Cabinet Documents (Disclosure)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th June 1976.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Peyton.)

Leave having been given on Thursday 24th June under Standing Order No. 9 to discuss:

The refusal of the Government to provide an interim statement on the progress of the inquiry into the leakage of Cabinet papers.

3.58 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

On 17th June the New Society published an article entitled Killing a Commitment: The Cabinet versus the Children. The sub-title to that article read: The Government's decision to scrap the child benefit plan was a notorious retreat. Here, from Cabinet Minutes, is an account of how the scuttling occurred. Later on today the House will have an opportunity of debating both the merits of the original scheme and the rights and wrongs of the decision to abandon it. In this debate we are concerned with how the New Society was able to present an accurate, continuous and comprehensive account of Cabinet proceedings.

I wish to quote by way of illustration two excerpts from the article. At the cabinet meeting on the following day (25 May) the Prime Minister asked the Chancellor to report on this meeting with the TUC chiefs to discuss the proposals put forward at the cabinet meeting on 6 May. I omit a few words, and the article continues: The cabinet minutes record: 'On being informed of the reduction in take-home pay, which the child benefits scheme would involve, the TUC representatives had reacted immediately and violently against its implementation, irrespective of the level of benefits which would accompany the reduction in take-home pay. The article later continues and this is the last quotation with which I shall weary the House: The minutes give a clear idea of how the present cabinet views political activity. The Prime Minister was insistent on a careful sell for the U-turn on child benefits. The Prime Minister on 17th June—column 738 of Hansard—acknowledged that there had been access direct or indirect to Cabinet minutes and documents. He decleared that there was involved either a theft or a betrayal of trust, and that the stringent rules governing the circulation of such papers had been broken. On 22nd June, in response to a question put to him by my right hon. Friend the the Leader of the Opposition, the Prime Minister made it quite clear that a leak such as this had never to his knowledge happened before.

I intend to resist the temptation to dwell at length on the somewhat colourful and unusual comments by the hon. Gentleman the Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office, who has particular responsibility for information. I leave him to dwell on the relative singing ability of choirs in the Rhondda or Whitehall. But it is impossible to overlook the charge he levelled against his colleagues and their advisers that, for the most doubtful of reasons, there had been a conscious and premeditated leakage of top-level discussions and decisions.

Did the hon. Gentleman base that diagnosis on knowledge or on surmise? I assume that, since we have had no note of public dissent from the Government, they endorse the judgment of their colleague. Indeed, the Prime Minister on 22nd June—column 1358—said that probably the only mistake the Minister made was to talk about the last 18 months. Therefore, apparently, the Government share his view.

Presumably they also agree with him that this is not an isolated incident, but part of a long process. If that is right and has been their view for some time, I must ask why they waited so long until something serious occurred before they took action and why, when they took action, they were so timid and halfhearted in what they did.

I hope that the Leader of the House will answer today far more clearly than he did on the previous occasion when we discussed this matter. I hope that he will also say whether he sees any connection between such leaks as are now becoming so frequent and the erosion which has taken place in recent years of the rule requiring civil servants to be apolitical and to remain free from partisan attitudes. I should also like to ask whether he sees some risks arising from the present Government practice of appointing special political advisers when it is clear that such advisers are likely to have special political commitments and when such committments could well lead to error.

It would be appropriate if I were to say a few words on the unpleasant subject of secrecy. Preoccupation with secrecy is a particularly odious characteristic of oppressive and evil regimes, but there is no system of government in the world, however open or pure, that can entirely do without some clothing of secrecy in its procedures. None could withstand exposure in detail of all the arguments and discussions that must precede a publicly-announced decision. Ministers and their advisers must be able to trust one another to resist the temptation, if they lose an argument in private, to bring that issue into a more public arena by means that are dishonourable as well as unlawful.

The Press and the radio in the last few days have been full of allegations, made by a large number of bodies, that classified information is only too readily available. There has been a positive avalanche of claims, not just to have access to such information, but to have a regular and almost embarrassing supply of it. I hope that the Leader of the House will he able to say that that is not true.

I am not saying that no leaks have ever occurred before. It is common ground, with this exception, as the Prime Minister admitted the other day, that there has never been, so far as I know, a leak of Cabinet minutes which have been freely quoted in the newspaper. I hope that if the right hon. Gentleman cannot satisfy the House that such claims as have been made about the wide distribution of classified information are unfounded, he will be able to satisfy the House that the Government now intend to take rigorous action to check a very dangerous habit.

Photo of Mr Robert Mellish Mr Robert Mellish , Southwark Bermondsey

The right hon. Gentleman spoke of an avalanche of information. Indeed, I have read about the "boxes of information" and the statement that this process has gone on since 1971. Would he like to make a comment about the situation between 1971 and 1974, and then we can take the matter from there?

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

I do not think that affects the situation. Indeed, if the right hon. Gentleman had been listening to me, he would have heard me say to the Leader of the House that I was not making the point that leaks had originated with the present Administration. The "You-did-it-too" argument is an unsatisfactory form of defence, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will not use it. If they do, it will be a clear indication of their unwillingness to tackle a problem that has reached considerable dimensions. The point that is crucial to this argument is that all who wish to see parliamentary government survive in this country, whether we applaud or detest particular policies, share an overriding concern that the rules and procedures of this place and of the Government as a whole, which are the sinews of the system, should not be eaten away.

Photo of Mr Max Madden Mr Max Madden , Sowerby

The right hon. Gentleman is rightly dealing with the subject of secrecy, but does he in this context envisage a reform of the Official Secrets Act? Will he further consider the comments made by Mr. Gordon, Chairman of the Tory Reform Group, to the effect that, instead of wasting energies on leaks and trying to pursue the subject, the official Opposition would be better occupied in starting a campaign for the total review of the Official Secrets Act? Does he agree with Mr. Gordon?

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

I have many better things to do than to consider anything Mr. Gordon said or may have said. I find the hon. Gentleman's intervention entirely devoid of interest.

When things go wrong in the rather unpleasant area of secrecy, I concede that these is some obligation upon the Opposition to refrain from just licking their chops and savouring the embarrassment of the Government. But there is also a matching obligation upon the Government to keep Parliament informed and to satisfy it that the action being taken is appropriate. I concede that on 17th June, when the matter first came up in the House, the Prime Minister showed commendable candour, but neither the action taken by the Government in appointing Sir Douglas Allen to conduct an inquiry nor the Government's subsequent reluctance to say anything at all matched up to that obligation.

I have nothing but respect for Sir Douglas Allen, who is a distinguished civil servant, but I have a great deal of sympathy with him in being asked to go off and dig without a spade. When asked to conduct inquiries of that kind, people such as he have no machinery with which to do it. They do not have anything. The decision of appointing him was shadow boxing by the Government in the hope that it would be sufficient to get them out of an embarrassing situation. The Government gave the impression that they hope that something token or minimal would suffice and that, with a bit of luck, the whole thing might blow over. Sir Douglas Allen's reasonable comment on the poor track record of such inquiries did nothing to dispel that impression.

I did not understand at the beginning, and I understand less now, why, with the possibility of theft in their minds, Ministers failed to call in the police at once. That is the normal step if theft is feared, and the Prime Minister referred to the possibility of theft.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) is as aware as I am—because we have both been in Government—that a strict security service operates in Government circles. Why, therefore, is it necessary to call in the police until one has given the security services the opportunity to make the fullest possible investigation?

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

I was labouring under the rather naïve delusion that if a serious theft is thought to have taken place, one of the first things that a sensible person would do is to call in everyone who could help to trace the culprit. One's mind would light upon the police as at least one agency that could be brought in to help. I am not suggesting any bold or innovating action.

I do not understand why the Government did not say what further action they would take. I readily concede—I do not want to make any unfair or tricky points—that there is no ideal solution or course for which there is a precedent, but one cannot rule out the possibility of setting up a tribunal of inquiry. I am sure that the Government will have in mind that cumbersome inquiries, as tribunals have shown in the past, have a tendency to damage the innocent without always identifying the guilty. I am sure that they will have thought about the possibility of appointing a Select Committee of the House of Commons, of both Houses, or of Privy Councillors.

Any of those courses, or any other alternative, have their shortcomings, defects and blemishes. But the overriding fact is that the Government are under an immense weight of obligation, facing as they do a thoroughly unpalatable situation which concerns not only the Government and the nation, but all those within and outside the country who give information to the Government. They will be concerned that there is someone in the higher reaches of government who is willing to give or to sell what he or she has no right to give or sell.

It makes no difference to me whether such acts are perpetrated for the purpose of furthering a cause or for some other personal gain. The overriding fact is that such acts involve a gross betrayal of trust, which has the undesirable consequence of bringing great mistrust upon the innocent. Many distinguished men and women in public life, members of the present Government and their advisers, must now feel themselves somewhere near the shadow of an unpleasant suspicion which has been brought about by the dishonesty of one individual. The public interest demands that the Government should spare no effort to find out who has done this grave thing.

The debate would not be taking place had the Leader of the House found it possible at the end of last week to promise a progress report on Sir Douglas Allen's inquiry and to promise that report within a fortnight of its being set up. I said earlier that a reply from the Government to the effect "You did it too", or a leisurely hope that the whole thing would somehow go away, would be inadequate today. I hope that the minimum the Government will tell us is what Sir Douglas Allen has found out, if anything, and what they intend to do. If they cannot satisfy us on those two minimum points, we shall be driven to the conclusion that they are shirking their duty and we shall express that view in the Lobby.

4.19 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eric Moonman Mr Eric Moonman , Basildon

I carefully followed the remarks of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and I am bound to say that wording of the subject for debate does less than justice to those of us who are equally concerned but reject the idea of dividing the House. There are two aspects to the debate—the political implications and the more serious one concerning a leak of information by some manner or means as yet unspecified. I shall deal wholly with the second area.

I have three or four questions, which I will ask briefly because a number of hon. Members want to speak on this important occasion. First, I believe that we cannot conduct the affairs of an organisation, let alone a nation, by inviting an employee when there has been a theft to own up. This was a feature of the style of inquiry mentioned by the Prime Minister. In rebutting the suggestion that the police should be informed, the Prime Minister said that he would ask for the "honour system" to operate—for the person who had done this to own up to it. It is surely an inadequate approach, when one has to invite the criminal to admit that he has erred. Secondly, there is the question of the scale of the leaks—and here I take up another point put by the right hon. Member for Yeovil. It is not just a question whether there has been an increase of leaks in any one period of government. What is important, and what must shock hon. Members on both sides of the House, is that we have had about 40 leaks in the last few years, probably more. I want to know whether any analysis has been made of these incidents, and what sort of information exists arising from the analysis, because the number of occasions when there has been misuse of information is frightening.

An irritating aspect of the matter to me it that it is, apparently, one on which the House may well divide. I hope, even at this late stage, that there will be no vote on the issue. We can all anticipate what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is likely to say, but there are such critical matters of cabinet government involved here and I believe that it will be a gross error not to show a united approach to the public that we, in Parliament, mean to get at the truth.

I return to the question of the number of leaks. What sort of correlation has been established in these 40 incidents? What factors are common to the scale of the thefts? With respect to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office, whose speech has been quoted much in the last few weeks, I do not honestly think that we can, even in this preliminary debate, allow that reference to go by without some indication from him as to what he meant. I know that he cares very much about self-discipline and that he has a good sense of humour, but I hope that he will agree on reflection that his speech on this subject has caused considerable concern. If he is right and there is evidence about leaks on such a large scale, I, for one, want to know more detailed evidence.

The House is bound to ask what is the extent of this inquiry. We are assuming that the culprit is a civil servant. Yet what evidence have we for assuming that, or that the person concerned may even be in a Ministry?

We should also know what is the system of investigation. The right hon. Member for Yeovil suggested that in this case it was being done in a manner rather like asking a man to dig without a spade, and that observation was right. It would be helpful to the House if my right hon. Friend would indicate the methods employed thus far in trying to get this information. It will shock the House if we are told that the investigation is at an end as suggested in the weekend Press. The House will feel badly if the suggestions of the betrayal of trust indicate that, because the man or woman has not owned up, we cannot pursue the matter further.

I am driven to ask, as others are, just how secret is Government secrecy. In theory, the records of Government business are not open to publication for 30 years—the period was reduced from 50 years in 1967—and in cases where security or other interests are concerned the period can be 50 years, 75 years or 100 years. There is also discretion to open up records earlier, as has been done in the case of most of the records of the Second World War. The cover includes Government papers, whose limitation as sources of disclosure mean that the ministerial memoirs by Richard Crossman are included in the terms of the relevant Act. Whatever the situation of the present inquiry, we must come back to the question of the use of information.

After the publication of the Cross-man Diaries, the Radcliffe Committee was set up to consider the principles governing the publication of such memoirs. Its recommendations have been circulated as a kind of voluntary code of conduct. It suggested that national information on foreign affairs should be subject to veto by the Prime Minister and that the personal opinions and attitudes of colleagues and the advice given by civil servants should not be published for 15 years at least.

Whether these voluntary rules will be more effective is questionable. Cross-man's sin was to present his material in such a racy, journalistic readable style that it did not conceal its partisan opinions and breaches of confidence as a more statesmanlike presentation would have done. But "setting the record straight" will no doubt always be a powerful motivation for retiring politicians. No doubt many attempts to put the record straight are being considered at the moment. But the question of reasonable time limits in the publication of Government records does not reduce the seriousness of the number of leaks—indeed, more reasonable time limits would make leaks of decision-making still covered even more serious.

This is a very serious matter, but it is regrettable that we are having to debate this issue with the likelihood of the Opposition dividing the House. To my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House I say this: he will make a great mistake and misjudge the mood of the House and of the public if he thinks that this matter can be given anything less than a critical examination as to how and why the leaks have taken place. That question goes to the heart of the matter. No organisation, and certainly not the Government, can hope for credibility with the nation if it does not show itself taking the strongest possible measures to ensure that such abuse does not easily occur again.

4.26 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hugh Fraser Mr Hugh Fraser , Stafford and Stone

We are all taking through a fog of uncertainty at this stage. We have not heard a word from the Government about what has happened. I agree with the hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Moonman)—I have joined him probably more than anyone else in the House in asking for greater freedom of information. I have challenged the Attorney-General to prosecute me under the Official Secrets Act. I do not think that I can go much further than that. I am totally in accord with many of the things said by the hon. Member for Basildon.

We are faced with something far more important today than the question of prosecuting and persecuting someone who in 1922 revealed the price of Army fly buttons. We are concerned with a matter of enormous gravity. It is not just a question of loose mouths in the Cabinet but of loose fingers getting hold of Cabinet documents. That is the alarming thing about what has happened.

I hope that when he lets us into what the Government are doing the right hon. Gentleman will bear various matters in mind. The first is that cabinet government cannot be conducted unless there is total security of cabinet discussion. I believe in a five-year rule for most papers—indeed, I have more liberal ideas about information than do many other hon. Members—but when it comes to discustion in the Cabinet itself, there must be total and absolute security.

Since 1878 there have been three occasions when this principle has been breached. The first was the famous Marvin case in 1878, which, I suppose, was a breach of Cabinet security. The next was an inadvertent breach by the late Dick Crossman himself, who left papers at Prunier's. They were handed to Chapman Pincher and described in great detail a row between Crossman and the then Attorney-General. These papers were handed, quite correctly, to the police, and were not shown or discussed. They have now been revealed by Crossman himself in his diary, so there is nothing secret about them any more. The third occasion is this.

I have three observations to make about this issue. First, there is the problem of the conduct of the Government, which is obvious. Secondly, there is a much wider question. The Government are elected by the people, rightly or wrongly, to govern. If there is a betrayal of trust of this nature, it means that the Government, who have been elected by the people, are unable to carry out their duties of governing because of the frequent risk of breach of intrigue, and the use of the Press against other members of the Cabinet, which makes their task almost impossible.

The third is even more important. Somewhere in the Cabinet, or near it, action has been taken by a politically motivated person. As far as I understand it, this is a case politically motivated by someone who feels very strongly about a matter that can be described as one of social justice. But should there be people who are politically motivated for other reasons which are far more sinister, whether those people are from the extreme Right or the extreme Left, the result may have the gravest possible consequences for the security of the State. This is what I find most worrying today. That is why my right hon. Friend was perfectly correct to move the Adjournment of the House and to press for the fullest possible inquiry.

Certain questions must be asked immediately. The first is about the actual circulation of these documents. This is a matter for the Civil Service. The second concerns positive vetting. I believe that those advisers who come in from outside the Civil Service, and Ministers, should be vetted to ensure that they are totally politically reliable. There should also be positive vetting in the same way and with a repetition after a number of years of civil servants working at certain levels in the private offices of Ministers, as there is a danger of defection from the course of duty.

This is not making a mountain out of a molehill. It is a matter of supreme importance to the State. Unless there can be controls, unless the rats who are nibbling away at the structure of the State are brought under control, the whole edifice of Parliament and the safety of our country are in danger. That is why I press the matter so strongly today.

I have often stood up in favour of political liberty and fought for more information to be given to the public. I believe from the bottom of my heart, having fought for the removal of Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act, that this goes to the root of government and that the Government must be protected. Proper action must be taken to discover how all this has come about.

4.35 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

I had hoped to reply at the end of the debate but I understand that an indication was given to the Opposition that I would take part early in the debate and then ask leave to speak again later. If the House thinks that it is better for me to intervene now, I am glad to do so, because the Government cannot complain about the terms in which the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) presented the matter. I will do my best to answer the questions he has raised and the anxieties which hon. Members have expressed. At the end of the debate I will be very careful to reply to any other questions raised.

In one sense it could be claimed that this debate came about because the right hon. Gentleman was criticising my failure to give an undertaking that I would make a statement to the House in a few days. The Standing Order No. 9 debate was allowed on the basis of my failure to promise a statement Therefore, this is not necessarily a debate on the whole security question involved. When we come down to the final conclusion of the matter, it is a narrow subject we are debating—the report on Sir Douglas Allen's inquiry. I do not seek to avoid any questions on that account, but I am saying that this is the basis on which the debate was accepted, and on which the House will come to a decision at the end of the day.

I do not believe that it would be an adequate or a satisfactory answer for me simply to recite the occasions on which there had been previous leakages and to tell the Opposition that it happened to them, too. It may be argued by some that this is a particular case because of the particular circumstances and the particular nature of the leakages. It would be possible to cite a number of occasions when leakages occurred under previous Governments—in fact there were a whole series of occasions. However I do not propose to do this, although I agree that on the whole this sort of thing has gone on for a much longer time, that it is a much larger question, and that it needs a much larger investigaton. That is a legitimate argument. But I am not seeking to reply on that basis.

On the general situation and the general themes which have been mentioned, there are major issues of principle involved, and nobody can doubt that. There is a clash of interests about what Governments of different complexions may say about secrecy and what others may say about secrecy. There is a clash of interpretation of "in the public interest" There is a clash between Governments and many newspapers. Even Right-wing newspapers may have strong objections to the Official Secrets Act, and often Left-wing Governments take shelter behind the Official Secrets Act. There is a clash of interests between the claims of open government and the claims of disclosure and the necessity for confidentiality if cabinet government is to be properly conducted.

I say to the House and to anyone who has followed the controversy in the newspapers—not just Left-wing newspapers—that there is a difference of view not only between the Government and the newspapers outside but between citizens of the country generally and between Members of this House generally. These people say that we should protect Government confidentiality of documents but we must also protect open government so that the public are properly informed. This is a clash of two rights, not a right and a wrong, and that fact must be taken into account.

I am not seeking to weaken in any sense what was said by the Prime Minister or those who uphold the doctrine. I believe that it is the case that confidentiality is essential for the proper conduct of cabinet government.

I believe in the Privy Councillor's oath. I believe in the taking of that oath, which says that the person concerned will not reveal what is learned in those circumstances. I believe that Privy Councillors should abide by their oath or affirmation. So I do not quarrel with that doctrine, but we shall have to see how it can be applied and how breaches of it can be dealt with.

I shall come to the precise case in a moment. But the situation is not made any easier by the fact that, having established this broad expanse of theory and practice, there then flops over it like an unruly eiderdown the Official Secrets Act. It is either unusable or it may be suffocating. If the occupant of the bed turns on one side, he may open an aperture. If he turns on the other side, the eiderdown may fall off the bed altogether.

The Official Secrets Act is an unsatisfactory way of dealing with questions of this kind. That is why successive Governments have said that there must be inquiries into it, and that is why recent cases in the courts have illustrated the difficulties and dangers of the operation of the Official Secrets Act. That is why the party to which I belong said in its manifesto that we would be considering how we should deal with the approach to reform of the Official Secrets Act. That is still the position of the Government—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] I agree that all Governments have been dilatory in dealing with this matter. But it will be easier to deal with such problems as we face now when there is much greater clarity on the legal situation. I believe that there are many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House who will agree with me about that.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

The right hon. Gentleman said that there were differences of opinion within the Press, within the Government and within the House. Is there any difference of opinion about the deliberate breaking of an oath and the transmitting of Cabinet documents to an outsider?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

No. I am saying that anyone who examines the whole of this matter—not the particular case here but the whole question of leakages and how they should be dealt with and the whole question of confidentiality and how it is to be protected—and says that there are no difficulties and that it is a simple question cannot have followed the controversies about the Official Secrets Act which have taken place both in this House and outside. The simplistic doctrine of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) is not a satisfactory way of approaching the problem.

Photo of Mr Nigel Lawson Mr Nigel Lawson , Blaby

The right hon. Gentleman said that his party had pledged itself in its manifesto to reform the Official Secrets Act with special reference to Section 2. Many of us agree that that should be done. But he has had plenty of time. Why has he not introduced proposals about this?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

One of the reasons is the lack of legislative time. Another reason, which I fully acknowledge, is that it is not an easy matter to resolve. I do not pretend that the Government have found it easy to resolve the question of how we should follow up the Franks Report. We have found it difficult. But the fact that I acknowledged that should mean that the House would realise the problems involved.

I come to the particular question and to the motion—and there is no complaint on that score because the motion refers to a particular case. It refers to the Government's refusal to promise an interim statement on the progress of the inquiry into the leakage of Cabinet papers". I suppose that it would have been easy for me to promise to the right hon. Member for Yeovil merely to give a progress report next Thursday, even though I did not know whether I should have any progress report to make. Certainly I did not know whether there would be a progress report available for me to make. But, because I was unable to give the right hon. Gentleman the answer that he wanted, that does not mean that the Government were being dilatory, that Sir Douglas Allen was being dilatory, or that anyone else was being dilatory. There was no implication of that at all.

I was not prepared to give the right hon. Gentleman an undertaking, which I thought would be misleading, that I would be able to make a progress report in a few days' time when I did not know whether I should be able to do it. I thought that that was a candid way of treating the House. For that reason, I repudiate all the charges of dilatoriness.

But I can now tell the House—certainly it happened long after the questions put to me by the right hon. Gentleman the other day—that, before my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister left for Puerto Rico, Sir Douglas Allen gave him an up-to-date report on how far he had got with his inquiries and will let my right hon. Friend have a final report on his return from Puerto Rico. The Prime Minister will make a statement in the House when he has considered the matter.

I cannot say any more than that about the inquiries being made by Sir Douglas Allen. In my judgment, having set up the inquiry by Sir Douglas Allen, it would be improper for us in the interim to intervene and say that we had some other method of dealing with the matter. We have to judge it on the basis of the report we receive from Sir Douglas Allen. On the basis of that report, the Government will make up their mind what should be the next step.

For that reason, I repudiate the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Yeovil which was implicit in one of his last questions that, if we did not tell him today exactly what was to happen about a report whose conclusions we had not yet received, we would be accused of shirking. It is not shirking. It is common sense. Anyone setting up an inquiry listens to what the inquiry says before deciding on the next step.

I come to the other possibilities. I am not making any judgment about them because we have to take the conclusions of the report into account before deciding what to do next. But I will comment on the suggestions made by the right hon. Member for Yeovil.

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Can my right hon. Friend comment on how Mr. Adam Raphael in yesterday's Observer and others seem to have access to this interim report of Sir Douglas Allen? Was there a briefing?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

So far as I know, there was no briefing. So far as I know, none of them knows what is in the interim report. Whatever may be in the interim report, when an inquiry of this nature is set up by the Head of the Civil Service, it is common sense to wait until we have the full report before deciding what action we should take about it.

Photo of Mr Anthony Royle Mr Anthony Royle , Richmond Upon Thames Richmond

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that, when the Prime Minister receives the full report, the report will be published?

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

No. I cannot give that assurance. What I can assure the hon. Gentleman about is that, as I have said already, when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister receives the full report, he and the Government will make up their minds what they propose to do and, of course, they will report to the House both about the question of publication and about the action which they believe should follow. Then the Government and the House will be able to make up their minds. But to make up our minds on that matter now is premature. That was my view last week when the questions were put to me by the right hon. Member for Yeovil. But, since we are now debating the matter, I give the answer that I think will be most helpful to the House.

Now I comment on one or two of the suggestions which have been made, possibly in criticism, about how we should deal with this matter. There was the proposal of the Leader of the Opposition that we should set up a tribunal of inquiry. I do not rule out any form of dealing with it. But I can hardly believe that anyone could think that a tribunal of inquiry would be the most appropriate way of dealing with such a situation. I have heard many of the debates in this House about tribunals of inquiry and how they have operated. Indeed, I have participated in many of those debates.

The Salmon Committee made investigations into how those tribunals operate. It made recommendations which were accepted by the House. These have improved the way in which tribunals operate, and possibly protected innocent individuals from the kind of trouble and difficulty in which they were plunged by the operations of some of these tribunals in previous times.

Certainly I think the Government were right not to plunge into a tribunal or inquiry of that sort, particularly when realising how many innocent people—including innocent Members of this House—were involved. An innocent member of a previous Conservative Administration was injured by the operations of one of those tribunals. We should learn from that experience.

Other people were also involved in those tribunals. For example, in the Vassall tribunal journalists refused to give evidence of their sources. I should think it extremely probable that in the present affair—indeed, it has already been stated by some of those associated with it—journalists would not reveal their sources of information. If an inquiry were to be instituted, therefore, almost automatically the editors of the newspapers concerned—New Society, The Times and others—would be placed in a similar position to that of the journalists involved in the Vassall tribunal. It would therefore be very unwise for the Government to plunge into that course without proper consideration of what the consequences might be.

I therefore say seriously to the House that I doubt very much whether a tribunal of inquiry is the best way to deal with the matter, although I repeat that nothing is excluded.

There was also a suggestion that there should be police inquiries. As the Prime Minister said before, no possibility as to later action is excluded, but again, judging from past experience, police inquiries in these respects can also have their difficulties, and the House should understand this.

I promised not to use the argument "You did it, too", and I stand by my promise, but the right hon. Gentleman will recall that there was a leakage from his own Department which involved a newspaper, and police action against the newspaper. Very serious considerations were raised in this House whether that was the best way to proceed. Indeed, in relation to discovering the culprit, the police action in that case did not succeed. I repeat that I am not excluding the possibility that it might be taken into account, and, indeed, it is right for the Government to take all these considerations into account. But because we delayed in the sense of not taking precipitate action, as suggested by the Leader of the Opposition, and because we delayed and did not take the precipitate action suggested by the right hon. Gentleman in regard to the police, it does not mean that we did not treat the matter seriously. We did treat it seriously. We appointed the Head of the Civil Service to inquire into the matter, and we shall have to see what he suggests and recommends. That is the position in which the House is placed.

I have given an absolutely fair and open account of the position to the House. In my judgment, it would have been better to defer any debate on this matter until we had the report from Sir Douglas Allen, but it was the wish of the right hon. Gentleman and the House that we should have this debate. But the fact that the debate has been started does not mean that we can pass judgment on a report that we have not yet received. We have to wait until we receive it.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

Mr. Peyton rose

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

I do not want to delay the proceedings for more than a moment or two, because no doubt hon. Members will wish to contribute to the debate. I will give way to the right hon. Gentleman before I conclude. I believe that already suggestions have been made which may be helpful, and the debate will be taken into account by the Government when they make up their mind about the recommendations or the conclusions which Sir Douglas Allen may bring forward. The House of Commons will have had the possibility of giving an interim view on the matter.

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

The right hon. Gentleman has failed to understand the purpose behind the motion. It is not simply a nagging complaint that the right hon. Gentleman was not very forthcoming the other day. It is an expression of broad dissatisfaction with the Government's failure so far to show a proper depth of concern about a really deplorable development.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

I repudiate any suggestion that anything I have said from the Dispatch Box today detracts in any way from what the Prime Minister said when he was speaking to the House recently on the matter, nor have I sought to withdraw anything said as to the seriousness of what occurred.

What I am describing to the House with complete candour is how we have dealt with the matter, why we rejected the courses which the right hon. Gentleman recommended, and why we think it was sensible to reject those courses, in the interests of trying to protect the confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings—I fully accept that that is essential—and also protecting the proper channels of information which have to be provided.

I repeat what I said at the beginning, and I believe that any hon. Member who faces the facts will agree with me. It is not a conflict simply between right and wrong. This is a conflict between two requirements. The first is the requirement that Ministers and Governments shall be able to conduct business in confidence, that there shall be no breach of that confidence, and that any breaches will be dealt with. The second is the demand from newspapers, and pressure from hon. Members and others, for different forms of open government.

The two requirements have to be reconciled. One way of helping to reconcile them is to ensure that in some form or other the Official Secrets Act is reformed. Another is to ensure that, when breaches occur, every effort is made to establish their cause.

I conclude by referring to what the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said in his question the other day. There is a respect in which this case is more serious than most other cases. I do not say any other case but most other cases. In this case the unauthorised publication of a Cabinet proceeding occurred much more swiftly than in any previous instance. That occurred, and that is what has to be examined.

I still believe that the caution which the Government showed, if that is the right word, or the refusal of the Government to adopt the courses recommended by the Opposition, was right. It may be that if the Opposition had been in power they would have taken a similar view. The House of Commons can come only to an interim judgment tonight. We have to wait to see what is said in Sir Douglas Allen's report. On these grounds, I hope that the House will not force a Division.

4.59 p.m.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House is saying to the House that there is no effective way of investigating this leak.

I rather agree with what he said about a tribunal of inquiry. I was a law student when the Stanley tribunal was held. Everyone knows that it damaged the innocent rather than revealed the guilt of those concerned. A tribunal of inquiry is an unsuitable vehicle for this kind of probe.

The Government have appointed a distinguished civil servant, but what can he do in the course of his inquiry? Can he get to the root of the matter? I doubt it very much indeed. If someone is so politically motivated as to make this kind of leak, the kind of question that can be asked by a civil servant, however distinguished, is unlikely to elicit the truth. It is a window-dressing operation.

There is a good deal in what the Leader of the House said in his criticism of a potential police inquiry. Nevertheless, a police inquiry is probably the most effective inquiry open to the Government if they want to discover who stole Cabinet minutes.

In this sphere there is inadequate machinery. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we have to have regard to the public demand for more open government. One feature of this episode which requires our careful consideration is not so much the lack of depth of Government concern but the lack of depth of public concern. That is a feature which would not have occurred 25 or 30 years ago. There would have been a great outburst of public indignation at such a leak. Yet public reaction now is relatively small.

Photo of Mr John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone

I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong. The attitude of the public is influenced by the subject matter of the leak. In a leak which was concerned with looking after poor children the attitude 25 years ago would have been exactly the same as it is today.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made that comment. This goes to the root of the problem. I am a great believer in more open government, but there is a great deal of difference between secrecy and confidentiality. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House think that confidentiality should be limited wherever possible but, if we are to have effective government, in a democratic society there is bound to be a sphere in which confidentiality is essential. The effect of what the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) said would be to limit to the minimum the sphere where confidentiality is required. I agree, but once we have done that we must insist on the strictest rules within that sphere.

This leak, and many other leaks referred to by the Parliamentary Secretary in a public speech, are in the sphere of social justice. The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) said in his intervention that if the motivation for the leak is right, if it is concern for children, that expiates the enormity of the crime of leakage. There is a great deal of difference between open government on the one hand and leakages on the other. Leaking is a skilful use of closed government to get a certain view point across, with the person making the leak knowing that other people who feel strongly the other way are bound by the confidentiality that he is disregarding. A leak of that kind is an attempt to manoeuvre the public and to manoeuvre a political party to a course of action which the majority of the leaders of that party in Cabinet have decided is inappropriate. Leakage is the improper use of a closed system of government to bring about a certain result, and it must be distinguished completely from the demand for more open government.

Once we tolerate leakages that are politically justifiable because they are designed to achieve a certain social end, where do we stop? A man who is tremendously motivated on a defence matter may be convinced that he is right. He will think that the oath he took does not matter and that the confidentiality that exists between his companions and himself does not matter. All that matters, he will feel, is his belief that he is right. Therefore, I totally reject the view put to me by the hon. Member for Penistone. I am all for restricting the sphere of confidentiality to the minimum, and the less closed government the better, but once we have decided the sphere, there must be rigid discipline.

Photo of Mr John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone

If the hon. and learned Gentleman rejects what I said, he must do justice to what I said. I was addressing myself to his comparison with what might have happened 25 or 30 years ago. I said that the public would have reacted 30 years ago if the leak had been concerned with children. I go further. When the Hoare-Laval Agreement was leaked the public fully approved of the leakage and would do so again.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

The hon. Gentleman cannot escape so easily. He is saying that if the motivation is right, nothing else matters. In a country such as ours, if people are strongly motivated no oath will prevent them from leaking information. What is required is a rigid code. We must safeguard our country as far as we can.

I agree with much of what the Leader of the House said. I was slightly disturbed by the confusion which he seemed to introduce between the demand for more open government and leakage. These are two entirely separate factors. He gave the impression that it does not matter—

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

Mr. Foot indicated dissent.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

I may have gained the wrong impression but that was the impression the right hon. Gentleman conveyed to me, and it is a bad impression to create in the country at large.

Twenty-five or 30 years ago a larger section of the public would have been much more concerned, because they believed in confidentiality and had respect for taking the oath. With the more open system we have evolved there is less regard for the taking of oaths and confidentiality. Many matters are leaked today which would not have been leaked a decade or two ago and there is less public reaction to it. We are conscious of that, and that is why I believe in the need to restrict the sphere of confidentiality, but once that is done it is important that a rigid code should apply to which there are no exceptions.

Photo of Mr Hugh Jenkins Mr Hugh Jenkins , Wandsworth Putney

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman saying that because leaking is wrong secrecy should not have been applied in this case? Is he saying that if we are opposed to leaking we cannot simultaneously say that the area of secrecy is too large? Surely not.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

Of course not. We can equally say that the area of secrecy is too large and that it should be reduced as far as possible—all modern Governments have tended to this view—but once that is done, once the area is agreed and until it is changed, a rigid rule must apply.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) that this is a serious leak which involves not only a loose tongue but larceny and the publication of Cabinet minutes. Although the motivation may be social justice, the nature of the leak is serious and this short debate is inadequate to enable us to consider all the implications. We must have a better mode of investigation. None of the three modes suggested is adequate.

5.10 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

I wish first to comment on the remarks of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) who said that he and his right hon. and hon. Friends would refrain from licking their chops over this issue. I have a feeling that that was slightly hypocritical. I have the feeling that he and some of his hon. Friends are delightedly licking their chops. They have been able to delay the business on the child benefit debate for three hours which keeps the House here for three hours longer and consequently delays the business—

Photo of Mr John Peyton Mr John Peyton , Yeovil

That is quite inaccurate. I have taken three hours out of a Supply Day belonging to the Opposition. The hon. Gentleman used a charge which he does very lightly and which he would resent very greatly if it were used against him. He accused us of hypocrisy. I hope that he will withdraw that because the whole tenor of my speech was to make absolutely clear that I was not seeking to make partisan points against the Government but was merely calling upon them to face what is a grave problem for the nation.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

I am glad that I touched the right hon. Gentleman on the raw. [Interruption.] That is precisely what I did. I said that I felt that there was a degree of hypocrisy about his statement. I do not say that he is a hypocrite, and I have no intention of withdrawing my statement. The right hon. Gentleman said that this was not a nagging complaint but that he felt that the Government had not shown a proper depth of concern. The Leader of the House indicated very clearly that the Government have shown a proper depth of concern and have acted promptly in establishing an inquiry under a leading civil servant. Before my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister went to the Puerto Rico conference he was told by that civil servant that a statement would be made to him on his return. I should have thought that that action displayed a great and proper depth of concern.

The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends feel quite rightly that this is another opportunity to have a go at the Government. They are entitled to do that. If I were in their place I would be having a go at their Government and adopting their tactics. That is normal parliamentary practice and that it what we did or attempted to do on occasions when we were in Opposition. I remember one cowboys and Indians escapade when we hid in a room nearby, but that was a complete failure. Nevertheless, it was legitimate parliamentary activity.

The argument about open government is a matter of the greatest concern. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House that on the one hand efforts have to be made to protect Government secrecy and on the other to give the fullest information to the public at large. I should like to know what is or what is not a Government secret, what should be and what should not be a Government secret. This is an intriguing issue because there is great mystery about secrecy in government. It operates very nicely to the benefit of the Government and the Executive, and to the detriment of Back Benchers. Secrecy in government operates to the advantage of any Government whoever they are. Of course, these great secrets of government are no secrets at all. When I was a Minister I could never understand why all the documents that we received stamped "Confidential", "Top Secret" and so on—apart from the fact that lots of them had found their way into the Press already—needed to be secret.

The other myth is that members of Governments never have arguments or differences on any issue. They always have arguments. There is conflict in every Department, between Departments, between Ministers and the Prime Minister and between other Ministers. It is no good pretending otherwise. Why should we do that? Why not say to the world that Governments are composed of ordinary mortals who are there because they have been elected to the House of Commons on a programme of action and that there are differences as to the best way of carrying out that programme? I can see no reason for surrounding the Government with all this mystery.

The security of the country is, of course, of vital importance and there we must know when to draw the line. I refer, of course, to the security of our people in relation to external enemies. But we are not discussing that now. We are here concerned with the argument about whether, given the nature of the economic crisis, the child benefit scheme should be introduced now, in six months time or in a year's time. There is an economic crisis, and there is a respect- able argument that the scheme could be postponed for a period because of it. I have no objection to knowing that there are those inside the Government who argue that point of view, and that there are others who argue to the contrary.

Photo of Mr Angus Maude Mr Angus Maude , Stratford-on-Avon

Will the hon. Member address himself to one relevant point here? Surely he agrees that if confidentiality in discussions of that kind goes by the board, it is at least unlikely that politically unpopular lines of argument, which may still be in the national interest, will be advanced as strongly if they are to be reported verbatim in every newspaper.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

I think that the hon. Member underestimates the intelligence of our people. When issues are put and argued clearly to the people, the people then understand the real issues much more. Secrecy prevents people from knowing the real issues involved and that leads us to more difficulties than if the real issues were brought into the open in the first place.

Photo of Mr Cledwyn Hughes Mr Cledwyn Hughes , Anglesey

Will my hon. Friend distinguish between the kind of material which he has described as circulating within Departments, between Departments, and between Departments and interested bodies outside on the one hand and Cabinet minutes on the other hand? Does he not accept that Cabinet minutes are in a different category and that they deal not only with the subject we are discussing but with the very matters of security and defence and the economy to which he referred earlier? Does he accept that one cannot exclude from the rules one subject in a Cabinet minute? Does he accept that what makes this case serious is that Cabinet minutes have been made available to someone?

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

I hope that hon. Members will not keep interrupting me. If I am allowed to get on with my speech I shall perhaps deal with the very points that they are putting to me.

I was coming to the point that the job of those who are outside the Government—and I hope of some of those who are inside the Government, although they might argue differently—is to argue for a change in the rules. As long as the rules are as they are, however, everyone involved, whether Cabinet Ministers, junior Ministers, civil servants or just those who take the boxes from one place to another must accept those rules and abide by them. I was in the Government for a year. I did not leak.

Photo of Mr Tom Litterick Mr Tom Litterick , Birmingham, Selly Oak

My hon. Friend must be unique.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

I never said a word about what happened inside that Government, although I probably sent more letters to the Prime Minister about all sorts of issues on which I was not happy than any other junior Minister. However, I did not tell the world that I was doing it. I told the world when I decided that I had had enough and wanted to say publicly that I had had enough, and I accepted the full consequences of what I did. I trust that that is an honourable position. It was attempting to be such.

However, that does not mean that we cannot use this debate to argue that the rules have to be changed. I believe that the rules must be changed. We have now reached a stage at which we must examine the whole question of the Official Secrets Act and carry out what the Labour Party said it would do—reform the Official Secrets Act. It will not mean total open government. I am not saying that one could ever get that, or that it would be right to have total open government. However, we must got a lot further along the way than we have gone so far.

Even in relation to Cabinet minutes, I am not saying that it is right that they should be published but I see no reason why at certain times it should not be known that there were differences of opinion and a line-up of forces, because that does not in any way stop the development of an argument. I think that it helps that argument and improves the case on both sides.

Photo of Mr Tom Litterick Mr Tom Litterick , Birmingham, Selly Oak

Taking that point a little further, does my hon. Friend agree that where the blanket secrecy principle is used to protect the Government from the people, leaks become an inevitable instrument of Government, since, after all, most of the leaks emanate from Ministers in any case?

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

One of the things that I never used to like was the fact that as a Minister—every ex-Minister knows this, particularly from No. 10—one could bring in journalists and give them briefings, but briefings which were "not attributable". What was that particular leak? Was that a leak, or not? What was being done? Was it not using the media or journalists in the media in order to advance one particular argument, perhaps against other members of the Cabinet who were arguing along different lines? Is not that part of the manipulation? Of course it is.

My right hon. Friend the chairman of my parliamentary party, the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) interrupted me earlier. I make no complaint about that but I draw his attention to this fact. We used to have meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party upstairs. It was all secret. When one got out of the meeting and read the evening newspapers or the following day's newspapers, one found that it was all detailed therein—except that they never quite got it right. So what did we decide to do? We decided that the Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party would take down what was said by everyone who spoke and would bring in the journalists afterwards and tell them what had happened. They then, of course, all lost interest. There were hardly any reports of meetings of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

I merely leave my right hon. Friends in the Cabinet with one thought: with total open government there might be much less trouble than there is at present.

5.24 p.m.

Photo of Mr Edward Heath Mr Edward Heath , Bexley Sidcup

I want to intervene only briefly and for two reasons. First, it is obviously unsatisfactory to have this debate on this particular case when we have no report in front of us. The Leader of the House could, of course, perfectly well have avoided this debate. When he said earlier that it was because he was in no position even to say that there might possibly be a progress report in due course, he was displaying a somewhat uncharacteristic scrupulousness about the replies that he gives to the House.

Leaving that on one side, however, we have obviously got to wait until Sir Douglas Allen has reported. We can then consider what the Prime Minister recommends. Perhaps I may say, in answer to some questions that have been asked by Labour Members and, indeed, from the Liberal Bench, that it is perfectly possible for Sir Douglas Allen to use whatever means he wants to inquire into this matter—provided that the Prime Minister agrees—from the security services. Every Department in Whitehall—I think now without exception—has its own security service. That can be used as far as the Department of Health and Social Security is concerned. Every Department knows that if its own security service is unable to undertake the necessary investigation to the satisfaction of itself, it can then call in the other security services in order to enable it to do so. Therefore, I do not find any difficulty about this. I hope that Sir Douglas Allen, as Head of the Civil Service and being widely experienced in these matters, will do whatever is required.

There is another aspect about it, though, which I am afraid is permanently associated with such matters: as the Civil Service itself may be involved, and the outside world and the Press see that the Head of the Civil Service is to make the inquiry, for some reason or other it may be felt that it cannot be as absolutely thorough as would be desirable, or it may even be suggested—I believe unjustly—that there could be an attempt to cover-up. Therefore, one has to consider whether there is any other possible way of looking at these matters in the future.

Here the difficulty arises that one has either the 1921 Tribunal of Inquiry—and from my own experience, I agree very much with what the Lord President said—or one brings in someone from outside who may not be as well qualified as someone such as the Head of the Civil Service for the simple reason that he does not know the workings of Whitehall and does not know his way about. It is a very narrow matter of balance as to what is the best way in the first instance of dealing with these matters. I support the Prime Minister, on balance, in asking Sir Douglas Allen to make this inquiry.

When it comes to the other so-called leaks which have been mentioned, I thought that the Prime Minister was fair enough to say that the present Government are about on a par with the previous Government in such matters. If hon. Members want to go back further, they can look at the Labour Government of 1964–70. They will find that all Governments are faced with these problems.

The second reason why I wanted to make a few comments is that what we are discussing is only the surface of this matter. What we very much require is a full debate on this, dealing with the question of the Official Secrets Act and the measures which should be taken to deal with secrecy and confidentiality in Government. I agree with the Lord President that the problems of dealing with this matter are immense.

Nevertheless, there has been the report in which certain very clear proposals were made. In my judgment at the time and the judgment of my advisers they were not entirely satisfactory for meeting the case—nor did the Press find them satisfactory. However, there is a basis from which the Government can start, and I urge them to deal speedily with this question because the absence of any action, the vacuum that we have, means that it is infinitely more difficult to deal with a particular case such as this one.

I am glad that the Lord President has endorsed what the Prime Minister said—that this is a unique case. I believe it to be so, not only historically. Other cases have been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Hugh Fraser), but at that time there were no Cabinet minutes. This is a unique case.

When I look at all the proposals made for dealing with this problem, I do not see how one can distinguish one part of a Cabinet discussion from another part. Therefore, whatever other action one takes, one must maintain that the minutes of the Cabinet are confidential and must be kept so. The problem that arises if this is not maintained—as I gather one or two Labour Members have in mind—is, first, that members around the table will not discuss the great issues as freely as they would otherwise do, and secondly, this leads to a small number of the members of the Cabinet themselves taking each particular item of importance together and saying "This is the decision we shall have. We have agreed it among ourselves, and now the Cabinet will have to accept it." That is not a satisfactory way of handling matters, but that is what follows inevitably if Cabinet dis- cussion cannot be kept confidential. This is a unique matter. Whatever other action is proposed, we should keep it so.

I come briefly to other proposals which ought to be considered. One could reach a considerable measure of agreement on certain things. First, on foreign affairs and defence, there are aspects of both that are vital to our security and our relations with other countries. I should have thought that it would be possible to have general agreement, and for the Press to accept, that this should be a security matter. If the Press wishes to deal with a particular aspect because it thinks that an aspect of security should have a public airing because the Government are being negligent or because the Services are not being competent, it has a machinery to deal with that. It is a joint machinery and it has worked well. This is an area on which we could agree.

Secondly, there is the question of individual privacy. When I was Prime Minister I was constantly pressed on this matter by the Opposition, in particular by those who were worried about the use of computers—for example, computers in the social services. People were worried that the information which was acquired and stored would in some way become available to the Press or to others who might be interested. I should have thought that we could be absolutely clear that this is one field which must also remain confidential—information affecting individuals throughout the social services.

The third field is that of commercial activity which affects, in particular, the Department of Trade and Industry. In one of the 37 cases I asked the House for support in setting up a Tribunal of Inquiry into the case of the Vehicle and General Insurance Company because the ramifications of the deliberate leakage of commercial information in that case were very considerable. It affected the finances of institutions, dealings in shares, and so on.

This did not alter the fact that the Department very properly went through all the procedures. Its own security people were called in. They called in outside security people. They found out who were responsible for the leakage. The whole matter went to the tribunal. It reported, and the necessary action was taken to deal with the matter from the point of view of legislation to deal with insurance companies. I quite agree that there were individuals who suffered greatly from that tribunal being held, but on balance it was justified.

The next subject is budgetary, financial and exchange matters affecting the Treasury. On those four categories I believe that agreement could be reached.

Where, then, is the difference? The difference is: are not the Government entitled in their machinery to be able to discuss their affairs from the point of view of forward planning and to reach decisions before the whole matter is made public? This is where there is a clear difference between Government on the whole and the Press. I engaged in informal discussions to see whether we could bridge the gap. It proved impossible. It may not be so in future—there may be a way.

I agree that on the whole the machinery of government tends to be too secretive and to adopt a self-defensive posture. Deliberate action must be taken to prevent that from developing into greater and greater secrecy.

A Government should be able through their civil servants and Ministers to discuss certain matters and discuss all the options and discard some which are irrelevant to their policies without having the whole blazoned abroad as decisions of Government or what a Government are to do.

I come to the real point of open government. I believe that it is desirable for a Government to put before the country the options available in as many spheres as possible of individual items of policy. Next, Governments should report on their day-to-day working as fully as possible. Here I regret to have to become contentious. I believe that this should all be done on the record. I believe that the fact that so much is done on the "unattributable" system or through the "Lobby" system and then reported as being fact is undesirable and contributes to the general atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion and uncertainty. I believe that it is much better that it should be done on the record clearly—whether it begins from No. 10, from a Minister's office, or by a spokesman.

I attempted to do that in dealing with the incomes policy. I hope that the Lord President of the Council will agree that I was greatly criticised for doing so and was accused of attempting presidential-style government. It did not worry me. I think that on further reflection the right hon. Gentleman will find that to go openly on the record in discussing Government action, day-to-day as well as longer term, would remove many of the temptations which now cause trouble.

We now have two developments which mean the Governments of both parties are getting the worst of all worlds. We have, first, insight journalism which claims to be the correct account in detail of everything that happened. It is of course no such thing, because the information is not available to the insight journalist.

I have just had experience of this with three articles in the Sunday Times dealing with events alleged to have led up to the happenings of February 1974. It is quite true that I refused to take part in any interview, because I knew this could not be a complete account, because they had no access to records or to anything else.

We are also getting reconstruction television. I think that this in many ways is the worst of the lot, because we now have a mock Committee Room on television and people put there who may be actors or who may be Members and they purport to tell us on the television what individual Ministers are suppposed to have said and the views they held. In my view, they have little justification for what they say. In this respect I differ from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) who says that all this works for the benefit of the Government. I believe that insight journalism and reconstruction television not only does damage to a Government but it does damage to politics.

The only action that I can see which can be taken is for Governments to be as forthcoming as they can on the record in day-to-day working and to give everything possible in the way of options for longer-term planning. In that way they will create a much healthier atmosphere and some of these problems, though not all of them, will be greatly diminished.

What is essential now, apart from the report to the Prime Minister and his report to the House, is for the Government to deal with the other much wider matter and make up their minds about it, for them to bring it to the House and then for everyone to say clearly those parts of government which deal with information which we are determined to protect and the others about which Governments will give day-to-day information.

I acknowledge that if action is taken over this case there will not be a great deal of public sympathy for the Government. Most people will say—"It is about children. It is of interest to all of us. People had their views and of course they expressed them. Why should not we know what they were?"

I acknowledge that the great diivisions over Europe among members of the present Cabinet which were exposed at the, time of the referendum did not damage them—it did not damage them in the various ways that I had been hoping! I have to draw conclusions from that.

I maintain my position that the theft of a Cabinet document of this kind is a unique case and that the confidentiality of Cabinet discussions must be maintained. At the same time I believe that the Government must now deal with the much wider field. Until they do so we shall continue with this uncertain and unsatisfactory situation.

5.37 p.m.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

The right hon. Member for Sid-cup (Mr. Heath) has made a very genuine contribution to the ultimate settlement of this problem. Once again we have the unofficial Opposition to thank for a serious contribution which I fear we did not get from the official Opposition.

This was not a leak which the Press was particularly digging to find out. It occurred because there was a genuine conflict between party and Government. As long as political parties fight by-elections on specific manifestos this type of problem will occur on many occasions.

I believe that it would have been much better if the Government had been far more open about the disagreements and the difficulties that were involved in implementing the child benefit scheme immediately. If they had been, none of the trouble would have occurred. Having said that, I must say to the official Opposition that in tabling the motion they will be seen by the general public to be making a great mountain out of a molehill. The House misunderstands public opinion if we go on saying that this is an intensely serious matter. If we believe that by a new set of rules, an amendment to the Official Secrets Act, we can keep the lid on the dustbin and prevent these facts from coming out on important occasions, we completely deceive ourselves.

In the exchange between my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) and the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), the Hoare-Laval Pact was mentioned. Secrets such as that come out. One could also mention the collusion over Suez and various other matters, such as the attempts of the Labour Government of 1966–70 to sell arms to South Africa. Such secrets come out because among those who know them are people who are so affronted by the decision that they regard their loyalty to the matter to which they are dedicated as far higher than any oath of secrecy they have taken. That is a fact of human nature which will occur with many Government decisions. No amount of rules applied by the House will stop it.

The people who revealed the secrets about which we are talking, from child benefits back through Suez to the Hoare-Laval Pact, were fundamentally honourable men who believed that they were doing an honourable thing. Whether we want to take a high moral line or the more realistic line which I am pleased my right hon. Friend took, it is true that when individuals are affronted, truth will out, whatever we in this House say.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

Does the hon. Gentleman apply that code of honour or dishonour to members of the Cabinet and those senior members of the Civil Service who process Cabinet papers? Is he saying that their sense of moral outrage is sufficient to justify their breaking the oath?

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

Never having been either, I am not an expert on either. But I have been a journalist attending confidential ministerial briefings. If I were a Minister giving confidential, pretty well verbatim, blow-by-blow accounts of what is happening in discussions in the Department and the Cabinet, I should feel that there was a severe problem in leaking matters of that kind. I do not know who leaked the document, and nobody else does, but where such leaks occur it is not for the sort of reason suggested by the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), that the document might have been sold and that it was leaked for money. It is done for honour. If the right hon. Gentleman knew anything about that impoverished and struggling weekly journal, New Society, and the measly fees it offers, he would not suggest that anyone who had stolen Cabinet minutes would try to sell them to it.

Photo of Mr Emlyn Hooson Mr Emlyn Hooson , Montgomery

Whilst the hon. Gentleman may be right in his description of the motivation, surely if a Cabinet Minister or civil servant feels so strongly about the matter he can resign, rather than use his job to provide information to journalists secretly.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

I very much agree. I do not think that I shall ever be a Cabinet Minister, but if I were and I felt outraged, that is the course of action I should take.

I see that the right hon. Member for Yeovil has left the Chamber already—

Photo of Mr Angus Maude Mr Angus Maude , Stratford-on-Avon

My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) asked me to say that he had to attend a meeting of a Select Committee, and he also asked me to apologise for him. He will not be away too long.

Photo of Mr Chris Price Mr Chris Price , Lewisham West

I accept that apology, but perhaps I may say one other thing in response to what the right hon. Gentleman said about political advisers. There have been many unjustified attacks on political advisers by the Opposition over this whole business. Many of us on the Labour Benches believe that the whole point of the debate is to get at political advisers, who I believe have made the Labour Government from 1974 onwards far more effective than the 1966–70 Government. [An HON. MEMBER: "That does not say much."] History will judge. One of the reasons why we have effectively carried out our manifesto is that side by side with our Ministers, and often arguing with established civil servants who have established conservative viewpoints, we have political advisers who are putting forward our manifesto point of view.

All Goverments talk about open government. The value of this debate is that from the right hon. Member for Sidcup and one or two other hon. Members we learn the framework within which more open government may flourish. I have just returned from Norway, where the Environment Minister and the Foreign Minister, both Labour politicians, conducted a virtual television debate about a matter which was being discussed in the Cabinet—whether Norway should continue to exploit the oil in the very far North Sea, a vital matter to Norway. It was an example of open government which I find is now taken for granted in places such as Norway and Sweden. They cannot imagine a Government being conducted in any other way.

We are still suffused with ideas of our imperialist past, when perhaps we had some very important secrets to keep throughout government. Our system of government, in terms of openness, is completely out of phase with the needs of a highly sophisticated and educated electorate, who want to take part in government far more and who could be used far more in the day-to-day decisions of government.

I hope that if the debate does nothing else it will lead my right hon. Friend to try to induce some of his colleagues who are not so keen as he is on open government to take it seriously, and I hope that he will leak liberally how his discussions are going.

5.48 p.m.

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Kinross and West Perthshire

I entirely disagree with the analysis by the Leader of the House that this is a debate about the rights of secrecy against the wrongs of secrecy. I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) that the debate is not about secrecy but about trust and honesty. What has happened is that someone who gave his word that he would keep his word deliberately broke it. It is not a question of whether secrecy is good. It is a question of whether cheating, lying and breaking one's word is a good thing.

Photo of Peter Bottomley Peter Bottomley , Greenwich Woolwich West

Is my hon. and learned Friend referring to the person who leaked the Cabinet minutes or to the antecedent question of the "betrayal of trust" and "breach of a voluntary undertaking"—to use the Prime Minister's words—given by the Government, and the decision in the Cabinet brought about by giving a false impression of how Labour Members felt and of the trade union position?

Photo of Sir Nicholas Fairbairn Sir Nicholas Fairbairn , Kinross and West Perthshire

I am referring to the person who leaked the document, whether a member of the Cabinet, another Minister, a civil servant or whoever. It is inevitable that there was a deliberate breach of his word. To him there is a rule of ethics which says that there is something higher than trust and honesty. I find that an obnoxious doctrine. One loathsome characteristic which we have imported from America is that if one loses the game one just breaks the rules, that if one loses the political argument one just cheats and tries to win it later, that there are political objectives higher than keeping one's word. The safety of no country, far less the morality, can be guaranteed, or even supported, if there are those who say that, in order to achieve their political objectives, no dishonesty, no lie, no breach of trust or no theft is too much.

The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) suggested that there are, so to speak, good breaches of trust. I do not believe that the House can allow the principle to be departed from. Trust must be absolute. It has nothing to do with whether the system, and the extent of secrecy, should be changed. The fact is that a major breach of trust for a political objective has been committed by somebody high in Government circles. The House must be seen to condemn it.

What is perhaps even more nauseating is that the person to whom the information was passed has now developed the marvellous argument that, unfortunately, he cannot breach his trust and tell us who it was that breached his trust and gave him the information. Trust is just spun as a coin at any moment by people to achieve the political objective they want.

There is no political objective which would make it proper to breach trust. I have been the recipient of many professional trusts. I could have sold them perfectly easily, and no one would ever have known where they came from. But if one's word is not kept when an oath is given, ultimately all human society is threatened. I think that my constituency predecessor, Lord Home, was given advice at Oxford that if a man said his word was as good as his bond, one should take his bond.

We are concerned here with a man who gave his word as good as his word but deliberately cheated and breached that trust, and a high trust at that. The Prime Minister has asked him to own up. He is not a journalist, he does not have to protect his sources, but he has not the honesty and integrity to defend the position in which he has put himself. If he regards himself as morally superior in breaching a trust on behalf of children, let him come forward, let us see this shining saint, let him defend himself, let him come forward and lose his job on behalf of children as well.

The House should call on all those involved in breach of trust in this case, or in any other, to own up. I know what the inquiry will result in—"Terribly sorry, old chap. So honourable are these people who broke their word that they are not willing to own up and keep their word." They are such honourable men that not only do they betray their colleagues but they are not willing to expose themselves. That is the important principle with which we are dealing with in this debate—an absolute moral law which cannot be breached. It certainly cannot be breached by those who have devious or doubtful political motivations, mostly of an extreme kind. I, therefore, take the view that it is not too high to say that any person who is a traitor to trust to the extent of giving his word in the knowledge that he will break it when it suits him creates a condition of government so serious that it must be condemned by all, including the Leader of the House. We cannot in any circumstances tolerate a breach of that principle.

5.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robert Mellish Mr Robert Mellish , Southwark Bermondsey

The hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) is right to say that this theft and disclosure of information is unique. However, I am not sure why we are having the debate today. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House in that I am not sure what we are trying to achieve. An inquiry is being conducted by a very distinguished civil servant. What we say today will be more apt when the report is available and we discuss what I hope will be the implications of that serious report.

I do not believe that this distinguished civil servant will find out who did it. I do not think he is that clever, but good luck to him in trying to find out. What I hope will emerge from the report is a way in which we can proceed in a situation of this kind, when a document such as this is given publicity.

The document that we are now talking about is not what I would regard, on the experience I have, as being as highly classified as many others. I was a member of the Cabinet for two and a half years—enough to learn that it is a highly responsible job and that it was a proud thing to be a member. Defence matters, matters concerning the Foreign Office, and statements made by our ambassadors abroad were not circulated, save that they were placed on the table for members of the Cabinet to read and were then collected and taken away. They were not distributed. Many other documents, understandably, are distributed throughout the whole of the Government service. When I was at a lower rank, as Minister of Public Building and Works, it used to be the practice in my private office for people to come in and say "These are Cabinet papers. Perhaps you will read them and return them immediately to us." I would do just that, they would be taken away, and I never quite knew what happened to them after that. I assume that they were locked up somewhere and then returned to the Cabinet.

A document of that kind would receive an enormous circulation. There can be no doubt—there is obviously a weakness here—that if someone, whoever it might be, decided to use information from one of those documents to his or her political advantage, or for a particular point of view, he, or she, could do so. I concede what has been said earlier, because there is a difference here in what is called a leak. We all know about that. It is a very human thing. A man or woman will leak a point of view to a journalist. Although it may have been taken at Cabinet, or some other high level, nevertheless he or she wants to show what a magnificent fight was put up before the idea was defeated. That is a human thing to do, and it goes on a great deal under all Governments. I do not think that whatever we devise will ever stop that sort of human frailty.

The hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) has written a book on the subject, too. What are we talking about when hon. Members refer to "open government"? How do we find out what we mean? Parliament itself is very jealous if it reads something which is given to a newspaper before Parliament is told. How often do we hear "On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it right that we should read this in the papers this morning before Parliament is told?"—because some shocking Minister had the impertinence to tell the Press at 11 o'clock that day what he thought the Press and public ought to know but he did not tell Parliament first. It is a difficult matter, and I hope that something will come out of the report which is to be produced by this eminent civil servant to guide us on what can be done to achieve certain limitations about what is really secret argument in Cabinet. If it does that, it will be justified.

The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) put a good case from his point of view in a courteous way. I hope that he will not vote at 7 o'clock, because, if he does, I shall not know what we are voting about. There is no report, and until we have the report we do not know what is in it. We do not even know whether the culprit will be discovered. As I say, I doubt it. It is a futile exercise. With the greatest respect, Mr. Speaker, I was shattered—although, of course, it is a matter only for you—when you decided that a case had been made for a debate under Standing Order No. 9. I could not believe it when I heard it. However, we have this abortive debate, if I may so call it, and some good may come out of it.

I had only two and a half years' experience in Cabinet—perhaps that does not give one enough experience—but my own feeling is that the Cabinet of which I was proud to be a member was basically a body which kept its oath. It did not leak. It had fierce and bitter debates. I heard in that Cabinet Room the highest standard of political debate that I have ever heard in my political career. This party will row about almost anything; it is our strength and our weakness. But at the end of the day decisions have been made known quickly, and as a result there has been no opportunity for anyone to leak.

Those who talk about open government should define what they mean. Certain things which go on in government at certain stages must remain confidential to the Government: otherwise there can be no future for any Government anywhere. So it comes back to the personal integrity of the man or woman involved. If it can be discovered who did this, I have no hesitation in saying that he or she should be not only sacked but, if possible, prosecuted.

6.1 p.m.

Photo of Mr Douglas Crawford Mr Douglas Crawford , Perth and East Perthshire

The hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) will probably be as surprised as I am when I say that I agree with almost everything he said. I should declare a marginal interest as a member of the National Union of Journalists. In my full-time occupation as a journalist it was clear to me that information and access to it was the stock-in-trade of that profession. I am sure that the Leader of the House would agree with that. I do not agree with the hon. and learned Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Mr. Fairbairn) that a journalist has a duty to disclose his sources. That is not possible or right.

We are making a large mountain out of a small molehill in this debate. Everyone would agree that information and access to information and the right to express what one derives from that information is an inalienable right, subject of course to the usual caveats about defence and foreign affairs and the security of the Realm.

The question that comes to my mind in this context is, cui bono? For whose good were the minutes released? I do not like the word "leaked": it is too pejorative. Is the world a poorer place for the releasing of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg? I do not think so. That is the closest analogy that I can think of.

If these documents had not been released, I wonder whether we would have been debating this subject tonight. There is much talk of companies having to disclose commercial, perhaps competitive, information, not only to shareholders but to the general public because companies should be publicly accountable and play a part in the social audit. If that is so, a fortiori more information about the Government should be made available to the governed. Obviously more of the public are affected by Government thinking, whether at an early stage in Cabinet or later on the Floor of the House, than are affected by commercial decisions taken by companies.

We in the Scottish National Party envisage that a Scottish Assembly or Parliament will have much more open working than the corridors of this place. In mentioning Norway and Sweden, the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) had a very fair point. People there accept open government of their type, with Cabinet Ministers debating in public and on television measures which may well not yet be before their legislatures.

We shall have a written Bill of Rights in Scotland. I hope that part of it will give access to information of this type at an early stage—perhaps at Cabinet stage. With such a Bill of Rights, we should not even be debating an issue like this. The United Kingdom as at present constituted needs a Bill of Rights now. There are disadvantages, of course, but there are also many advantages. It would be one way of modifying the Official Secrets Act. The sooner that Act is reviewed the better.

We shall certainly have a Bill of Rights and a modified Official Secrets Act. I would say, with a twinkle in my eye, that a self-governing Scotland might be able to give a lead in this matter to our friends and neighbours in England.

Photo of Mr Peter Crowder Mr Peter Crowder , Hillingdon Ruislip Northwood

The hon. Member speaks as a journalist. I understand institutions of that sort refusing to give the name of the person who has given information. However, since he works in Fleet Street, as the Leader of the House used to do, could he give us some indication of the sort of sum of money he would pay for information like this which is undoubtedly leaked?

Photo of Mr Douglas Crawford Mr Douglas Crawford , Perth and East Perthshire

In all my journalistic experience, I never offered any money to any informant.

Photo of Mr Peter Crowder Mr Peter Crowder , Hillingdon Ruislip Northwood

Could not the hon. Member suggest a sum?

Photo of Mr Douglas Crawford Mr Douglas Crawford , Perth and East Perthshire

I did not actually work in Fleet Street. I worked as a journalist in Scotland. This practice is very rare, if it exists at all.

6.6 p.m.

Photo of Mr Jonathan Aitken Mr Jonathan Aitken , Thanet East

I wish to raise a mildly dissenting voice against the view expressed by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to the effect that what we are debating is an immensely grave and serious matter. Like the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) I also wonder whether we are debating this subject at the appropriate time. I tend towards the view that we are making a mountain out of a molehill.

I see this leak as just the latest ludicrous scene in the 75-year-old Whitehall farce of excessive official secrecy. Perhaps the one urgent aspect of this so-called emergency debate is that it has brought everyone's attention to the fact that it is high time that we rang down the curtain on the Official Secrets Act of 1911, which is the Ark of the Covenant, which still ordains all the rules of Government secrecy and confidentiality. Unless those rules are soon changed sensibly and rationally, in the interests both of preserving essential Government confidentiality and of creating great openness for the Press and public, unsatisfactory episodes like this will continue.

We must be careful to stress that two different and conflicting interests are at stake here. The Leader of the House referred to this in an interesting passage in his speech about balance. The interests are the Government interest and the public interest. They are not one and the same, as some Ministers would like to pretend. I would go so far as to say that the public interest seems to have been well served by the child benefit leak in New Society.

What are the two principal revelations that Mr. Frank Field, the principal mover in this affair, has brought to the attention of the public? First, we learn that the scheme was sabotaged by some manoeuvrings by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, in his capacity as go-between between the Trades Union Congress and the Cabinet, acted in a manner that can only be described as devious. Secondly, it was brought to our atttention that the final blow to the child benefit scheme was struck not by Ministers or Members of Parliament but by trade union bosses, who agreed to crush the scheme by what I can only describe as their typical male chauvinist reactions of hostility to the realisation that father's pay packets would be reduced in order to pay child benefit to mothers.

Both these matters and the decision-making process that led up to them deserve the spotlight of publicity. It is very much in the public interest that those facts should be known. As for the Government interest, I can see that the Government were gravely embarrassed by these revelations. But embarrassment and security are not one and the same thing.

Obviously the Government will want to pursue their investigations into the identity of Mr. Frank Field's "Deep Throat" with the utmost vigour, and if they catch him they will be right to punish him for a serious breach of trust and confidence. Perhaps an appropriate punishment would be to send him back to sing in the Rhondda Valley. But all this is the Government's business. It is not the business of the Opposition or the public to join in the witch hunt. It is not our job to help the Government over the consequences of their incompetence in preserving confidentiality, unless, of course, real interests of vital national security are at stake.

If the Government want to preserve their confidentiality effectively, as they must, there are many good ways to do this. They could start by employing only Ministers, civil servants and political advisers who can keep their mouths shut. What the Government should not try to do is to try to crack a nut with a sledge-hammer every time an awkward secret leaks out that has no relevance to national security.

That is what they are trying to do in this massive inquiry headed by Sir Douglas Allen. I am surprised at the reticence of the Leader of the House on the subject of where Sir Douglas Allen's report has got to, because after some contact over the weekend with the Whitehall branch of the Rhondda Valley Choral Society I have managed to learn that the short list of people suspected of this leak has been narrowed to 30, because one of the papers quoted by Mr. Frank Field was not a Cabinet minute, which has a wider circulation than 30, but an annex to a Cabinet minute, which has a much more limited circulation. But even so, how can the police or the security advisers hope to crack a short list of 30 if people are determined to resist giving the information?

My information is that there is no question of any photocopying, no question of the selling of a document, and no question of theft. I advise the Government's plumbing squad to look at the Marvin case in 1878 if they are interested in knowing the way in which the information might have leaked, and they will see the difficulties that they will have in tracing the route of it.

The Government are creating a quicksand for themselves if they go on trying to cope with the problem of preserving Government confidentiality—which is a right thing to wish to preserve, particularly for Cabinet papers—if they try to do this without reforming the Official Secrets Act, because Section 2 of that Act is now a broken and unusable reed. The Government admitted as much when they refused to use it in the Crossman Diaries case, and Lord Goodman's article in yesterday's Observer was an admirable illustration of that.

The pantomime of double standards will continue over Government leaks if that Act is not reformed urgently. Indeed, we are soon going to need an Official Secrets Relations Board to deal with cases of unfair discrimination under that Act. Why is there so much fuss about New Society's disclosure when there was no fuss about Granada Television's World in Action programme on "Chrysler and the Cabinet" which revealed many Cabinet secrets and verbatim accounts of what was said? Why was no action taken, and not even questions asked of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), when he revealed the full text of the Hawley Report on immigration? Why was there no meaningful effort to trace the source of the leaks flowing out of the devolution unit? Why has the loquacious hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Price) not been asked to supply the list of names of all the untrustworthy and garrulous Ministers to whom he referred?

We have here an Augean stables of hypocrisy, double standards and double dealing that need to be cleaned out by a firm commitment to open government and new rules. The Government are in an impossible position. On the one hand, if they get a leak that they regard as serious, they are in the position in which they have either to throw down the gauntlet and prosecute, and that makes them look absurd, or to throw in the sponge and do nothing about it, and that, too, makes them look absurd. Either reflex action is ludicrous. The only way to settle this affair is by reforming the Official Secrets Act without delay.

6.14 p.m.

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) and the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken), I am puzzled to know why we are having this debate. We do not have the report, and no doubt when we have it and the statement from the Prime Minister there will, quite legitimately, be a demand for yet another debate to go over the ground again. Perhaps the difference on that occasion will be that we shall know more about the subject that we are debating.

I think that this House would receive more credit if it were less concerned at saving the embarrassed face of the Government for a change of mind on the child benefit scheme and more concerned about whether it was right in the first place that this material, the subject of the inquiry, should almost wantonly have had the "Secret" stamp appended to it. I should like to think that we in this House are not so supine as to say that every time the Government tell us that something is secret we shall go along with it and not question it, because if the Government say so it must be right. I hope that, increasingly, whatever the colour of the Government, hon. Members will not take that attitude.

Reference has been made to the need for trust and honesty. I accept that absolutely, but trust and honesty do not amount to a one-way street with signs put up by the Government. The matter works both ways. The electorate have a right to trust and honesty, and when decisions taken by the Government not only fly in the face of a commitment in a successful election manifesto but go against the expressed wishes of the House that has passed enabling legislation, it is my view that the electorate have a right to that trust and honesty, and to be told candidly the reasons why the Government have had a change of mind.

The Government maintain that they have a case for their point of view, and I accept that, but if that is so, why was the case not argued before the thousands of poor families who will be the suffererers because of this change of mind? I hope—there has been no hint of it so far—that there will be no call for a witch hunt of either civil servants or journalists. I am not experienced in the ways of this House or the workings of Whitehall, but it is right that the old-fashioned dictum of Ministers taking responsibility for what happens in their Departments should hold, and often they take responsibility for the brief rather than the leak.

It was my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson)—the then Prime Minister—who, some years ago, went on record as saying that one man's leak was another man's briefing, and indeed the entire system by which any Government operate is an organised system of leaking. It used to be known as forced feeding by those employed by newspapers. I am perhaps the only hon. Member who, having been a journalist, was once summoned by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Office to another great Department of State where a Press conference was called to deny a report, over my name, in the paper on which I was working. The purpose was to tell the assembled multitude that all this was wrong, villainous and totally inaccurate. I was asked whether I would print an apology, and that the person concerned was coming to the House to wipe my name all over the papers. That was followed, only a fortnight later, by a statement that what I had said would happen was to happen.

Many journalists are employed specifically and quite honourably to find out what the Government want kept secret. That is a legitimate and important part of the rôle of the Press. Indeed, in so doing, the Press is often deluged with information on a non-attributable basis, and much of the information with which it is supplied on that basis either must be secret, because it is currently before the Cabinet or is soon expected to go before the Cabinet. This information is known in the business as kite-flying, and those who get mixed up in this system are able to deduce with great skill how long is the string on that kite. I think that it is not a question of paying for information, because journalists are paid for their stories and they like to see their names in print.

The House should be much more concerned about, for example, something reported in The Times today, under the by-line of Miss Pat Healy, the social services correspondent, which reveals that there is in existence at the Department of Health and Social Security a code that is used by the social security staff as the basis on which it uses the discretion that we have given it when deciding whether to admit claims.

Literally thousands of people—perhaps millions—are affected by what is written in this so called A code, which can make the difference between a claim being granted or refused. Knowledge of it by the claimant could also mean earlier payment and more help in such matters as children's clothing and shoes. Knowledge of it could help deserted wives to light the prospect of being evicted from their homes because their husbands have defaulted on mortgage payments. There are about 5,000 separate instructions in this A code, and apparently an equal number in other codes.

There is an AX code as well, which covers cases of fraud in alleged cohabitation—and an unbelievable V code; I am not sure what that stands for. It is so secret that we do not know what it is intended to deal with.

What excuse have either Front Bench, both of whom have been in government, for keeping this kind of information secret from claimants who are in need—often extremely urgent need—and denying them the information on which to prosecute their legitimate claims against social security? Is this secrecy not a matter of real concern to the House, concerned as it is with giving additional help to the disadvantaged and to the poorer families in our society?

I attach no importance whatsoever to this leak. I congratulate Mr. Paul Barker, the editor of New Society, on his courage in using this material and publishing the article. It is a shameful decision that had this material classified as secret in the first place. I only hope that my right hon. Friend and others concerned will now review the documents on which they so easily and automatically put the stamp of secrecy, so that we can begin to develop a system in which we trust the electorate and encourage an informed electorate, which can use that information as the basis on which to make serious and sensible decisions.

6.21 p.m.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett), who spoke with passion and sincerity, should have congratulated anyone on having broken the law of this country. I understand his passion. I, too, was a journalist for many years, but I ask him to consider whether, standing in this House, he should endorse any action which was based in the first instance on the breach of an oath of office, on the purloining of papers, and on the conveying of those papers, in breach of the law of England, to another person. I am sorry that he should have felt it right to congratulate anyone on doing that.

Photo of Mr Robin Corbett Mr Robin Corbett Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the editor of New Society is guilty of the matters to which the hon. Gentleman has referred? If there was the slightest hint of a security risk in his obtaining those documents, surely the D notice system would have been involved?

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

What the hon. Gentleman does not realise is that Cabinet papers are often all of a piece. It may be difficult, virtually impossible, to separate from one Cabinet meeting to the next the many items on the agenda. The serious matter that we are debating today is the fact that there exists a person with access to Cabinet papers, who is prepared, no doubt for sincere reasons, to make those papers available to others in breach of the law.

It can be argued that Burgess, Maclean and Mr. Philby provided confidential material which they obtained in this country to the enemies of Britain because they genuinely believed that the acquisition by the Soviet Union of nuclear secrets would balance up the power between East and West, and that, in their twisted view, this could lead to peace. No doubt, that was the rationalisation that led them to believe that they were justified in conveying secret information.

The hon. Gentleman, however, should recognise that if there exists a person who can steal one kind of Cabinet paper in respect of subjects like child allowances on which he feels so strongly, equally such person can and probably does have access to Cabinet papers on other matters—on defence and nuclear technology. By the same token he would be in a position to pass on those papers, too.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will realise that this is not a matter in which one can defend the crime by reference to the criminal's motive or by reference to the content of the Cabinet papers. That which is confidential to the Cabinet, regardless of the subject matter and regardless of the motivation of those who are custodians of those papers, must remain confidential to the Cabinet. Oherwise there can be no trust between colleagues in Government and no trust among outsiders who provide confidential information to Government in the belief that their confidences will be respected.

Photo of Mr Robert Hughes Mr Robert Hughes , Aberdeen North

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful case, but he should not fall into the trap of saying that there are absolutely no grounds on which material from the Cabinet should be leaked. If there were an attempt by a Cabinet to mislead the House or the country or to breach our democratic principles, would not that be a point at which a line might be drawn?

Mr. Griffith:

There is a very conclusive answer to that. The Cabinet is a collection of many people with different views. If it became apparent to members of the Cabinet that some of their colleagues were arranging to do a cheat on the House of Commons or to take extra-constitutional action which would lead to a coup, I have confidence that, in all British Governments, there would be enough members who would resign and would come out of such a Cabinet and thereby deal with the danger which the hon. Gentleman foresees.

In the remaining nine minutes that my right hon. Friend has allowed to me, I wish to make three points.

One concerns the specific matter which has given rise to this debate. We have had much horizontal extension of the subject matter, but the precise matter before us is this. Someone in breach of his oath and of his instructions has made away with a Cabinet paper and has taken it elsewhere for motives that none of us can judge. That is by any measure a State crime. A State crime deserves to be regarded with the utmost seriousness. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House of Commons spoke of various ways of looking at this problem. He said that it is a conflict of right with right. With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, although I agree that it is a difficult matter across the whole range of Government confidentiality, I do not believe there can possibly be two ways of looking at the precise question before us. Was this or was this not a State crime? I believe that the right hon. Gentleman is bound to say that, on the evidence available so far, it looks as if it was, and that requires to be dealt with the utmost urgency.

The second specific matter is the statement of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Price) who said, with disarming frankness, that we are in this country in the presence of deliberate and. I think he said, malicious leaks of Cabinet decisions. I do not believe that there could be a more serious charge than that—a deliberate and malicious leaking of Cabinet decisions for doubtful political purposes. This is bound to throw doubt on the integrity of any British Government. It certainly accuses a large number of innocent people in the Civil Service and elsewhere of a crime against which they are in no position to defend themselves.

Above all, what it says to our people is this: at a time when both central Government and local government are forcibly abstracting from the citizen more and more private information which ought to belong to him and to no one else, at a time when private companies are increasingly coerced—as they will be soon by the National Enterprise Board and the planning agreements—to provide confidential material to the State, the Minister principally responsible for information policy has told us that that information, once it is assembled in Whitehall, can be the subject of deliberate and malicious leaks for doubtful political purposes. That is a very serious matter.

It must also be a serious matter for those allied Governments who increasingly, if NATO is to standardise its armaments, must share with the British Government more and more highly confidential information. Yet the Minister primarily responsible for co-ordinating information has said that our Government are riddled with deliberate and malicious leakers.

The Prime Minister has a duty to say whether or not he accepts the diagnosis of the Parliamentary Secretary to the Privy Council Office as to what is going on. If he does, he must take very much more serious steps than merely to appoint Sir Douglas Allen. If the Parliamentary Secretary is correct, the Prime Minister must take a serious view of the risk to all the confidential material in Whitehall and must deal with the matter as a whole. Alternatively, the Parliamentary Secretary, whom I regard with affection, has overstated his case. In that case the Prime Minister has a duty to those whose confidential data is now at risk in Whitehall to reassure them by repudiating, or at least revising, many of the more extravagant phrases used by the Parliamentary Secretary.

Photo of Mr Eric Heffer Mr Eric Heffer , Liverpool, Walton

The gist of the hon. Gentleman's remarks is that it is a member of the Government who is responsible for the leaks. Why should it not be a civil servant, a member of the Tory Party? It may not be, but why should we jump to any conclusions till the result of the inquiry is known?

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

I have reached no such conclusion. I have not the faintest idea who was responsible. We are in the presence of an action by somebody, whether it be a civil servant or a Minister, who is engaged in a systematic, deliberate and malicious operation of leaking for political purposes. It may involve a responsible member of the Government or a civil servant, or both. Therefore, the matter needs to be repudiated or revised in the interests of those who provide confidential information to the State.

Photo of Mr William Price Mr William Price , Rugby

I am reluctant to intervene in a debate when matters have been attributed to me, but since the hon. Gentleman referred to a phrase which I am alleged to have used, namely, "for the most doubtful of political purposes", I must inform him that what I said was "for the most doubtful reasons".

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

I hope that the Minister in reply to the debate will deal with the question of repudiating or amending what the Parliamentary Secretary said.

The other side of the coin is that I believe there should be fewer, but better kept, secrets. We close off far too much of our decision-making process. This has been agreed by all who have spoken. With the exceptions of military and foreign affairs, certain commercial information and a good deal of Government planning functions, for the rest I believe that we should benefit from the opening up of many areas of decision making at a very much earlier stage. If we were to adopt that course, we would achieve better decisions. We would discover at an earlier stage what the public thought, and successive Governments would not find themselves in the embarrassing situation of finding that, having come to a decision, the public do not want it. I have had some experience of that process in regard to Maplin. Earlier information on a much broader scale can only help in the quality of decision making.

I wish to make four recommendations. First, I believe that the Government should use every resource open to them including the police, to get to the source of a leak. When this has been done, the Attorney-General should bring public charges against the person or persons concerned. Assuming that they are found guilty, and assuming also that they are civil servants, they should be sacked with loss of pension. By the same token, Ministers should be called upon to resign.

The second recommendation is that the Prime Minister should repudiate the extraordinary notion that high-mindedness or political sincerity are, or ever can be, any justification for the breaking of the oath of office and breach of State security. High-mindedness is no argument whatever for actions of this kind, any more than it was for the giving of secrets to Russia by Burgess, Maclean and Philby on the ground that this would somehow avoid nuclear war.

Photo of Mr Peter Crowder Mr Peter Crowder , Hillingdon Ruislip Northwood

Does my hon. Friend agree, because he has some experience of the police, that this is not a matter for the head of the Civil Service, who is a kind of Father Christmas figure, but for investigation by the CID? There are only so many people who can have had access to secrets. They should be interrogated and investigated, and in any criminal case a thorough look should be taken at their bank accounts.

Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds

I am obliged to my hon. and learned Friend for making that point.

Let me put forward my remaining suggestions. I believe that the Government should accept the advice given by Mr. Brian Roberts, the retiring editor of the Sunday Telegraph, about amending the Official Secrets Act. Simultaneously we should amend the law of contempt, which is used from time to time to gag the Press. We should review the system of D-notices, which occasionally are handled badly. Furthermore, the Government should look again at the vetting of the special advisers.

If we are to have well-kept secrets, there must be fewer of them. But equally, if there are to be fewer secrets, in the pursuit of more open Government, then such secrets as there are should be absolutely kept.

6.36 p.m.

Photo of Mr Angus Maude Mr Angus Maude , Stratford-on-Avon

This debate apparently has raised some doubts in the minds of certain Labour Members who have asked why this discussion is taking place at all and whether we are not making a mountain out of a molehill. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said that the Leader of the House could have avoided this debate if he had made a statement earlier. If anybody imagines that this debate has not been useful and salutary, I hope to persuade him otherwise.

This has been a mixed debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) dealt with the merits of the case and believes that what the Government have done is a scandal, that these matters should have been revealed and the culprits named. The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Corbett) went so far as to say that he thought it scandalous that the stamp of secrecy should have been put on these proceedings.

I hope that most hon. Members will realise that that is not what we are talking about in this debate. We are not discussing the merits of the issue because that will be dealt with in a later debate this evening. Nor are we discussing whether it is right that the Cabinet should have decided that these matters were confidential. Cabinets cannot decide which of their discussions shall be confidential or which Cabinet minutes shall or shall not be issued to the Press. Hon Members who wish to debate the subject of open government and whether there should be more or fewer secrets are straying off the point of this debate.

It may be true that there should be more open government, and I listened with great interest to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup said on that matter. It may be true that there are far too many secrets and that the Official Secrets Act should be changed. I found the remarks made by the Leader of the House about that Act cloudy in the extreme—not that that is unusual in the right hon. Gentleman's speeches. He seemed to be saying either that if there were not an Official Secrets Act there would have been nothing to investigate or, alternatively, if the Government had got round to amending the Act it would be so much easier to discover the culprit in this case. Perhaps he will explain exactly what he did mean because what he said about the Act seemed to me extremely obscure.

The really important thing about this debate is that the Opposition, unlike a number of hon. Members on the Government side, feel that the deliberate leaking—and it was a deliberate and unprecedented leakage of Cabinet minutes—is a matter of utmost seriousness. We feel we have a right, and that the country has a right as well, to know that the Government are taking this matter with the appropriate amount of seriousness.

As a result of the speech made earlier by the Leader of the House we do not think that they are. The Leader of the House said that he would not talk about previous leaks although they had occurred, even though this was the line the Prime Minister first took when this matter was raised at Question Time. The Leader of the House then went on to say that on the one hand there was the question of necessity for secrecy and on the other hand there was the necessity of open government and this resulted in a conflict between two rights.

We do not believe that it is a conflict between two rights. It seems to us that what has happened is quite clearly wrong. If a senior Government Minister is going to say that this is half right, and not something which should be pursued with the utmost vigour, then we have a right to protest about it.

The seriousness of this matter can be sceen quite clearly from the speeches of hon. Members opposite. We appreciate the difficulty the Government are in. They have for many years been willing to protect certain Members on the Left of the Labour Party—and I am not making a moral judgment about this—who consider that the end justifies the means. [Interruption.] I will give some examples in a minute. These Members of the Left believe that the end of the public interest, as they see it, justifies the breaching of the conventions of confidentiality. It is within the memories of those of us who were here in the late 1940s and 1950s that the Bevanite group leaked the proceedings of the Labour Party Executive in one Sunday newspaper to such an extent that it became virtually a weekly serial. In addition we know exactly the view of the late Richard Crossman on secrecy, and on Cabinet confidentiality. He once said to a journalistic friend of mine that there was one political correspondent who could not even get leaks right when they were given at dictation speed.

The fact that there have been leaks before, far from making this particular case less serious, makes it all the more serious. After all, when someone is murdered or burgled the police authorities do not say that it does not matter because there have been murders and burglaries before—under a Conservative Government. They set out to detect the crimes and bring the offenders to justice.

When that sort of attitude is followed by the speech of the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. Price) we are entitled to feel that the Government must give us more than they have given us already. The hon. Gentleman said that Sir Douglas Allen had been asked to make a report, he would do so, and sooner or later the Prime Minister would tell the House what the Government were going to do about it. When several suggestions were made to him about possible alternatives if Sir Douglas did not come to a conclusion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Another leak."] That is not a leak. He said it on the radio. He said that the track record for the kind of inquiry he was conducting was pretty poor. If hon. Members consider that that is a leak, then I suggest that Sir Douglas Allen might be investigated, too.

The fact of the matter is that the implications of this issue are extremely serious. It is obvious that where defence and security are concerned, Cabinet confidentiality must be secured. Otherwise the dangers are too horrifying for words. Hon. Members below the Gangway opposite must bear in mind that the leakers are frequently dissenting minorities. Hon. Members do not realise the extent to which they are putting at risk the rights to consultation and the power of influencing decisions which they have now. Inevitably, as confidentiality is compromised more and more, the actual decision making will be pushed further and further back to fewer and fewer people in ever smaller and smaller conclaves. This is the really serious matter. In the end they will find themselves without the information or the power of influencing decisions which they have now.

That is the question with which the Government are faced, and also the danger. It is the Prime Minister's responsibility, and we hope that he will face it, in accordance with his high office, with all the seriousness it deserves.

Unless the Leader of the House is a great deal more forthcoming and can give us a much clearer indication that he regards this leak of Cabinet minutes with immense seriousness we shall feel bound to press this matter to a Division. So far, we have not been given that assurance and we feel we have a right to it.

Photo of Mr Robert Mellish Mr Robert Mellish , Southwark Bermondsey

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to give notice that I will vote with the hon. Gentleman to adjourn the House at 7 o'clock.

6.48 p.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Foot Mr Michael Foot , Ebbw Vale

I think that the simplest way in which I can reply to the debate which preceded the speech of the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) is to refer to the speech made earlier by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath).

I repudiate the implication that I have treated this subject with any lack of seriousness. It is not so. I was not departing in any way from what the Prime Minister said when he made his statement. If the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon had heard the speech made by the right hon. Member for Sidcup he would see the position more clearly, because apart from a half-sentence at the beginning, I found myself agreeing with every word he said. That is very awkward for the right hon. Member for Sidcup and very awkward for me, but I am willing to face that awkwardness, because I believe that in some respects the right hon. Gentleman has more experience on this matter than any other Member of the House.

The right hon. Member concurred with what I said in almost every particular, especially about the possibility of dealing with such matters by way of a tribunal of inquiry. He had experience with the operation of these inquiries and he confirmed the dangers of innocent people being injured by them. That was the first matter on which the right hon. Gentleman agreed with me.

The right hon. Member then agreed with the proposition that it was right for Sir Douglas Allen, the Head of the Civil Service, or some very high civil servant, to be put in charge of the process. The right hon. Gentleman did not dissent from that proposition.

The right hon. Member also thought that this debate was ill-timed—[Interruption.]. He said that the debate could have been avoided if I had made a different reply to the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton), but he also said that this debate was ill-timed. He went on to elaborate some of the difficulties of the operation of the present system of on-the-record or off-the-record Press conferences. I am inclined to agree with him there, too.

I think that the House should take note of what the right hon. Gentleman said, because he was making positive proposals to assist in the establishment of various forms of open government. I did not happen to agree with the presidential conference that he had arranged on one matter, but that is the only other point in his speech from which I dissented.

I also agreed with what the right hon. Member said about the dangers of destroying confidentiality in Cabinets, and what effect that might have on open government itself. The right hon. Gentleman underlined, as did the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, that if the confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings were destroyed, so far from assisting the process of open government it would endanger it, and if proceeded with too far would destroy it.

There was an article of some interest on this subject in the subsequent issue of New Society, by the Professor of Jurisprudence at Oxford University. He gave a picture of the way that Cabinets behaved which showed that he had very little knowledge of the subject. The right hon. Member for Sidcup described it much more accurately, and underlined the fact that, if it did not do serious injury to the confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings, so far from that assisting the process of open government it would only make it more difficult. I therefore hope very much that the House will take full account of what was said by the right hon. Gentleman.

I notice that the right hon. Member has now returned to the Chamber. I said to him in his absence, and I now say to his face that it is very awkward for us both if I agree with him. However, we both have to bear this cross. I believe that we concur in so many particulars that it would be sheer factiousness on my part not to underline it, and it would be quite impossible to divide the House on the basis of the difference between my views on this subject and those of the right hon. Gentleman, because we concur in so many particulars.

I refer now to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), who illustrated this matter from a different angle. I think that he expressed the matter absolutely. He said that so long as these rules for the confidentiality of Cabinet proceedings prevailed, they must be observed. Contrary to my hon. Friend's view, I believe that they are valuable for the protection of the very processes of open government to which he referred. But, so long as those rules exist, they must be observed, and breaches of them, especially in such circumstances as this case, have serious consequences. I have never sought to depart from that view.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Walton that it must be understood—it is common sense—that all Governments and Cabinets have differences of opinion. I think it was Lord Chatham who first said that all Cabinets were divided, and that was quite a long time ago. In fact I believe that the discovery of the need for confidentiality in Cabinets arose in the eighteenth century, partly because of the necessity for Cabinets to keep their information from the Monarchs of those times. Right from that day to this, the view has been taken that, if Ministers go into Cabinet meetings believing that what they discuss will be openly divulged without restriction, it will impair the operation of Cabinet government because it will make it less open and will lead to exactly the consequences which the right hon. Member for Sidcup described.

That does not mean that we cannot reform the Official Secrets Act. I believe that that should be done. But even a reform of the Act would not deal with this problem, because the necessity for some form of absolute confidentiality would remain even under a transformed Official Secrets Act. I believe that those facts are common ground.

In this case, however, I see no ground for dividing the House. There has been no dilatoriness. There has been no attempt by the Government to hush up the matter. There has been no attempt by the Government to treat the matter as anything other than the way in which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister described it when he announced the establishment of this inquiry.

I am sure that everyone who heard the right hon. Member for Sidcup will agree that his was a speech which enlightened the whole House. In view of that speech and, if I may say so—not immodestly—in view of my own speech, which concurred with almost all that the right hon. Gentleman said, I hope that the House will agree that it is impossible to divide the House. If that is the case, I urge the official Opposition to follow the advice of their right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup and not divide the House on this matter.

6.55 p.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Crowder Mr Peter Crowder , Hillingdon Ruislip Northwood

It seems to me that a criminal offence has been committed and that the Government are approaching this matter in a sloppy and lackadaisical manner.

How can the Head of the Civil Service be expected to interrogate someone who has given away and possibly sold information of a highly critical character? Why on earth cannot the Criminal Investigation Department be allowed to investigate the matter? Only a certain number of people could possibly be involved. Why should they not be interrogated by the CID?

Question put, That this House do now adjourn:—

The House proceeded to a Division

Photo of Mr Michael Neubert Mr Michael Neubert , Romford

(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Was it in your hearing that the right hon. Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) said that if my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) pushed this matter to a Division, he would vote for the motion to adjourn the House? He has been seen to exit from the "No" Lobby. Is it in order for a Member's vote not to follow his voice?

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

Unlike most points of order during a Division, there is a certain validity in this one, but I have to say to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Neubert) that the vote follows the shout, not declarations made during the course of the debate.

The House having divided: Ayes 267, Noes 294.

Division No. 201.]AYES[6.57 p.m.
Adley, RobertGlyn, Dr AlanMawby, Ray
Aitken, JonathanGodber, Rt Hon JosephMaxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Alison, MichaelGoodhart, PhilipMayhew, Patrick
Amery, Rt Hon JulianGoodhew, VictorMeyer, Sir Anthony
Arnold, TomGoodlad, AlastairMiller, Hal (Bromsgrove)
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne)Gorst, JohnMills, Peter
Awdry, DanielGow, Ian (Eastbourne)Miscampbell, Norman
Baker, KennethGower, Sir Raymond (Barry)Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)
Banks, RobertGrant, Anthony (Harrow C)Moate, Roger
Beith, A. J.Gray, HamishMontgomery, Fergus
Bell, RonaldGrieve, PercyMoore, John (Croydon C)
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay)Griffiths, EldonMore, Jasper (Ludlow)
Bennett, Dr Reginald (Fareham)Grist, IanMorgan-Giles, Rear-Admiral
Benyon, W.Grylls, MichaelMorris, Michael (Northampton S)
Berry, Hon AnthonyHall, Sir JohnMorrison, Charles (Devizes)
Biffen, JohnHall-Davis, A. G. F.Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester)
Biggs-Davison, JohnHamilton, Michael (Salisbury)Mudd, David
Blaker, PeterHampson, Dr KeithNeave, Airey
Body, RichardHannam, JohnNelson, Anthony
Boscawen, Hon RobertHarrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye)Neubert, Michael
Bottomley, PeterHarvie Anderson, Rt Hon MissNewton, Tony
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown)Hastings, StephenNormanton, Tom
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent)Havers, Sir MichaelNott, John
Braine, Sir BernardHawkins, PaulOnslow, Cranley
Brocklebank-Fowler, C.Hayhoe, BarneyOppenheim, Mrs Sally
Brotherton, MichaelHeath, Rt Hon EdwardOsborn, John
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)Heseltine, MichaelPage, John (Harrow West)
Bryan, Sir PaulHicks, RobertPage, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)
Buchanan-Smith, AlickHiggins, Terence L.Pattie, Geoffrey
Buck, AntonyHolland, PhilipPenhaligon, David
Budgen, NickHooson, EmlynPercival, Ian
Bulmer, EsmondHordern, PeterPeyton, Rt Hon John
Burden, F. A.Howe, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyPink, R. Bonner
Butler, Adam (Bosworth)Howell, David (Guildford)Price, David (Eastleigh)
Chalker, Mrs LyndaHowell, Ralph (North Norfolk)Prior, Rt Hon James
Channon, PaulHunt, David (Wirral)Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Churchill, W. S.Hurd, DouglasRaison, Timothy
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton)Hutchison, Michael ClarkRathbone, Tim
Clark, William (Croydon S)Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)Rawlinson, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)James, DavidRees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Clegg, WalterJenkin, Rt Hon P. (Wanst'd & W'df'd)Rees-Davlee W. R.
Cockcroft, JohnJessel, TobyRenton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts)
Cope, JohnJohnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead)Renton, Tim (Mid-Sussex)
Cormack, PatrickJones, Arthur (Daventry)Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Corrie, JohnJopling, MichaelRidley, Hon Nicholas
Costain, A. P.Joseph, Rt Hon Sir KeithRidsdale, Julian
Critchley, JulianKaberry, Sir DonaldRlfkind, Malcolm
Crouch, DavidKellett-Bowman, Mrs ElaineRippon, Rt. Hon Geoffrey
Crowder, F. P.Kimball, MarcusRoberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Davies, Rt Hon J. (Knutsford)King, Evelyn (South Dorset)Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Dean, Paul (N Somerset)King, Tom (Bridgwater)Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Dodsworth, GeoffreyKirk, Sir peterRossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord JamesKitson, Sir TimothyRost, Peter (SE Derbyshire)
Drayson, BurnabyKnight, Mrs JillRoyle, Sir Anthony
du Cann, Rt Hon EdwardKnox, DavidSainsbury, Tim
Durant, TonyLamont, NormanSt. John-Stevas, Norman
Dykes, HughLane, DavidScott, Nicholas
Eden, Rt Hon Sir JohnLangford-Holt, Sir JohnScott-Hopkins, James
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)Latham, Michael (Melton)Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Elliott, Sir WilliamLawrence, IvanShelton, William (Streatham)
Emery, PeterLawson, NigelShepherd, Colin
Eyre, ReginaldLester, Jim (Beeston)Shersby, Michael
Fairbairn, NicholasLewis, Kenneth (Rutland)Silvester, Fred
Falrgrieve, RussellLloyd, IanSims, Roger
Fell, AnthonyLoveridge, JohnSinclair, Sir George
Finsberg, GeoffreyLuce, RichardSkeet, T. H. H.
Fisher, Sir NigelMcAdden, Sir StephenSmith, Dudley (Warwick)
Fletcher, Alex (Edinburgh N)McCrindle, RobertSpeed, Keith
Fletcher-Cooke, CharlesMacfarlane, NellSpence, John
Fookes, Miss JanetMacGregor, JohnSpicer, Jim (W Dorset)
Forman, NigelMacmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)Spicer, Michael (S Worcester)
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd)McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury)Sproat, Iain
Fox, MarcusMcNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)Stainton, Keith
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St)Madel, DavidStanbrook, Ivor
Fry, PeterMarshall, Michael (Arundel)Stanley, John
Galbraith, Hon. T. G. D.Marten, NellSteen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Gardiner, George (Reigate)Mates, MichaelStewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)Mather, CarolStokes, John
Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham)Maude, AngusStradling Thomas, J.
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife)Maudling, Rt Hon ReginaldTapsell, Peter
Taylor, R. (Croydon NW)Vaughan, Dr GerardWiggin, Jerry
Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)Viggers, PeterWinterton, Nicholas
Tebbit, NormanWainwright, Richard (Colne V)Wood, Rt Hon Richard
Temple-Morris, PeterWakeham, JohnYoung, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Thatcher, Rt Hon MargaretWalker, Rt Hon P. (Worcester)Younger, Hon George
Thomas, Rt Hon P. (Hendon S)Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek
Thorpe, Rt Hon Jeremy (N Devon)Wall, PatrickTELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Townsend, Cyril D.Walters, DennisMr. Spencer Le Marchant and
Trotter, NevilleWeatherill, BernardMr. Cecil Parkinson.
Tugendhat, ChristopherWells, John
van Straubenzee, W. R.Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
NOES
Abse, LeoEdge, GeoffLamborn, Harry
Anderson, DonaldEdwards, Robert (Wolv SE)Lamond, James
Archer, PeterEllis, Tom (Wrexham)Latham, Arthur (Paddington)
Armstrong, ErnestEnglish, MichaelLeadbitter, Ted
Ashley, JackEnnals, DavidLee, John
Ashton, JoeEvans, Fred (Caerphilly)Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N)Evans, loan (Aberdare)Lever, Rt Hon Harold
Atkinson, NormanEvans, John (Newton)Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)
Bagier, Gordon A. T.Ewing, Harry (Stirling)Lipton, Marcus
Bain, Mrs MargaretEwing, Mrs Winifred (Moray)Litterick, Tom
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)Fernyhough, Rt Hon E.Lomas, Kenneth
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood)Fitch, Alan (Wigan)Loyden, Eddie
Bean, R. E.Flannery, MartinLyons, Edward (Bradford W)
Benn, Rt Hon Anthony WedgwoodFletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston)Mabon, Dr J. Dickson
Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)McCartney, Hugh
Bidwell, SydneyFoot, Rt Hon MichaelMacCormick, lain
Bishop, E. S.Ford, BenMcElhone, Frank
Blenkinsop, ArthurForrester, JohnMacFarquhar, Roderick
Boardman, H.Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin)McGuire, Michael (Ince)
Booth, Rt Hon AlbertFraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd)Mackenzie, Gregor
Boothroyd, Miss BettyFreeson, ReginaldMackintosh, John P.
Bottomley, Rt Hon ArthurGarrett, John (Norwich S)Maclennan, Robert
Boyden, James (Bish Auck)Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend)McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C)
Bradley, TomGeorge, BruceMcNamara, Kevin
Bray, Dr JeremyGilbert, Dr JohnMadden, Max
Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)Ginsburg, DavidMagee, Bryan
Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)Golding, JohnMallalteu, J. P. W.
Buchan, NormanGould, BryanMarks, Kenneth
Buchanan, RichardGourlay, HarryMarquand, David
Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)Grant, George (Morpeth)Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)Grant, John (Islington C)Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)
Campbell, IanGrocott, BruceMason, Rt Hon Roy
Canavan, DennisHamilton, James (Bothwell)Maynard, Miss Joan
Cant, R. B.Hamilton, W. W. (Central Fife)Meacher, Michael
Carmichael, NellHardy, PeterMellish, Rt Hon Robert
Carter, RayHarper, JosephMendelson, John
Carter-Jones, LewisHarrison, Walter (Wakefield)Mikardo, Ian
Cartwright, JohnHart, Rt Hon JudithMillan, Bruce
Castle, Rt Hon BarbaraHattersley, Rt Hon RoyMiller, Dr M. S. (E Kilbride)
Clemitson, IvorHatton, FrankMiller, Mrs Millie (Ilford N)
Cocks, Michael (Bristol S)Hayman, Mrs HeleneMitchell, R. C. (Soton, Itchen)
Cohen, StanleyHeffer, Eric S.Molloy, William
Colquhoun, Ms MaureenHooley, FrankMoonman, Eric
Concannon, J. D.Horam, JohnMorris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Conlan, BernardHowell, Rt Hon DenisMorris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Cook, Robin F. (Edin C)Hoyle, Doug (Nelson)Morris, Rt Hon J.(Aberavon)
Corbett, RobinHuckfield, LesMoyle, Roland
Cox, Thomas (Tooting)Hughes, Rt Hon C. (Anglesey)Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick
Craigen, J. M. (Maryhill)Hughes, Mark (Durham)Murray, Rt Hon Ronald King
Crawford, DouglasHughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)Newens, Stanley
Crawshaw, RichardHughes, Roy (Newport)Noble, Mike
Cronin, JohnHunter, AdamOakes, Gordon
Crowther, Stan (Rotherham)Irvine, Rt Hon Sir A. (Edge Hill)O'Halloran, Michael
Cryer, BobIrving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford)Orbach, Maurice
Cunningham, G. (Islington S)Jaskson, Colin (Brighouse)Orme, Rt Hon Stanley
Davidson, ArthurJackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln)Ovenden,John
Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)Janner, GrevilieOwen, Dr David
Davies, Denzll (Lianeill)Jay, Rt Hon DouglasPadley, Walter
Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)Palmer, Arthur
Deakins, EricJohn, Brynmor
Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)Johnson, James (Hull West)Park, George
de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir GeoffreyJohnson, Walter (Derby S)Parker, John
Dell, Rt Hon EdmundJones, Barry (East Flint)Pavitt, Laurie
Dempsey, JamesJones, Dan (Burnley)Peart, Rt Hon Fred
Doig, PeterJudd, FrankPendry, Tom
Dormand, J. D.Kaufman, GeraldPerry, Ernest
Douglas-Mann, BruceKelley, RichardPhipps, Dr Colin
Duffy, A. E. P.Kerr, RussellPrentice, Rt Hon Reg
Dunn, James A.Kilroy-Silk, RobertPrescott, John
Dunnett, JackKinnock, NeilPrice, C. (Lewisham W)
Eadie, AlexLambie, DavidPrice, William (Rugby)
Radica, GilesStallard, A. W.Watkinson, John
Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn (Leeds S)Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)Watt, Hamish
Raid, GeorgeStewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)Weetch, Ken
Richardson, Miss JoStoddart, DavidWeitzman, David
Roberts, Albert (Normanton)Stonehouse, Rt Hon JohnWellbeloved, James
Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)Stott, RogerWelsh, Andrew
Robertson, John (Paisley)Strang, GavinWhile, Frank R. (Bury)
Roderick, CaerwynStrauss, Rt Hon G. R.White, James (Pollok)
Rodgers, George (Chorley)Summerskill, Hon Dr ShirleyWhitehead, Phillip
Rodgers, William (Stockton)Swain, ThomasWhitlock, William
Rooker, J. W.Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)Wigley, Dafydd
Rose, Paul B.Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)Willer, Rt Hon Frederick
Ross, Rt. Hon W. (Kilmarnock)Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)Williams, Alan (Swansea W)
Sandelson, NevilleThomas, Ron (Bristol NW)Williams, Alan Lee (Hornch'ch)
Sedgemore, BrianThompson, GeorgeWilliams, Rt Hon Shirley (Hertford)
Selby, HarryThome, Stan (Preston South)Williams, Sir Thomas
Shaw, Arnold (Ilford South)Tierney, SydneyWilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Sheldon, Robert (Ashlon-u-Lyne)Tinn, JamesWilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Shore, Rt Hon PeterTomlinson, JohnWilson, Rt Hon H. (Huyton)
Short, Rt Hon E. (Newcastle C)Tomney, FrankWilson, William (Coventry SE)
Short, Mrs Ranee (Wolv NE)Torney, TomWise, Mrs Audrey
Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)Tuck, RaphaelWoodall, Alec
Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.Woof, Robert
Sillars, JamesWainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)Wrigglesworth, Ian
Silverman, JuliusWalden, Brian (B'ham, L'dyw'd)Young, David (Bolton E)
Skinner, DennisWalker, Harold (Doncaster)
Small, WilliamWalker, Terry (Kingswood)TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)Ward, MichaelMr. John Ellis and
Spearing, NigelWatkins, DavidMr. Ted Graham.

Question accordingly negatived.