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Documents (Unofficial Disclosure)

Volume 887: debated on Monday 24 February 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the documents published in the Morning Star on Saturday and this morning.

The documents date from December 1973 and January 1974, during the administration led by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). Under the longstanding convention that governs these matters, Ministers of the present administration do not have access to the papers of the previous administration, and they are not answerable for the decisions of policy referred to in the documents.

But I understand that the documents are authentic and I am much concerned as to how copies reached the Morning Star. Since criminal offences may well have been committed, the Department of Trade, which began its inquiries on Friday 21st February, has brought the matter to the attention of the Director of Public Prosecutions, who has decided that a police investigation should be carried out. The Metropolitan Police have begun their inquiries.

Is the Prime Minister aware that we are very grateful to him for making this statement at the earliest opportunity? Clearly, in this specific instance we must await the results of the police investigations. But, apart from this particular case, it is generally a matter of grave concern that documents clearly intended to be in the safe custody of the Government should find their way into unauthorised hands. May I therefore ask him whether some attention will be given to the system for the safe keeping of confidential documents and information?

The right hon. Lady is right on this matter. There was another leakage some two or three years ago from, I think, the same department of the old Board of Trade, which led to a public inquiry. The right hon. Lady has said that she endorses this decision. The inquiries began in the Department of Trade early on Friday morning as soon as we knew that there was a problem, and they have reached a point at which it was decided to refer them to the police. As a result of the police investigations and any proceedings which may or may not follow, should there be any further anxiety of the kind to which the right hon. Lady refers such as would justify a more formal inquiry, obviously the Government would be prepared to consider that.

As the Editor of the Morning Star said publicly that after receipt of these documents through the post he contacted Government Departments—including, I understand, my right hon. Friend's own Department at 10, Downing Street—for confirmation and observation and apparently got none, does that mean that so far as public knowledge of the Queen's financial affairs is concerned my right hon. Friend's administration are taking a more progressive view than the previous administration?

It means exactly that we were following the rule which has been traditional over many years. Neither No. 10 nor the Department of Trade, nor anyone else, could give any advice to the editor concerned about these documents, because, as I say, these documents are by long tradition denied to an incoming administration. That is simply all that results from those inquiries. As for companies legislation—we are talking about documents relating to a Bill introduced by the previous administration which aborted because of the February election last year—my hon. Friend will be aware that we are not planning any companies legislation this Session. So far as I know, the work that we are doing on companies legislation so far is proceeding in somewhat different directions.

The House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman not only for his statement but also for the action that he has promptly taken. Is he aware, however, that many people will feel great anxiety over this matter, reasoning that if these documents can so easily be copied and published perhaps other documents of vastly greater seriousness are also at risk? Would he not agree that it is always the case that, if confidentiality goes in any circumstance, the conduct of public or other business becomes quite impossible?

The right hon. Gentleman referred to action taken. It was, in fact, taken at first light on Friday morning—or at least at the moment when first light hits the Department of Trade. In this case, I think it was 10.30. Reports had to be made to the officials concerned in the light of what information had been received overnight. With regard to other documents, I have expressed my anxiety that there were leaks under the previous administration in this area of the Department of Trade, then the Department of Trade and Industry. I think that we must now await the results of the police inquiries to see whether there is a restricted, perhaps individual, problem or whether there is something more serious which needs to be looked into.

I believe that my right hon. Friend has confirmed that these documents are authentic. Would he accept that, while any leak of information from a Government Department is a serious matter, in this instance that is something of a mouse compared with the much larger cat which has been let out of the bag? Would he care to comment on the rather devious, even deceitful, method that it was apparently intended to adopt to cover up the Royal income? Would he not agree that, irrespective of the impropriety about the leak itself, the fact that this information has been made public at present represents a public service performed by the Press?

I cannot express any view on the issues on this because I have no access to what was done by the previous Government in these matters. As I have said, we have no companies legislation envisaged in this Session and the work that we are doing on companies legislation is on rather different lines.

Would the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is more general concern about security in the Department of Trade, observing that the Secretary of State for Trade revealed on Thursday that vital information about new Government measures to improve and encourage exports was also leaked to the Press? Would he bear that in mind in the inquiry? Would he further say whether the documents concerned were classified, and, if so, what degree of classification they bore?

I will bring this matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend, who is not here to answer questions today because he is in Nigeria. I was aware, on the announcement about ECGD, that there had been some prior speculation in the Press, but some of these matters are widely discussed in consultations and I should not like to express a view, certainly not to give any support to the view that this came from within the Department of Trade. What has happened here relates to a particularly narrow area of the Board of Trade—not very different from the V and G area. But I do not want to prejudge police inquiries. We must let the police get on with the job.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that there is grave public concern at the idea of the Monarch's advisers negotiating in secret for protective legislation? Is not this a breach of the British constitution, whereby the Monarch is subordinate to Parliament? Would not the proper solution be to pay the Queen a salary and make her subject to tax like every other citizen and so end the need for such secrecy?

I am not aware that anything unconstitutional has occurred. There is no ministerial responsibility here in the sense of the present Government, but I note the suggestion made by my hon. Friend about the much broader question of the Civil List. I was not quite sure whether he would say that he would vote for it if it were introduced on those lines.