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Cabinet Ministers(Memoirs)

Volume 888: debated on Friday 21 March 1975

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asked the Prime Minister whether, following the recent publication of extracts from diaries by a former Cabinet Minister, he will make a statement on the conventions governing such publications.

The appearance in-serialised form in the Sunday Times of extracts from the Crossman diaries has raised issues requiring early clarification.As my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) on 15th November last made clear, the conventions governing publication by former Ministers flow from the two complementary principles of the collective responsibility of the Government as a whole and the personal responsibility of individual Ministers. The public interest requires that the proceedings of the Cabinet should take place in confidence, and consequently the records of its proceedings are protected from public scrutiny for 30 years under the Public Records Act 1967; but there is a long-standing tradition that Ministers may commit to history an account of their own stewardship.For this purpose they may have access to documents which they saw when in office in order to refresh their memory of events and they are asked to submit their texts to the Secretary of the Cabinet. This scrutiny is not just to ensure that national security is not prejudiced but also to ensure that in exercising their right to defend their own actions they do not endanger the mutual trust upon which Cabinet Government depends. In examing such texts the Secretary of the Cabinet is guided by well-established conventions which have been established over the years under successive administrations.Hitherto these arrangements have worked smoothly, largely because those who have written memoirs have in general aimed to conform to them. My late right hon. Friend, however, did not accept this aim; indeed the preface to his Diary expressly questioned the conventions. The excerpts that have appeared have been subject to some editing; but they have contained material which goes beyond the conventions which have hitherto applied, and their appearance has provoked considerable public interest in the conventions themselves.I have, therefore, come to the conclusion that the time has come for a review of the arrangements which should govern the publication of memoirs by former Ministers during the period of 30 years—reduced from 50 years in 1967—when official documents are subject to the provisions of the Public Records Act. The review should also examine the means by which observance of such rules can best be secured; and the implications of the rules for those governing the publication of memoirs by retired civil servants. The Franks Report on Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act did not cover this ground and the Government will consider the outcome of the review in the context of action on the Franks Report.I have decided that this review can best be carried out by a committee of Privy Counsellors. I have informed the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition of this decision, and she has told me that she will be ready to co-operate in the matter. I hope to announce shortly the composition and terms of reference of this committee.