gentleman has himself been a Minister but perhaps will not be in the same position as some of us who understand this situation. This sort of thing does not happen to the right hon. Gentleman's party.

Photo of Mr Sydney Bidwell Mr Sydney Bidwell , Ealing, Southall

May I inform my right hon. Friend that so scurrilous has a wide section of the Press become in public affairs and on this matter that they were searching for hon. Members who were known to be political critics of him when he was previously Prime Minister, inquiring whether those hon. Members had met any kind of obstruction from his personal secretary and inquiring also about other matters of that kind.

Will not my right hon. Friend accept that a Government in the position of his will always be particularly vulnerable from the anti-Labour Press? This leads us to suggest that we should strengthen the Labour, Liberal and Socialist Press, so that we can clean the matter up.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

This statement should not get us into a position in which we start to do commercials for Labour Weekly. The point that my hon. Friend makes is a new one to me; I was not aware that such inquiries had been made. My own view is that certain recent Press conduct is confined to a very small section of the Press, that it is not representative of the general view of the Press and that other critical articles which have appeared over the last few days, so far as I am concerned, have stemmed from a genuine feeling that the facts should be more clearly known. I think that that was a fair criticism to make, and at the earliest possible opportunity I have done so.

Since the question has been raised of the advice available to a Prime Minister or party leader, whether in government or in opposition, my hon. Friends will be aware that my organisation of government is not the small closed circle that it is described in the Press but that on three days a week, from 2.30 to six o'clock, my door is open for any hon. Friend of mine. Indeed, if hon. Members opposite want to come and see me they may do so. In a party like ours—I am sure that the same is true of the Conservative Party—no leader ever lacks advice from his Members of Parliament.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley Sidcup

I had not intended to intervene again, but I hope that, on further reflection, the Prime Minister will withdraw a remark that he made in his reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton). [An HON. MEMBER: "Why?"] I will tell the right hon. Gentleman why. Because hon. Members on this side have been attacked by the Press at different times in exactly the same way as in any other quarter. Perhaps I might remind the right hon. Gentleman that one of the most distinguished of my right hon. Friends, both in opposition and in government, the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling), suffered over a period of years from the abuse of his name in court without even being able to seek the redress of a writ. For this reason, and because he was a man of great honour and integrity, when the case came to be inquired into he offered his resignation to me and ceased to be a member of the Government. I hope therefore that the Prime Minister will withdraw that remark, which is, if I may say so, unworthy of him.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

I gladly accede to what the right hon. Gentleman says, certainly in respect of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling). Very many hon. Members on this side as well as on his own felt that the right hon. Gentleman had been most unfairly treated. I agree that he had been hounded. To that extent, I withdraw what I said. [Interruption.] Certainly. The point that I was trying to make was that, while all Prime Ministers have to face criticism, I do not think that it is so usual on the other side for large squads of journalists to go all over the country—I accept the case involving the right hon. Member for Barnet —just looking for things of this kind.

Someone who was until recently a Member of this House informed one of my right hon. Friends that going to his constituency newspaper in a big provincial town were members of a certain national paper snooping around to see what they could find; he said that 26 people were employed on that story. I am not aware that anything like 26 people have ever been employed on any story affecting land dealings by friends of the Leader of the Opposition when he was Prime Minister.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

I will now take points of order on this statement.

Photo of Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop Mr Robin Maxwell-Hyslop , Tiverton

Before coming to the point of which I have given you notice, Mr. Speaker, I want to consult you on another matter which has arisen in the last half hour because it has set a precedent which I have never known before in the last 14 years.

The Prime Minister has just made a statement concerning allegations all of which, if they happened at all, happened when he was not a Minister. If a Member comes to you and asks to make a personal statement, he shows you a copy of his statement, which must be non- controversial, and to which you must agree if he is to make it. Never before have I heard a ministerial statement allowed on matters which have nothing whatever to do with ministerial duties but are solely concerned with the personal conduct of the right hon. Member for Huyton (Mr. Wilson) and his acquaintances.

If this is to be a precedent, that anyone who happens to be a Minister of the Crown can use ministerial statements and the associated procedure instead of the personal statement procedure for dealing with his purely personal affairs rather than his ministerial duties, then I think it right that you should make a public statement that in this respect the rules and practice of the House have been altered.

Photo of Mr Selwyn Lloyd Mr Selwyn Lloyd , Wirral

With regard to a personal statement, the hon. Gentleman is quite correct. A personal statement cannot be made unless it has been submitted to me, and the custom of the House is that when a right hon. or hon. Member makes a personal statement there is no further discussion of it. As I have said again and again to the House, I have no control over other statements which Ministers make. If a Minister announces his intention to make a statement, it is not for me in that case to examine the statement first. Ministers must take their own responsibility for the statements they make. If this were to lead to any abuse, I suspect that the House would soon react to it.

Photo of Mr Harold Wilson Mr Harold Wilson , Huyton

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. A number of questions have been put down to me on the Order Paper on this question, on peripheral or very small parts of it. It will be in the recollection of the House that questions were also put to the Leader of the House last week pressing very strongly that I should make a statement. It was in response to these requests that I asked your permission to do so. Mr. Speaker.