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Ministers' Overseas Visits (Travel Facilities)

Volume 496: debated on Wednesday 20 February 1952

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45 and 46.

asked the Prime Minister (1) what regulations have been laid down to govern the acceptance of gifts and services from commercial undertakings to Ministers of the Crown in their capacity as Ministers; and what other gifts and services similar to that of the Cunard Company have been provided to him and the Foreign Secretary since the present Government assumed office;

(2) what estimate was made of the amount which would be payable by the Treasury to cover the expenses of himself and the Foreign Secretary previous to acceptance of the offer of the Cunard Company to provide free travel facilities to and from the United States of America.

No specific regulations have been laid down: but it is well understood that no Minister or public servant should accept gifts or services which would place him under an obligation to a commercial undertaking.

The cost of the two passages by me and one by my right hon. Friend, the Foreign Secretary, which were given by the Cunard Company would, I am informed, have amounted at normal rates—that is to say, three passages—to £1,752. Some similar facilities were provided by the United States and Canadian railways.

The gifts and services of the Cunard Company as well as those of the United States and Canadian railways were not to Ministers but to the British taxpayers. I appreciate the courtesy and compliment implied in the action of the British, Canadian and United States bodies concerned. I cannot feel that there is anything discreditable in what happened, except perhaps the spirit that prompted the Questions.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the spirit that prompted the Questions was a zeal for public efficiency? Is he not aware that if he had been prompted by the same spirit he would have declined to accept this gift and would have informed the Cunard Company that if they wish to make a donation to relieve the British taxpayer there is nothing whatever to prevent their making an anonymous contribution to the Exchequer?

Apart from this particular incident, may I, on the question of principle, ask if the right hon. Gentleman can recall the case of the late Mr. Ramsay Macdonald many years ago when the right hon. Gentleman was a member of the Government or of the Opposition—at any rate a Member of this House? Mr. Macdonald was alleged to have received from Sir Alexander Grant a sum of money and a motor car, acts which were regarded by the Conservative Party as reprehensible. In these circumstances, will the right hon. Gentleman make it abundantly clear that it is equally reprehensible for members of the Government to receive gifts of any kind, either from commercial undertakings or from private individuals?

It happened that the ship was delayed for a day and so I got the day's papers, which otherwise I should not have seen. I saw in those newspapers—in a certain class of them—elaborate accounts of the extraordinary luxury prevailing on board these liners which compete for world traffic with great advantages to us.

Knowing the kind of mood that is about in certain quarters, I proposed to pay all my own expenses for entertainment myself, apart from transportation, but when I made this proposal to the Company they brushed it aside and made this offer. I was not to be financially affected in any way, and I considered in the circumstances it was a public spirited action on their part and one which I was fully justified in approving. I may say there are precedents for Ministers accepting the hospitality of this company, but as they would carry me down to the depths prevailing in some quarters I will not attempt to call them to mind.

Will my right hon. Friend say how the figures he has just given compare with those of his predecessor when he chartered a Stratocruiser airliner, which took him and his staff to America and remained there for several days and brought him back at the market rate?

It is well-known that a special aeroplane for travel across the ocean is a very expensive thing, but the occasion on which the right hon. Gentleman had to go was one which was considered, most important and critical and good results followed therefrom, and I do not remember that anybody on the Opposition side of the House raised any questions of this character.

While not wishing to deter the right hon. Gentleman from accepting any properly offered hospitality, may I ask whether he does not think that Her Majesty's Prime Minister should be provide with adequate travelling facilities when on official business from funds voted by this House?

If there was a very strong sentiment that the money should be refunded to the company by the Exchequer I should be willing to consider that, but I really think the House would be behaving in an unwise way to insist upon that. There were luncheons and so forth given at which prominent members of the Front Bench opposite sat. Ought they not to have accepted those spontaneous offers of hospitality? I had no interest of any sort or kind in the matter.